Luxist Gets a Lesson in Living Well at Lebua's Lake Okareka Lodge
When your bread and butter is acquired by trotting around the world to tell tales of man- and womankind's finest offerings, you get used to the finest. Akin to being a jeweler, when everything you touch sparkles because everything is a gem, it takes a jewel of the extraordinary variety to get your attention. After hopping on four planes to spend 24 hours in the air traveling from London to New Zealand, all to visit lebua's Lake Okareka Lodge, we expected to encounter another fine, shiny object.
What we did not expect – but what we got – was a the finest 4-day stretch of living we've had in years, and a persistent lesson in what the best living is like. We hadn't been on the property two minutes, and upon seeing the view from our suite we realized we had discovered one of the universe's finest secrets: this is where God goes on vacation.
Gallery: Lake Okareka Lodge by lebua
Ok, so God probably has a few vacation spots – we hear there are some hot springs on Jupiter that are fabulous – but Lake Okareka Lodge is certainly one of them.
The first thing we should get straight is the pronunciation of "Okareka." Months before we arrived in-country we broke it down and came up with oh-kuh-REE-kuh. That turned out to be so far off that when we finally heard a native pronounce it we had no idea what he was talking about. What he said was, oh-CARE-uh-kuh, rolling the 'r' and issuing the word at double-speed, then throwing in a New Zealand accent for spice because, well, he was a Kiwi. We've got the pronunciation down, we'll need a bit more time to work on that accent.
The second, and more important thing to know about Lake Okareka Lodge is that it isn't really a lodge in the common sense. The usual lodge has numerous guests, a few of whom you might know but most of whom you definitely won't. That is the opposite of Lake Okareka, where the only guest will probably be you and whoever you've invited along. There are three rooms but the establishment rents exclusively, so if you book it, it's yours.
That makes the lodge, set at the tip of a peninsula jutting out into Lake Okareka, your private, 7,000-square-foot waterfront home.
But let us back up a bit. Rotorua is in the center of New Zealand's North Island. A spread-out town of about 70,000, the population swells throughout the year as a million visitors fly in for the adventure sports and the smell of sulfur in the morning. Occupying the depression of an enormous volcanic caldera, sulfur hot springs are ubiquitous; steam rises from giant divots and pools all through town, at the bottom of which might be just boiling mud or perfectly clear and temperate pools of water. Hot spring types have made Rotorua a destination since the 1880s, and that was when it took six months by ship to complete the journey. When the English arrived for the first time they found the the Maori, New Zealand's indigenous population, already there, because who doesn't love central heating?
Take a right turn from the city center and drive for 15 minutes, you'll pass the obscenely idyllic Blue Lake on your way to the lodge. There are dozens of lakes within 30 minutes drive of the city, each one just as stunning as the last. In case we haven't covered this yet or you haven't been there, New Zealand is magnificently gorgeous. It is rivaled in lush, grand-scale beauty probably only by Switzerland, but has taken the trouble of replacing bankers and financiers with sheep: New Zealand's four-million-strong human population is dwarfed by the bleating, woolen might of a 40-million-strong ovine army.
Past Blue Lake is a quiet, cozy neighborhood of young professionals, and at the end of that is Lake Okareka Lodge. The driveway gates open up on command and you roll into your estate, two stories of granite, glass, wood and steel to greet you. This is when you first realize the human scale of the place – it's a house, and it's not commercial (technically it is, but go with us on this...), it's personal. Better than that, it's an extremely nice house, obvious even from the outside and not only because of its size.
Enter the foyer, and darkly stained woods are set off by sculpture and statuary in gold and bronze. This is where you get your first glimpse of the fuller portion of the lake, just through the windows that line the sunken dining room.
But you won't tarry there. We were led up the stairs by Diana Moore, the property manager, who was cluing us in to all the things we might wish to know during the stay. When we turned the corner and saw the view of the lake from that room, though, it was a "You had me at 'Hello,'" moment – nothing else needed to be said.
The view from the balcony of the 1,400 square-foot Lake Okareka suite is divine. It encompasses an evergreen-lined ridge on the left that slowly tapers into the lake in the distance, behind which the the sheep-lined hills and distant mountains rise off to the right. The shallow vee is called The Cut, and the sun is gracious enough to rise just there every morning.
At that point we dropped our bags and began working on a plan to never leave.
This is a day at the Lake Okareka Lodge: you'll awaken in a bed wrapped in Italian linens, pull back the drapes and discover kayakers paddling calm, morning waters among the lake's herons, dabchicks, and black swans. As the sun ascends, the kayakers are replaced by the occasional leisure boater and waterskier who, due to the lake's lane setup, will remain a distant, scudding hum along the far cliffs.
You set your music preference with the Sonos remote control, meaning you choose anything on the lodge's system or your own media player to play anywhere you wish – you might even have your suite playing running through one playlist and queue a different playlist for the cavernous bathroom.
Take a moment to run downstairs where your private chef, David Robinson, will ask you what you'd like to have for breakfast. Not that our tastes tend to the extreme for the morning's repast, but we did mix it up and found everything on the menu. And delicious.
Take the stairs again to get fresh for the day, arrange the music for your shower routine if you haven't already, then slipper around the stone-tiled bathroom equipped with a jet tub large enough for two and a shower stall large enough for four. When daybreak's ablutions are complete, return to the breakfast room and take your meal there, or perhaps on the balcony just outside, or perhaps at the table under the boughs on the upper terrace.
By that time your personal concierge, either Graham or Lorene – two of the nicest people in the solar system – will have arrived and asked you, "What would you like to do today?" Lorene was on vacation during our vacation, and figuring Graham knew more about what to do than we did, we let him be our guide. The first day we said we wanted to go for a run, and Graham suggested "Perhaps you'd like the redwood forest."
