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WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME
By Michael Matthews
December 9, 2010 -- Sitting at dinner with a group of friends, the talk turned to the inevitable question: What did I think was the best hotel or resort in the world?
It's a question I field perhaps half a dozen times a month and I really don't have a simple answer. Over the years I have heaped praise on The Beverly Hills Hotel, the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong and the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, California. I give 95 points out of a possible 100 to each. But each is a totally different guest experience from the other.
Yet now I think I have finally found what can only be deemed the nirvana of resorts. My wife and I traveled down under and, in the Taupo region of the north island of New Zealand, we found heaven.
At the main entrance, we were greeted by name and informed that our car would be parked for us. (When we retrieved it, the vehicle had been washed.) We were told our luggage would be taken to our accommodation. (We later found our bags had been unpacked and any wrinkled items had been pressed.) Meanwhile, they explained they had taken the liberty of setting a table for a late lunch. (The table overlooked the river and the chef had prepared local smoked salmon and soup.) Perhaps we'd like a bottle of wine to go with lunch? (Yes, we would.)
"Shouldn't we register first?" I asked.
"Oh, no need," came the reply. "Just sign the visitors book when you have a moment. It's on the table in the hall."
Our dining table was indeed overlooking a rapidly flowing river. A roaring log fire was close by. In addition to linen napkins, we were offered large, New Zealand wool blankets to cover our knees and legs. (It was a bit chilly.)
Following lunch, we were escorted to our accommodation. Note that I didn't say "room." It was magnificent, at least 1,000 square feet, with a huge patio overlooking the river just a few feet away. The view was only broken by a constant parade of black swans and mallard ducks waddling their stuff. I noted a fishing rod propped up outside our door. (I have a picture of me casting into the river, with no success.)
There was a fireplace (already blazing), a huge king bed (with Frette linens), a well-lit desk (with ample supply of stationary and magazines), a flat-screen television and a Bose CD player (with a sensible selection of music). There were his and hers bathrooms (each with separate tub and shower and twin wash basins.) There was a dressing area. (My wife felt beautifully lit). There were fluffy bathrobes and slippers and more than enough closets.
There was a bar. It was stocked with full-size bottles of our favorite brands and mixers (accompanied by ice, lemons, limes and olives). There was also a tea-making machine (a standard item down under) and an espresso machine.
(The accommodation also had a feature I have never seen anywhere else in the lodging world. You know how it is when you have to get up in the middle of the night and you stumble around because you don't want to turn on the lights for fear of waking you partner? Not here. When you put your toes over the side of the bed, you somehow activate discreet mini-lights that lead you right to the bathroom. You follow the lights back to your bed and, when you climb back in, out go they go. Amazing.)
The resort does not have a dining room. Instead, you're asked your choice of locales. Would you like to dine by the river again? Or perhaps The Library or Trophy Room? (The resort's owner has a similar place in South Africa.) Or, of course, you can dine on your patio. Wherever you choose, the chef has prepared what you'd like to eat, not what he demands you eat. (The chef showed us his immaculate kitchen while discussing our thoughts for each night's dinner.) Over the course of three days, we ate in three different spots, each with a roaring fire of its own. (In The Trophy Room, the Water Buffalo head, staring down on us from above the fireplace, took a little getting used to.)
Breakfast offers anything and everything you can imagine, all prepared to your particular taste. Again, no menu. You just order what you want. I enjoyed the best eggs Benedict I've ever eaten, made with a local duck egg and local bacon.
For the past 25 years, the property has been rated as one of the top ten in the world by Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure magazines, a feat not duplicated by any other resort. It has only about two dozen lodgings sitting on more than 17 acres. It is owned by a Dutchman with a Dutch general manager, who leads a youthful, friendly and superbly trained local staff of 60.
Over the course of your stay, a bill is never presented. You're never asked to sign anything. You are never asked your name. The entire staff just knows. Even the person who fluffs the cushions and fills the nine public fireplaces with Douglas Fir logs seemed to know who we were.
On departure, there is no checkout per se. I was only asked if we'd signed the visitors book. I had forgotten, so I signed our names below Queen Elizabeth (3 visits), most of the other crowned heads of Europe, movie stars, musicians and global business tycoons. Embarrassingly, the book also was filled with the names of some guests I hadn't heard of. I didn't mind since future guests will not have heard of me, either.
As we were departing, I asked for our folio. "We will just charge you credit card for your stay," I was told. (That's probably just as well. Now my wife will never know what we paid and I wouldn’t dare tell her!)
So now, coming in with 98 out of 100 possible points, is Huka Lodge in Taupo, New Zealand.
Why only 98? The general manager wasn't on the steps waving us goodbye. Apparently, he was preparing for the arrival of an ex-President.
Editor's note: Nightly rates at Huka Lodge start at NZ$1,980 a couple plus 15 percent tax. The price includes breakfast, pre-dinner drinks and five-course dinner.
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ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.
This column is Copyright © 2010 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.