There’s a lot of flying to do before you reach Minaret Station. After half-circling the world in one of Singapore Airlines’ caramel-leather armchairs on an A380, there’s a short-hop to Queenstown in an Air New Zealand 72-500 turboprop and then another in a three-bladed Squirrel chopper. Up and over Lake Wanaka, around the gulley, past dazzling sapphire-snakes of river and deep into the valley towards the glaciers in the Southern Alps it goes… ‘Look down there,’ says the helicopter pilot. ‘It’s an island on a lake, on an island on a lake.’
You can’t reach Minaret Station any other way. There are no roads or trails to it. Every stick of furniture at this incredible tented lodge, currently in its first summer season, was ferried in by helicopter. It took 600 flights to put together and the finishing touches were made in December. It’s a new twist on the super-lodges that have come to define a distinctive kind of luxury in New Zealand. From the plush log cabins of the Fiordland Lodge on the shores of Lake Te Anau to the Pacific Rim haute cuisine at Blanket Bay in Glenorchy, there’s a level of sophistication to Kiwi hospitality on the South Island that really is the business.
Minaret Station is, essentially, an offshoot of the Wallis family farm, one of the most successful in New Zealand. Tim Wallis made a name for himself by pioneering live-deer capturing using helicopters. He subsequently made fortunes in the deer export business and aviation industry in the Seventies, took over an ailing farm at Lake Wanaka that dated back to the 1860s and ploughed millions into it. Now run by his four sons — who all display the muscular, outdoorsy, derring-do of their father — it’s a money-spinning sheep-farming operation. Wallis himself, who was knighted in 1994, oversees things and looks after the local biannual air show of historic war planes, Warbirds over Wanaka, the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
One of his sons, Matt, had the idea for Minaret Station after three months spent in tented lodges on safari in Africa. ‘I wondered if a version of this could be done in the high country in New Zealand,’ he says. ‘I envisaged something luxurious, with amazing bathrooms but still using canvas for the bedrooms, so that it was romantic and you still knew you were in the Southern Alps.’
The result is remarkable. Totally isolated, guests come here and can heli-ski, trout fish, explore the glaciers, or just fritter away afternoons in a hot tub, watching the deer and chamois play on the hillside. And while the cons are mod in the extreme (a hydroelectric plant has been custom-designed and built into a waterfall to run the whole show, and you can have a ten-hour, roaring hot power shower if you like), it’s still part of a working high-country station in the wilds. One minute you might see 2,000 sheep on their way to graze, the next you might feel the need to pull your possum–fur blanket over yourself as a hurricane-force wind sails around the valley and rattles the army-green canvas walls.
Many guests at Minaret are combining their stay with a few nights at one of the neighbouring Relais & Chateaux properties. There’s Whare Kea Lodge, with its high-design, contemporary Alpine Chalet on the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, and then there’s Matakauri Lodge, which was given a radical makeover by interior designer Virginia Fisher in 2010. All the suites here face Lake Wakatipu, with walls of glass and epic vistas on the water side, and complete privacy. The only way to see in would be to take a set of binoculars on to the 1912-built coal-powered TSS Earnslaw steamship when it’s performing one of its regular loops of the lake.
Matakauri is one of those scientifically meticulous five-star-plus resorts, where the service is so good that it borders on unnerving. Dinner is served at a table with panoramic views over the lake and entails colourful, flamboyantly arranged locally sourced ingredients, accompanied by rusted-claret Pinot Noirs and butch Syrahs.
The level of luxury in this corner of the globe should come as no surprise. Both New Zealand and Australia continue to enjoy a phenomenal economic boom, and geography dictates that jetlag-free domestic and trans-Tasman Sea tourism continues to thrive. The all-inclusive super-lodge is a 21st-century model that will continue to roll out. Longitude 131° has been doing it for years over in Australia’s Red Centre, and there are two new luxury camps — the five-room Kuri Bay and eight-cabin Windayi River Camp, both accessible only by helicopter — scheduled to open on the coast of the Kimberley, in north-west Australia, later this year.
Apart from the high level of luxury and the rack rate (a night in one of the four luxury tented suites at Minaret starts at £1,675), the one thing that these lodges and camps have in common is their site-specific nature. Longitude 131° is all about sunrise and sunset tours of Uluru, and each of its tents faces the rock, while the very fabric of Minaret Station is infused with the history of the high country.
The wood used for the flooring in the main lodge is reclaimed Rimu — celebrated for its integrity, brightness and an absence of knots. Originally milled in the late 1800s, the wood was floated down the nearby river as a raft and then used to build a primary school. When the school closed, Matt Wallis bought it and had it flown beam by beam to the Station. The thick, snowy, wall-to-wall sheepskin flooring in each of the tented suites is, of course, from Wallis’s own sheep, and the excellent wine list — including Pinot Noir from Mount Difficulty and Rippon’s mature vines — is focused on Otago varietals.
The draw for guests to somewhere like Minaret Station is, in part, an inaccessibility equating to a very literal kind of exclusivity. One of the most popular day trips that Wallis offers is a helicopter trip to the mouth of Gorge River, where he goes diving for crustacea in waters well known to be great-white-infested. ‘I wear a special sonar device so that when they get within a few metres of me, it repels them,’ he says nonchalantly.
The only other human life around Gorge River is the hermit, Robert Long — known as ‘Beansprout’ — and his wife. Beansprout left most people’s idea of modern life behind three decades ago to bring up a family here in his ramshackle shack. Wallis often brings him a newspaper when he’s on a heli-fishing trip with Minaret guests — it’s a three-day walk to civilisation otherwise. Beansprout settled here after, as he puts it, ‘picking a bright western star and following it’. His is a romantic, if occasionally difficult, idyll.
Few would want to follow his example, but many thrill to a touch of true wilderness, wrapped in the guise of ‘soft adventure’, as tour operators are wont to call it. And at Minaret Station it doesn’t get much more remote, or wilder. As you walk towards the old stone remains of a shepherd’s hut — once home to a single solitary man, with hundreds of sheep, for three and a half months of the year — the Station’s little cluster of buildings seems to disappear within the surrounding mountainous, emerald landscape. You could, you feel, be the first human to ever walk this most beautiful part of the earth.
Mark C O’Flaherty was a guest of Minaret Station (minaretstation.com), Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) and Tourism New Zealand (newzealand.com)