Turns out that not ten minutes from the lodge is the Whakarewarewa Forest, 14,000 acres of native and foreign flora that includes 15 acres of California redwoods. Wide, well-marked paths are laid out for walking, orienteering, mountain biking and horseback riding, but we spent an hour carving out our own paths and climbing to the top for views of Rotorua and surrounding lakes.
When we finished we found Graham waiting for us at the trailhead with another suggestion: "I thought we'd go to the spa."
That's how we ended up at Polynesian Spa, which is like all-you-can-eat sensuousness. For anywhere from $NZ 6 to $NZ40 you can spend as long as you wish in 26 mineral spring pools of varying temperatures and exclusivity. It was raining lightly when we went, and the chilled drizzle was the perfect complement to the 41-degree pool we lounged in that was set into the shore of Lake Rotorua.
Once refreshed, we were driven back to the lodge to prepare for the evening courses. After a return to the showers and a change of clothes we were served pre-dinner drinks and canapés at the bar, then, having been primed for what came next, we adjourned to the dining room.
Dinners, again prepared by Chef Robinson, are always a five-course affair served at the hour you decide. Our first night's supper was crab ravioli with bisque sauce, pipis and cucumber; angus beef salad with rocket, coriander chilli and sesame dressing; raspberry sorbet; confit of duck leg with spiced couscous, eggplant caviar and soy and ginger jus; and a dessert of carmelized lemon tart with poached pear and lemon syrup. Throughout, Graham served courses of New Zealand wines – not only the widely exported Cloudy Bays and Marlboroughs, but local varieties like the Otago and Gibson Bays, Coleraines and Triple Banks and Roaring Megs.
At the end of all that, we retired to the library for some post-prandial coffee, port, and reading. Once we were made happy – or perhaps that should be, even happier – Graham departed and left us in the charge of the night concierge, Murray, who would attend to any requests we might have at 3 a.m. Having made it upstairs to our turned-down bed and wall-mounted plasma television, we spent too much overnight time exploring late night channels and, well, sleep, to bother our overnight host.
That is life at Lake Okareka Lodge. Every single day. If you need to work – or just want to see what your friends might be doing in less interesting parts of the globe – the entire home is WiFi enabled, and there are two workstations, one in the master suite, one just outside, with lake views. Outside of that, swap the redwood forest and spa for the lodge's jet skis or sea kayaks on the lake one day, returning to shore to be greeted by a lunch of buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and cherry tomatoes atop thick-cut rustica bread drizzled with vinaigrette. Swap that for a ride on the skyride gondola up to the tallest peak in the city, with a mad dash down the hill on a luge track (warning: hugely fun, with a huge chance of wiping out into the fern-lined hills). Swap that for a drive to an active volcano, or a trip to the Buried Village where you can tour the remains of the town buried under an volcanic eruption in 1896. Or don't go anywhere and have a workout in the lodge's fitness center, followed by a massage in the lodge's spa room and a quiet reading and sunning session in a nook on your half acre of private grounds.
Or another idea: swap dinner at the lodge for a trip to Te Puia, the Maori cultural center. No trip to New Zealand is complete without an exploration of indigenous Maori culture, and Te Puia offers numerous engaging access points to begin the journey. You might visit during the day and tour the gallery exhibit or weaving and carving schools in the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. We went during the evening and got a guided tour courtesy of Patrick, the doyen and remarkably funny steward of Maori culture in Rotorua.
Maori have been in the area for 700 years, and the Whakarewarewa area is home to the Te Arawa people and the Pohutu Geyser. We attended an evening cultural performance which, after orientation, included a riveting series of ceremonial and martial rituals. Of course the Kapa Haka is the star of the show since it has been gloriously exported by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. Even so, the Wero, a challenge issued by a single warrior to a male chief is just as impressive in its distillation of group ferocity to one-on-one tension.
After the ceremonies came the Hākari, a traditional Maori meal prepared in the traditional way by cooking the food over using geothermal heat, then a walk through the valley to see the Pohutu Geyser in action, all of it explained in glorious, native detail. There isn't anything we didn't have a fabulous time doing in New Zealand, but Te Puia is not to be missed.
This was our third and last evening in New Zealand, and as the sky faded to black Graham came to retrieve us, and within 30 minutes we were sitting on the couch in our suite, water lapping upon the beach somewhere just below in the antipodean darkness, with a double cappuccino and a jar of biscotti a casual flick of the arm away.
That is Lake Okareka Lodge. Everything is attended to, all you must do is figure out how to have a better time than the day before – after you figure out if that's even possible.
We did venture into the two other suites, the Rotorua Suite down a half-flight of steps, and the Garden Suite on the ground floor. They are each a healthy 731 square feet and boast much the same amenities as the main Lake Okareka suite on a smaller scale: sitting areas, walk-in closets, Sonos music systems, lake views. All of which is to say, your guests will not complain.
Lake Okareka Lodge by lebua is where you go when you want the stupendous best in a getaway. We know these are big words, and we stand by every one – we've done the worldwide luxury tour-of-duty and we know when we've found a thing that sets standards. This is one of those exceedingly few places.
And that's why you might not consider it cheap at $NZ 5,000 per night plus tax ($3,455 U.S. at the time of writing). But that includes everything: three meals a day, drinks and hors d'oeuvres, the private chef, the concierges, the jet skis and kayaks and motor boat. Oh, and the sheer gloriousness of the place. And let's face it, there are hotel suites in town that cost multiples of that and don't come close to offering as much or being as rewarding.
Give it a try when you want to visit the place where the word "magical" goes to remind itself what it really stands for. Who knows, while you're there you might find out the same about yourself...