I have played a piano that was probably played by the late Queen Mother. The piano in question was originally part of the fixtures and fittings on board HMS Renown, the ship that carried the then Duke and Duchess of York on their official tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1927. Her Majesty was an accomplished pianist, so as far as I and my fertile imagination are concerned, she almost certainly entertained her fellow passengers and crew at some point.
The current custodians of the restored 1920s tiger mahogany baby grand are the owners of Otahuna Lodge, a country house hotel located ten miles south of Christchurch on New Zealand’s awe-inspiring South Island. It is certainly quite a trek for most British visitors, but Otahuna is one of those rare and wonderful hotels that makes simply being there worth even the longest of journeys.
Otahuna is part of the Relais and Chateaux Group whose aim is to make every visitor to every property feel like a guest staying with old friends. Sitting at the piano after a lunch of pea soup with baby basil and smoked salmon, and freshly baked focaccia, awaiting my tray of tea and home-made biscuits I felt perfectly at home.
The Victorian Jacobean revival lodge was built in 1895 by Sir Rhodes Heaton who served as an MP in the New Zealand parliament for almost thirty years. He was also a lawyer, a graduate of Brasenose College, Oxford, and keen philatelist, an interest he apparently shared with The Duke of York. The lodge itself is an architectural feast and was awarded a “category one” listing from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.
Renovations and restoration by the current owners, Americans Hall Cannon and Miles Refo have adhered slavishly to original designs using photographs and documents from the New Zealand National archive. Twelve elegant chimneys punctuate the classically asymmetrical rooflines of the brick and timber homestead, and stained glass sash windows reveal seven exquisite suites where guests can sink into crisply sumptuous white bed linens, or relax in oversized armchairs by their own personal fireplace, a feature of every suite.
Tempting as it was to spend my stay wrapped in the welcoming arms of Otahuna’s hospitality, there is just too much on offer to stay indoors for long. Nearby Otahuna Riding will meet you at the front door with horses tacked up and ready to trek over the surrounding hills and beyond. Kate Tapley, who runs Otahuna riding, specialises in natural horsemanship and even managed to teach me how to persuade the affable Ginger Bear, my 15.2 standard-bred mount, to walk forwards, backwards and halt, without even touching him.
About an hour’s drive takes you to Akaroa on the astonishing Banks peninsula, with its spectacular circular harbour formed by the submerged crater of an extinct volcano, and surrounded by towering peaks, interrupted only by the probing fingers of deep sea lochs. The adventurous can hike for hours over the windswept hillsides, but I settled for a harbour cruise, and happily sipped a surprisingly light local chardonnay whilst trying to spot the elusive hector’s dolphin – the world’s smallest – amongst the playful penguins and fur seals that abound in the bay.
Otahuna’s front of house manager happily organises trips further afield – whale watching at Kaikoura for example, where I gate crashed a post-feed social gathering of eight huge sperm whales; or even an aerial outing by helicopter to one of the South island’s lesser known glaciers, where you can picnic in the icy silence, enjoying champagne chilled on glacial ice.
Back at the lodge I was treated to a culinary masterclass by Otahuna’s executive chef, Jimmy MacIntyre. Jimmy has a shock of red hair, an easy Gaelic charm and a noticeable sparkle in his eye whenever he talks about food. He taught with effortless enthusiasm, showing me how to make salmon ceviche, sourdough bread, potato gnocchi, pea and prawn risotto, and fruit sorbet, all of which I was later allowed to savour over two days of memorable eating.
An all-inclusive stay allows you to enjoy daily pre-dinner drinks and canapés and a five course tasting menu with New Zealand wines to match each course. I drooled over cauliflower soup with seared scallops, Banks peninsula beef fillet with braised oxtail and parsnip and horseradish puree, and quince, hazelnut and frangipani tart.
One night I dined alone in the lodge’s intimate library and on another shared the huge table with Miles, one of owners, in the grand baronial dining room with its ornate candelabras and beautiful pressed, gilded Japanese wallpaper.
Much of the produce is grown on the Otahuna estate in its “potager garden”, restored melon shed and original apple shed, now used for the cultivation of several varieties of edible fungi. Miles estimates that in season the lodge is about 80% self-sufficient, and always 100% organic. The rest of the land is given over to formal and informal gardens in a series of “outdoor rooms”, the most striking of which is undoubtedly the lake and the sweeping lawn leading up to the front of the lodge, where millions of daffodils burst into colour every spring, when the lodge is open to the public, for just one day a year.
As Miles guided me through the gardens his passion for this magical place was clear, and utterly justified. It is a place fit for royalty. Unfortunately, The Queen Mother didn’t get to see it as she was confined to bed in Wellington with tonsillitis during that 1927 trip. I should imagine The Duke and Sir Rhodes had a wonderful boys’ weekend though, in spite of her absence, sharing philatelic anecdotes over pre-dinner drinks and canapés. Although I can’t help but wonder who would have played the piano.
Otahuna Lodge, 224 Rhodes Road Christchurch 7672, New Zealand; www.otahuna.co.nz