The wilderness lodge
“Your helicopter will be here in a few minutes.” A softly spoken member of staff delivers this news, and a cup of tea, with the nonchalance of someone equally accustomed to bringing both to the breakfast table. Outside, the silver waters of Lake Wakatipu mirror the Humboldt Mountains, heavy with winter’s early flurries, rising sudden and sheer, schist and snow above the far shoreline; greying ribbons of glacial silt the only thing interrupting this sharply reflected perfection.
That a helicopter is about to make an appearance in this primordial landscape seems an act of time travel; this place of icy peaks, endless waters and sudden, low moving cloud that can almost obscure hand from face feels far-removed from anything to be conquered by flying machine. Wrapped around Wakatipu’s northernmost reaches, Blanket Bay is a final outpost, a high-end tourist retreat in one of New Zealand’s last frontier towns, beyond which glacial rivers web into the wilderness towards peaks and trails that come with such pioneer-era names as Mount Aspiring, the Invincible Snowfields, Paradise and the Routeburn Track. The latter, an epic mountain trek along an old Maori route, has been enticing long-distance trampers into the impenetrable Southern Alps since the 1800s.
Blanket Bay is a place for those who like to be outward bound and inwardly pampered, where a day’s hard trekking is bookended with rustic-refined menus; a place where helicopters land on manicured lawns to zip passengers deep into the teeth of the peaks, and out the other side into South Island’s epic Fiordland (avoiding the day’s drive that would otherwise be involved).
Our chopper takes us up, over mountains pocketed with lakes, before setting us down on a snow-blown glacier to stare into a seemingly endless crevasse that cracks the ground like a crocodile’s grin. The sudden cold, the thrill, and the buzz of the rotor blades make our legs wobble like drunks. At Milford Sound, we join a paddle ship to plough under thundering horseshoe-shaped waterfalls and navigate the blind bend in the sound that ensured this was the last of the 14 fjords to be discovered, hidden from Captain Cook’s ship trawling the Tasman Sea beyond.
Chopper-aided, we’ve conquered it all in a day, which seems something of a dream once back in the embrace of Blanket Bay’s warm service: all easy smiles, open fires and magically appearing glasses of Amisfield bubbly. Originally the lakeside retreat of former Levi Strauss president Tom Usher, the lodge recalls a grand American hunting inn but everything, from hand-drawn walking maps to vintage wine recommendations, is delivered with the sort of quiet Kiwi charm that the adjacent frontier town of Glenorchy is famed for.
Surrounded by nature this big, it seems, nothing needs shouting about. Even Glenorchy’s community-run corner store is a paragon of perfectly restrained taste, replete with merino wool accessories, organic trail mix and pricey hiking boots. The only concession to the area’s Middle Earth movie location heritage is a T-shirt that reads: Keep Calm and Call Gandalf.
We need no wizardry. Days are measured out simply, on foot, barely inching our way into the Alps’ vast map, despite spending hours exploring. We uncover skeletal remains of old scheelite mines, overgrown with giant tussocks of velvety grass and wonder at the hemisphere-bending potpourri of flora and fauna — palm and pine, fern and pampas, sheep and tropical birds, every now and then pausing to watch that big bird’s blades as it ferries more wide-eyed passengers across to the distant peaks.
How to do it: Double rooms from NZ$1,000 (£471) a night, including pre-dinner cocktails, a la carte dinner, and breakfast. For packages at Blanket Bay, including flights, car hire and bookings at wilderness lodges throughout New Zealand, contact The Ultimate Travel Company.
Alternative: Trout Point Lodge. An opulent Canadian wood cabin retreat with the beautiful, lake-studded Tobeatic Wilderness Area as its back garden, in a little-visited corner of Nova Scotia.
Read more in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)