Brian, the large and wood-mounted buffalo, benevolently overlooks the wood fire and our dinner table and the Queen passes on her blessing from a photograph on the mantelpiece. Dining at Huka Lodge in Taupo, New Zealand is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With the tartan (their own registered tartan of course) and distinctly hunting lodge feel, it is easy to imagine we are somewhere in the wilds of Scotland, but one look at the clear blue sky on a winter’s day will remind you otherwise.
A reputation for being one of the best resorts in the world, with a price tag to match, thankfully hasn’t made Huka Lodge a pretentious place to stay. The Relais and Chateaux resort has a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere with staff who will share a cheeky joke and who you quickly get to know on a first name basis.
Located right next to Waikato River and a short walk away from the thunderous Huka Falls, it is the perfect spot for trout fishers. And despite encouraging this and other sports, it is the food that is one of the Lodge’s main drawing cards. A five-course dinner is part of every guest’s stay, and if there’s room, non-guests can indulge as well.
Guests meet at the heart of the main lodge for pre-dinner drinks, before being ushered to mostly private nooks around the building. Queen Elizabeth prefers to dine in the library after a spot of fly-fishing (she stayed here in 1953).
Executive chef Paul Froggatt thrives on endless creativity and, unlike in most restaurants, he creates a new menu every evening. Sometimes the ideas are even developed on the day.
“We change the menu every day and we try not to do any repetition. Sometimes it’s not possible because of the seasons. In winter it is very difficult. It is an ongoing lava pot of ideas that we share between the chefs.”
The energetic British expat was previously the chef de cuisine at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s Amber restaurant (two Michelin-star) in Hong Kong, and before that worked at a string of Michelin standard restaurants, including Gidleigh Park Hotel in England and Bernard Loiseau in Bourgogne and Château de Courcelles in France.
He uses solely New Zealand produce and the Lodge’s incredible cellars are stocked with both New Zealand and European wines, worth a total of $222,000.
“For suppliers I look into sustainability, organic if I can find it and of course the local small growers rather than buying shipped-in produce. My fish is line-caught near Auckland and in summer heirloom tomatoes come from south of Auckland. My organic lemon supplier is in the South Island. The list is endless as one person has one item; they are very much boutique [growers.].”
As primarily a resort restaurant, the Lodge kitchen has to cater to every dietary requirement and request.
“You have to make magic in the kitchen sometimes which is always interesting and it becomes very difficult. But I am a firm believer that the nature of our business is to be flexible and cater for the client’s needs.”
Dining highlights on our stay are a heavenly-textured agnolotti with surprising vivid green spinach interiors served with pickled beetroot and a playfully deconstructed banoffee style dessert with Manjari chocolate touches. The presentation across all dishes is stunning, with enticing use of colour, creative swirls and delicate dabs of sauces and jus. After dinner, we chat to other diners in the central room again, over petit four, coffee and an irresistible selection of local cheese.
Paul says although the food at Huka Lodge is fantastic, it’s not the only thing that makes it so well recognised.
“I think the location is beautiful, the property is outstanding. The service is very good and the food helps, but it’s the all-in-one package. It’s not one particular thing that’s better than the other. The other day I saw people dining upstairs with their shoes off, relaxing like they were at home. I looked at them and I thought ‘you’ve got it. You understand this is what we want: home away from home.’”
Our accommodation is separate from the main lodge, down a fern-lined path, and feels like a private retreat. The river is on one side and the hotel’s pristine facilities on the other, including a heated swimming pool, tennis court, and croquet lawn (best enjoyed with a cocktail, we’re told). A wall of windows in our room, overlooking the river, tackles the sameness of many luxury hotel rooms.
There are plenty of outdoor activities to help you work up an appetite here – mountain biking, walking around the volcanic, sulphuric, bubbling mud in nearby national parks, adventure sports, geothermal spas and watersports on the impressive Lake Taupo, which at 616 km² is equivalent to the size of Singapore.
Guests can arrive at Huka Lodge via the small domestic Taupo airport, or land on the resort via helicopter. But we find the 3-4 hour drive from Auckland is worth it to see some more of the beautiful and reasonably rural North Island of New Zealand. We pass forests, volcanic cones, mountains and verdant farmland, stopping off for regular doses of homemade cake at countryside towns along the way.
The city of Auckland itself has changed a lot in the last five years, with new areas and lots of exciting new food ventures. For those serious about finding the best coffee, cheese and wine around, get the inside scoop from the Big Foody Tours, Auckland. Tour guide Elle Armon-Jones endears herself to us by not only giving a knowledgeable and tasty tour, but by making the first stop one of Auckland’s many excellent coffee roasters, Miller’s. She also introduces us to the must-visit Milsie Dessert Restaurant in the new Britomart area, where master pâtissier Brian Campbell whips up heavenly delights like a Valrhona chocolate gateaux with passion fruit, banana and salted caramel.
We stayed at the retro and boutique Hotel DeBrett, conveniently located in the centre of the city. The nightly hotel drinks in the cosy guest lounge are perfect for solo and business travellers and their mirrored bathrooms and velvet green robes added a touch of old-school glamour to our stay.
The Sugar Club is quite literally at the height of the dining establishments in Auckland. At level 53 of the SkyTower, the view is fantastic but if I was blindfolded and in a basement, I would still have enjoyed this excellent restaurant. The New Zealand born and London-based chef Peter Gordon continues to dominate fusion cuisine, and every dish is refreshing, accessible, and damn tasty. We order our own choice of small dishes, like a mini degustation menu rather than tapas, including a pleasingly pink kingfish marinated in beetroot with a tempura potato-wrapped oyster and kale coconut sauce, a velvety soy-marinated beef fillet with pesto, beetroot and courgette and a salty miso kumara (sweet potato) mash with a rosemary-flavoured kick that if it wasn’t the large serving we received, I would have cheerfully refused to share. It is the fourth iteration of the stylish restaurant, originally in Wellington, New Zealand in 1986, and followed by one in Notting Hill and West Soho, London.
Local foodies tell us that restaurants Clooney, Sidart, The French Café, O’Connell Street Bistro, Depot and Antoine’s are also Auckland favourites. Our difficulty was not in finding good food, but fitting in as many as possible in our stay. Whether you are after the stunning natural surrounds of the likes of Huka Lodge, or a slice of city action, New Zealand will cater for your vacation and culinary needs, and with one of the world’s most-endearing accents.