We’d arrived at the lodge 12km north of Kaikoura that afternoon and duty manager Mike had shown us to our suite high in the trees. Here’s the complimentary mini-bar (bottle of Hapuku Lodge wine, beers, juices, water, milk); here’s the remote for the aircon; this is how to light the woodstove; here’s the spa bath (make sure to fill it above the jets!); the iPod dock’s over here and if you want a DVD we have a large library downstairs in the lodge.
Since we were booked on Hapuku’s Earth, Sea and Sky package, we were having an early dinner, after which we’d drive into Kaikoura to meet Hussein Burra and join his Kaikoura Night Sky experience. It had been one of those bright, cloudless autumn days – the kind you often get at this time of year in the South Island – so things were looking promising for a spot of stargazing.
But, first things first: that big, deep spa bath was calling to us. While my wife ran the hot water I opened the wine and poured a couple of glasses of Gewürztraminer: we’d need to keep our fluids up. Hot water, soothing bubbles… soon a wee snooze before dinner seemed in order.
We were still drowsing on that custom king when the phone rang and Tui, the receptionist, informed us the stargazing trip was off: high cloud over Kaikoura, apparently.
Disappointed but hungry, we made our way downstairs and along the gravel path to the dining room, choosing a table for two in front of the open fire. At the other end of the room, head chef Jeremy Simeon was busy in the open kitchen.
Dinner at Hapuku is a three-course affair with a menu devised by executive chef Fiona Read. The à la carte
menu changes nightly and with the seasons. Ingredients come from Hapuku’s kitchen garden, its olive grove, its free-ranging chooks, the Hapuku Deer Farm and, wherever possible, from local suppliers. Dinner and breakfast are included in the tariff, although Kaikoura crayfish, a dinner menu staple (whole, grilled, with a chilli, horseradish and lime butter), costs an extra $75. I went for the lamb backstrap and crispy fried spinach starter followed by pan-fried turbot on a pea puree with duck fat potatoes, spicy chorizo and gremolata – delicious – and rounded it all off with a killer dark chocolate pudding with strawberry Cointreau preserve and pouring custard.
Well fed and back in our treetop suite, we sat out on the small deck and looked at the stars. We didn’t have a telescope but we recognised the Southern Cross and watched a satellite flit across the Milky Way.
The rising sun poured through our floor-to-ceiling windows next morning and lit the snowcapped Seaward Kaikoura Mountains, looking close enough to touch. Deer grazed contentedly down in the paddock. From our bathroom windows we could look across rows of olive trees to a shining sea.
Breakfast is another gourmet event at Hapuku Lodge, with a menu of tasty-sounding dishes culminating in the full-Monty Lodge Country Breakfast. But after a bowl of the most brilliant toasted muesli, fresh fruit and yogurt, I was happy with
scrambled eggs on toast and coffee.
The “sea” segment of our package was a trip with Kaikoura’s awardwinning Whale Watch, a Maori-owned enterprise that really put the town on the map when it was launched in 1987.
Kaikoura has had a long association with whales, thanks to the great underwater canyon that lies offshore, 1,500 metres deep in places and stretching for 60 kilometres. Cold and warm sea currents collide in this deep trench, drawing huge quantities of plant and animal nutrients to the surface. These provide food for small fish and crustaceans, which in turn attract larger marine life, including the giant sperm whale. Male sperm whales come here to gorge in preparation for their journey to warm tropical waters where the females live.
Once hunted for their oil and other valuable by-products (the last whale was killed here in 1964), the great mammals now attract more benign hunters – who flock to Kaikoura to
catch a glimpse of one of these 50-tonne behemoths.
Whale Watch Kaikoura does it well: a sighting is pretty much guaranteed and if you don’t see a whale you get 80 per cent of your money back. We boarded one of the company’s five purpose-built catamarans at 11am and headed out to sea. Soon passengers were out on deck watching for the telltale spout or “blow” that would indicate a breaching whale.
An excited shout went up and we headed for the long black shape sending up periodic gouts of water as the whale re-oxygenated after its 45-minute dive. This, we were told, was Tiaki, an old friend who’s been visiting these waters for some 20 years. Ten minutes later he arched his back and that fabulous tail rose high into the air as he plunged down to feed once more. We’d see him again later.
Our skipper, Captain Chevy, set off in search of another whale, but without luck. There was plenty more to see, however – greatwinged albatrosses and pretty storm petrels, Hutton shearwaters and mollymawks, seals and pods of playful dusky dolphins that leaped out of the water or sped in formation under the bows.
After another sighting of Tiaki, we headed back to Kaikoura, happy with our experience and ready for a warming bowl of chowder. We found it on the way back to Hapuku, at Koura Lodge, where a nine-hole golf course, bar and restaurant sit high up between the mountains and the sea. It proved an excellent choice and we even managed to squeeze in nine holes before returning to Hapuku Lodge.
The weather had turned cold, and low cloud meant there was no chance of stargazing that evening. But we’d known the Earth, Sea and Sky package was weather dependent and general manager Chris Sturgeon confirmed that guests are reimbursed for such noshows.
Back in our tree house, I lit the woodstove and, as the spa bath filled, we settled back in a pair of leather recliners with a drink and thoughts of Tiaki disappearing into the dark waters of the Kaikoura Canyon.
Another memorable dinner, another sound sleep and another breakfast that would last us until teatime. We said our goodbyes to Hapuku Lodge’s charming, friendly folk and headed back down State Highway 1. The stars will surely wait for our next visit.