When Alan Pye, an itinerant Irishman, founded his no-frills fishing lodge on New Zealand's Waikato River in the late 1920s, he couldn't have envisioned how it would evolve by century's end. Pye's early patrons slept in canvas tents with slatted wooden floors and ate their catch pan-fried. These days, guests at the Huka Lodge luxuriate in roomy suites that look like they were designed by the love child of Martha Stewart and J. Peterman. And the fish? Trout sushi, sprinkled with sesame oil and served during cocktail hour.
The accommodations and cuisine aren't the only things that have changed. Control gates were installed on the river in the '40s, disturbing its delicate ecosystem and ruining the angling on this stretch of the Waikato. No matter. Some of the best trout fishing in the world is only a short drive--or, for the intrepid angler, helicopter ride--away. Anyway, fishing ranks third on the list of reasons people come to Huka nowadays. Dining and relaxing come first.
The only hotel property in New Zealand with the prestigious Relais & Chateaux designation, Huka is world-class in every respect. Manager Hendrik Wassenaar's ministrations border on clairvoyance, and executive chef Nicholas Huffman turns out sumptuous continental cuisine that celebrates such local offerings as cervena (farm-raised venison), kumara (a type of yam) and aged beef. The aquamarine Waikato River glides by only yards from the main lodge building and the 20 guest suites, which are set Robinson Crusoe-like amid 17 acres of native bush.
The placid setting is enough to keep you lounging around the lodge, puffing on Cuban cigars bought in Auckland. If that was the extent of your activities, that would be a mistake. Lake Taupo and its environs offer a staggering range of outdoor pursuits, from raft-fishing the Tongariro River to rock climbing to tandem skydiving. Less adventurous souls can shoot 18 holes on Wairakei International Golf Course or sail Lake Taupo's 240 square miles. Huka makes all the arrangements.
Every evening at 7, guests begin arriving at the main lodge building for cocktails and canapés. Here, by the fire, fish stories are traded while Wassenaar moves unobtrusively among his guests, explaining that night's menu and taking wine orders. Around 8, most guests sit down to dine together at large communal tables, though Huka will serve you virtually anywhere you'd like. The wine cellar is a popular request, but my wife and I preferred to eat outside on the small side patio. Though the temperature was in the '40s, the fireplace next to the table kept us warm from the first course (a coconut, calamari and coriander consommé) all the way through to the chocolate mousse with lemon espresso for dessert. With the river providing the soundtrack, the evening felt like a memory before it had even ended.
The main lodge conveys an atmosphere of opulent coziness--richly colored plaid upholstery, towering candelabras and the stuffed heads of trophy game. The effect is wonderfully inviting.
Thankfully, the guest suites offer a respite from taxidermy and tartan. The colors are subdued, from the off-white wicker reading chairs to the ecru comforter, which, like the rest of the bed, is draped in a translucent canopy that, despite its beauty, can't help but remind you of mosquito netting. Four paintings of trout are the only thread that connects the rooms to the lodge.
One of the great joys of Huka is its staff, which delights in surprising guests. One evening we didn't finish our wine. We had enjoyed the bottle, a Jim Barry "The Armagh" Shiraz from Australia's Clare Valley, and were a little sad to leave it for dead. The next night during cocktail hour, Wassenaar appeared with the bottle.
Chef Huffman shares Wassenaar's passion to please. One afternoon, while lounging outside the main lodge, we ordered a salad of sesame grilled salmon, which the menu lists as coming with avocado and tomato. Not mentioned is the ample dollop of caviar that's also on the plate. Ironically, it was the wake-up call--that most basic of requests--that seemed to tax the considerable skills of Huka's staff. Twice we scheduled early morning wake-up calls, and twice they failed to come. Then again, did we really want to wake up at 8 a.m. on our vacation? No, of course not. Wassenaar must have sensed it.
Brendan Vaughan has served as a Web site manager for various consumer publications.
Huka Falls Road
Phone (64) 7-378-5791 Fax (64) 7-378-0427
Rates $716 to $870 per couple per night, including breakfast, cocktails and five-course dinner (wine not included)