From 10,000 ft up, Otago is tawny and muscular. Forged from earthquakes and carved by glaciers, this is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful, epic and inaccessible landscapes. But amid these craggy mountains and alpine valleys, there is a spot where you can stay, experience true adventure, and eat like a king. It’s a place so far-flung that there are no roads leading in. Even most New Zealanders have never heard of it.
Welcome to Minaret Station Alpine Lodge: New Zealand’s most remote hotel. Minaret Station is a 50,000-acre sheep station owned by the Wallis family. Nine years ago, they opened up their property to guests, initially as a glamping experience. Minaret now consists of just four luxury chalets dotted around a central lodge hidden in a high-country valley, 3,000 ft up.
The lodge is completely off-grid; the water for bathing and drinking comes from the mountains beyond and the power is hydroelectric. Guests come for total peace and privacy, or adrenaline rushes in the snow-capped alpine surrounds.
The lodge is 12 miles from the nearest road and the nearest town, Wanaka – so the only way to get here is by helicopter. The 25-minute flight from Queenstown takes us over schist mountains and tussock-carpeted plains, where the high-country deer, so skittish and silly when you’re on the ground, calmly look skywards and watch you pass before returning to nibbling on bracken. The sheep don’t even bother to pause.
We fly over ski fields and mountain huts, farmland and the crystal waters of Lake Wanaka. Left at the lake, then up a gorge that runs with glacial run-off.
Above this wild river, our guide, Doug (a private guide is part of the deal at Minaret), asks my friend Emma and I if we’d like to stop early and walk for a bit. Hamish, the pilot, finds a clearing and drops us near a pretty stand of beech trees on the edge of the river.
The path winds its way beside the river and up the valley. After an hour or so, we find Hamish again. He has landed next to a faded corrugated-iron hut above the river, adorned with stags’ antlers and carved with the names of the musterers who have passed this way.
Now our pilot is behind a barbecue, oiling up a pair of cast-iron pans. A charcuterie board and local wines have been laid out, and when the cooking is done, Hamish and Doug join us for a lunch of garlic prawns and rosemary lamb cutlets fresh from the estate, eating off tin plates, staring out to a view of snow-capped mountains.
Minaret is undoubtedly one of New Zealand’s most exclusive hotels, but you will find no airs and graces here. There are no butlers, no dress codes for dinner. There are keys to the rooms but no one ever uses them. You’re welcome to order a drink on room service, but most guests choose to pour their own at the open bar in front of a flagstone fireplace in the lounge.
Designed to blend in respectfully with their surroundings, the lodge and chalets appear, from the air, not dissimilar to the conservation huts found throughout the New Zealand bush. But on closer inspection, they are elegant and modern. Decor is unpretentious and in keeping with the location: hardwood floors and soft rugs, sheepskin headboards and possum-fur throws. Each of the four one-bedroom chalets has a private spa pool sunk into the deck, filled with fresh alpine water from the waterfall that flows behind the lodge. The views of the mountains ahead are jaw-dropping. The only sounds are of the river bubbling by, and the occasional helicopter as guests arrive or depart.
Making use of the natural surroundings is a huge focus here. Otago is a wonderland for lovers of extreme sport. It’s so untouched, so inaccessible, that every adventure starts with a helicopter: heli-cycling, heli-skiing, heli-fishing. There are even heli-picnics, with diners dropped by chopper on ridgetops as though on the very top of the world.
It’s not all extreme. There are more gentle pursuits, such as lakeside bike rides. Emma and I take a beginner-level e- trip along the shores of Lake Wanaka and through farmland. The e-bikes take a little getting used to – our legs spin wildly until we get the hang of the gears – but once we’ve got it we’re grateful for the “boost button”, which takes us effortlessly up hills. We crash through streams and careen along long farm roads down the sides of deer and sheep paddocks.
There are those, too, who come here not for action, but for the sense of remoteness, the feeling of being truly cut off, surrounded by nothing by untouched beauty.
And, of course, for the food. It’s taken seriously here, with off-grid dinners, sociable dinners around a shared table, and as many ingredients as possible sourced from the lodge’s doorstep. One evening we eat a blue cod caught by a guest that day, fresh crayfish, greens from Wanaka, and fast-seared medallions of venison from deer, farmed and wild, which roam among the beech trees and the mountainsides of the property. Chef Ivan Savae serves them, tender and mouth-watering, with nothing but a few twigs of rosemary and a pinch of sea salt. The lamb, too, is special: fed on a diet heavy in chicory, Te Mana lamb is a marbled meat, high in Omega-3, developed at the station. They call it the tastiest, healthiest lamb in the world.
When the plates are cleared, there are whiskies to sample, so we wrap up and take to the deck. As the sun drops, the tussock shifts colour from biscuit to sienna, and the light and shadow give the mountains new textures.
As night arrives, all that surrounds us is the stillness and silence of total isolation. We are completely alone, cut off from the world. There is no sound but the peep-peep of birds hunting the last of the dusk insects; no light other than that of the endless stars.
We watch the last of the sunset disappear, turning the mountains dark and the skies to electrifying light.
Minaret Station, South Island, New Zealand (minaretstation.com) offers three nights’ on full board in a private chalet for two people, full board, including helicopter transfers, from NZ$8,800 (around £4,300). Includes helicopter transfers.