The seaplane ripples along the inky blue surface of Lake Rotoiti which, from the sky, glistens like a tinted mirror. As we taxi along the lake, I crane my neck to see above the instrument panel, hoping to catch a glimpse of the catamaran we are to rendezvous with. Then the Tiua, a luxurious Fountaine Pajot 53, fills the portside window. Our pilot steps onto a float to catch the rope that the catamaran’s skipper tosses over.
A grand entrance
When the seaplane is secured to the catamaran, we climb aboard in wide-eyed wonder at the spectacular landing and boarding that has delighted everyone on board. Even the two passengers from British Columbia, where seaplanes are a common form of transport, are impressed.
We wave goodbye to the pilot and help the crew hoist the sails. Soon, we’re gliding across the lake past undulating emerald green hills and mineral-rich natural outdoor thermal hot spas.
I flop into a comfy beanbag in a sunny spot on the nets feeling carefree with the wind in my hair and the sun on my face as we sail past Moose Lodge, which, during its heyday in the 1960s, played host to the Queen and Prince Phillip. We shelter in a calm bay where we tuck into gourmet sandwiches, sausage rolls served with a delicious tomato salsa and creamy cakes.
Then the weather turns and the blue sky becomes grey as the sun hides behind the clouds. By the time the catamaran docks at the jetty in Okawa Bay, it’s drizzling lightly. Fortunately, my butler is waiting for me on the jetty with a large umbrella.
Seaplane flights and sailing trips are only two of the activities offered at Lake Okareka Lodge. Others activities are drinking wine in the lakeside spa, kayaking and jet skiing. Heli-fishing trips are most popular as there is plenty of big trout in the lakes nearby and helicopters land on the lodge’s helipad to whisk guests away for geothermal flight-seeing.
Luxury Rotorua accommodation
Bangkok-based lebua Hotels & Resorts ventured off the beaten track in the land of the long white cloud with this exclusive Rotorua retreat. The three-bedroom lodge is a world away from the stratospheric heights of lebua in Bangkok, which occupies levels 51 to 59 of the State Tower building in the Thai capital.
In contrast, Lake Okareka Lodge is tucked away in a quiet suburb behind wrought iron gates. The lodge offers a laid-back Kiwi opulence with all the trimmings that a tycoon would want in a holiday home including tasteful décor, amazing scenery, a personal chef and the services of an on-call butler 24 hours a day. It’s the kind of place that appeals to those seeking luxury as well as privacy (think Steven Spielberg and Lord of the Rings’ director Peter Jackson).
Aside from the helipad and the outdoor spa, other facilities are a library with a baby grand piano, gym, massage room, well-stocked climate-controlled wine cellar, a boat and floatplane jetty. There are installations of contemporary Kiwi art throughout the lodge and a remote-console entertainment system that pipes music into every room. The 120sqm penthouse-sized Lake Okareka Suite on the top floor has sweeping views of the lake.
Dining plays a major part of the overall experience. The five-course evening meals are creatively prepared with local ingredients, plenty of heart and finesse. And they are designed for each guest according to personal preference. Each meal is different, with creative dishes like pistachio-crusted rack of lamb with parsnip puree.
Foodies will love it here as much for the superb culinary skills of the chef as well as the locally flavoured culinary experiences that the lodge can arrange.
Rotorua is only 15 minutes away by car but why drive when you can make an entrance in a helicopter? There’s good reason for flying. Looking down upon the region is the only way to truly see its beauty. The pilot points out Lake Rotokakahi and Lake Tikitapu, usually known as the blue and green lakes after the colour of the water. There are 16 lakes including Lake Rotorua, which is in a caldera, and Lake Taupo, the largest lake in the North Island.
10 minutes later, at the helicopter base in Te Puia, a guide is waiting to whip me through the geothermal park in a buggy. My first stop is lunch near a geothermal pool where a table has been set with a white tablecloth, wine glasses and bowls of freshly made salad. The chef pulls out sacks filled with green-shelled mussels, prawns, eggs and corn that he has just cooked in the hot geothermal pool and spreads the feast out on the table.
Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley, which is home to the Te Arawa people, has an assortment of thermal activity that is sure to impress including hot springs, boiling sulphurous pools, silica terraces, bubbling mud pools and 65 geysers. The central attraction is the Pohutu geyser, which is the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere, erupting about 20 times a day up to 30m high.
Another time, back at the lodge, Maori chef Charles Royal, is invited over to cook me a traditional Maori lunch. First, we take a walk around the lodge’s gardens where Royal picks soft new green fern fronds (pikopiko), which are crunchy and fresh, horopito, Maori bush pepper, and kawakawa, a heart-shaped leaf that has medicinal properties (also known as Maori bush basil).
Many plants used in Maori cooking have healing properties. But it’s not just the plants that have healing properties in Rotorua. The mineral-rich pools have long been believed to cure a variety of ailments such as skin infections, muscular aches, arthritis and acne.
At the Polynesian Day Spa, there’s a dizzying array of hot spring pools and an impressive range of local mud therapies. I decide to try a progressive soak in the Lake Spa section, which has four shallow alkaline rock pools with temperatures ranging from 36˚C to 42˚C.
On my last evening, while dining on a three-course meal in the Skyline gondola, which takes me 487m up to Mount Ngongotaha and down and around three times, a full moon polishes Lake Rotorua with a silver glow. It’s a scene that has etched an image in my mind that will always remind me of Rotorua’s special magic.
Discover New Zealand
Lake Okareka Lodge, 103 Acacia Road, Lake Okareka, tel: +64 7362 8026. Suites cost from NZ$1600 a night a couple. The price includes breakfast, pre-dinner drinks with canapés, five-course dinner, 24-hour butler service, high-speed internet access and airport transfers. It increases to NZ$10,600 a night for six people staying in high season. Activities cost extra.