Huka Lodge is the perfect winter getaway for food lovers.
An award-winning, internationally acclaimed luxury lodge on the banks of the Waikato River in Taupo, it's used to welcoming royalty and celebrities to its "regal guests suites and private cottages fit for a queen", but it's also a destination for local visitors with an appreciation for fine food and wine including this Viva writer and her partner, who experienced its world-class cuisine over one wet and wintry weekend.
Our trip to Taupo involved test-driving a new Land Rover Discovery, a sleek, stylish and versatile 7-seater all-wheel drive that’s easily the most comfortable car we’ve driven.
It effortlessly adapted to Taupo’s rainy conditions with its Terrain Response 2 system and was the ideal car in which to arrive at a lodge with icon status in New Zealand.
Huka Lodge is located 300m upriver from Huka Falls, a force of nature that cloaks the property in an enchanting layer of mist.
It’s enough to make you gasp when seen for the first time, on the approach up a tree-lined driveway past impossibly manicured gardens.
Outside the entrance, the seamless style of service experienced during our stay began when assistant lodge manager Hannah Butler glided out to welcome us before we’d turned the engine off, our bags swiftly gathered from the Discovery and keys handed over.
On a tour of the 7ha grounds with Champagne in hand, we’re told Huka Lodge was established in 1924 as a fishing camp by Irishman Alan Pye, who pitched canvas tents along this beautiful stretch of the river to fly-fish for trout.
Today, fly fishing expeditions are still possible but for those less intrepid there’s no need to leave the lodge.
Some of the region’s best food and wine is on offer in the elegant dining and living room, styled in the manner of a traditional Scottish fishing cottage by renowned interior designer Virginia Fisher.
While the buildings and gardens are exemplary, the lodge excels at cuisine. Huka Lodge’s UK-born executive chef Paul Froggatt is tasked with creating food that not only competes with the river views but that justifies Huka Lodge’s world-renowned luxury lodge status and the price tag that goes with it.
His dinner menu is a rotating five-course degustation with European and Asian influences that reflect his experience in Michelin-star restaurants in Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong.
It’s Paul’s eighth year at Huka Lodge, after being lured to New Zealand by its previous chef with the promise of work-life balance. After 14-hour days as head chef at two-star Amber at the Landmark Oriental in Hong Kong and two-star Saint Pierre in Singapore before that, he finds the pace of life in the Huka Lodge kitchen a welcome change.
The fluidity and control of the ever-changing menu keeps the role and the food he serves stimulating and engaging, for both himself and the guests. Paul is constantly tweaking dishes, but one thing he’s steadfast on is using local ingredients.
“I want to show our guests what New Zealand can offer,” he says, from long-line fish from Lee Fisheries, Matangi beef, locally grown saffron and wild strawberries, crayfish from Nelson and Mount Cook alpine salmon. “The idea is to showcase New Zealand. Why eat French cheese when we have beautiful New Zealand cheese on offer?”
The wine is predominantly from New Zealand too, with the wine cellar housing 4500 bottles, including special vintages.
Paul is full of energy and ideas, two crucial qualities in a chef cooking for discerning guests night after night. He’s been known to fill page after page with written concepts before refining them into a dish. Inspiration comes easy. A green curry sauce on the evening’s menu is a riff on a curry cooked at home with his wife and two young children. “We made it with fresh curry leaves and the beautiful curry smell reminded me of living in Singapore.”
Paul’s translation of green curry sauce for Huka Lodge guests is a vibrant sauce slick with kaffir lime oil that swirls around tender confit hapuku and sweet onion compote, topped with a celery and coriander rice cracker.
On the same menu is a chic version of avocado on toast - a charred organic avocado half, served thinly sliced atop fine pieces of kimchi with citrus dressing and roasted coriander seeds. On the side, a piece of pillowy white toasted pain au lait. For dessert, it’s a marriage of chestnuts with XO rum cream, candied Waikato chestnut and yuzu and yoghurt sorbet nestled under a chestnut-shaped biscuit.
His degustation menu might be challenging for some guests, who arrive hoping for a nice steak, but Paul sees it as a removal of choices in the best possible way. All that’s left to do is dress up for dinner and enjoy drinks by the fire while he gets dinner ready.
“You’ve got enough decisions in your world to take care of. Let me take care of dinner. A lot of people comment that they wouldn’t have ordered what’s on the menu but after they’ve tried it they love it.”
This style of service, where your needs are catered to before you realise what they are sets Huka Lodge apart. In the evening, you’re invited to the living room for pre-dinner cocktails, where the hardest decision is choosing a spot next to the fire, or a cosy corner by the window.
Experienced and charming staff tend to your drink and offer canapes (one night it’s porcini arancini with parmesan and quince puree, and a blini with chicken mousse and crispy skin, topped with white anchovy).
Behind the scenes, staff are preparing a multitude of special dinner tables for guests outside of the main dining room - it might be upstairs in the Trophy Room, in the formal Library (said to be the Queen’s favourite room), a romantic set-up in the impressive underground wine cellar, or outside in The Orchard.
Paul says this ability to have dinner somewhere different every night, while logistically challenging for the kitchen, makes the experience at Huka Lodge memorable. “Every time you have dinner you feel like you’re at a different restaurant, and I think that is so special.”
By contrast, back in one of the 20 “Junior Lodge” suites, certain touches remain reassuringly the same. The fire is on for your arrival. After dinner the room has been expertly turned down with hot water bottles between the sheets and water next to the comfortable king-size bed.
In the bathroom, the Molten Brown products are replenished and huge fluffy white towels hang waiting for use, preferably after a bath beneath windows artfully framing the ferns outside.
The dressing room is in order and the adjoining mini bar area restocked with complimentary refreshments. The only sounds are the rushing of the river and the occasional birdsong in the morning.
It’s hard to leave a place that caters to your every whim, to return to real life away from that swirling green river. At least for us, it was in the all-encompassing comfort of the Land Rover Discovery, with its heated seats, intuitive entertainment system and state-of-the-art 360-degree cameras. Nailing a parallel park in an SUV was almost as good as that green curry sauce.