New Zealand’s South Island is home to stunning fiords, glaciers and lakes, plus, discovers Sue Williams, just as impressive is its 19th Century built, and lovingly restored, Otahuna Lodge.
A gloriously grand heritage mansion set in stunning gardens in the middle of pretty much nowhere … It’s hard to imagine what could possibly be a greater contrast to city apartment-living.
But that’s just why so many people relish visiting New Zealand’s Otahuna Lodge, set on 12 hectares of rolling emerald countryside outside Christchurch. And it’s for exactly the same reason that the two American owners abandoned their own luxury apartment in New York’s Manhattan – and a career spent developing more – to set up home in their own small-scale Downton Abbey-style idyll.
“We felt like a change and when we saw Otahuna, we were quickly drawn under its spell,” says Hall Cannon, who bought the stately home with partner Miles Refo in 2006. “We felt the property had all the bones to be the most spectacular lodge in New Zealand, a true architectural gem in dire need of a little TLC.”
That TLC ended up costing the pair rather more than they’d first imagined. The bill for a complete structural restoration topped NZ$10 million, with Auckland-based interior designer Stephen Cashmore, who specialises in heritage renovations, commissioned to preserve the house’s character and bring it back to life.
Then disaster struck, and not once, but twice. The New Zealand earthquake of September 2010 caused an enormous amount of damage and the house was only just back up and running when the devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 struck.
“We were fortunate in being insured commercially,” says Cannon, 40. “We wanted to be up and running as soon as we could.”
Today, however, curled up on a comfortable sofa in the drawing room beside one of the property’s numerous fireplaces, with soft classical music playing in the background and the tinkling of china as the staff prepare to serve afternoon tea, it’s hard to imagine the lodge has ever endured a day’s misfortune.
The palatial Queen Anne-style homestead, built in 1895 for New Zealand Defence Minister Sir Heaton Rhodes, and now with a Category 1 listing with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, is immaculate in every way. The hand-carved mantelpiece glows softly, the intricate leaded glass windows sparkle, and all that’s missing, really, is a guest appearance from Carson, Downton’s much-loved butler.
Mind you, the food is probably a damn sight more delicious at Otahuna than the fare the TV gentleman’s gentleman routinely serves. Eggs are gathered each morning from the chicken coop, herbs and vegetables are picked fresh from the organic garden on the property, and each course at dinner is accompanied by a variety of New Zealand fine wines, and the meal finished with a selection of local cheeses.
One of the lovely features is that guests can choose to dine with others, or in privacy, selecting from a number of dining areas, from the main dining room, ballroom or kitchen, to the library, to eat.
Upstairs, the seven guest rooms are uniquely decorated and styled, all with their own stories to tell. The Polo Suite, for instance, pays homage to Sir Heaton’s favourite sport which was played on the lawn, while The Verandah Suite, featuring a nine-metre-long verandah, in 1927 hosted HRH the Duke of York, later to become King George VI. Six of the rooms have their own wood-burning fireplaces, and two have one in their bathrooms, which all come complete with bath tub and monsoon shower.
Some days, it’s hard to stir from the house itself, as it’s so relaxing and comfortable. But the outdoors also beckon. The gardens contain an orchard, a Dutch garden and wooded walkways. In September, there’s a special treat: a whole field becomes carpeted in daffodils from the time Sir Heaton planted thousands of bulbs to entertain the locals.
There’s also an outdoor swimming pool, outdoor fireplace, BBQ area and a tennis court. While the whole estate feels like a dream from a different century, there’s still the odd modern touch. There’s now wi-fi throughout, and the mansion’s old laundries – still with their coppers and ironing stoves – these days also house an exercise room and massage room.
Outings can include lunch at the nearby Pegasus Bay winery, a trip to the Alpine peaks and glaciers of the South Island, or the Waimakariri Gorge for fly-fishing. If, of course, you can bear to leave Otahuna Lodge – and its memories of a gentler way of life – for that long.
- Otahuna Lodge, 224 Rhodes Road, Tai Tapu, Christchurch, New Zealand.
otahuna.co.nz Ph (64) 3 329 6333.