There is still plenty of late-morning mist hanging over Lake Wakatipu on the winding drive along the Glenorchy-Queenstown Rd, partly obscuring the otherwise impressive Remarkables, Walter and Cecil peaks, which stand at a formidable 2km high on the opposite shore.

That makes the turn to Matakauri Lodge – otherwise about an eight-minute drive from Queenstown – easy to miss. 

But legends don't really need neon lights and this isn't Vegas. Nevertheless, there are obvious distractions – the main one being the sheer overwhelming personality of the lake and the sun glinting off the snowy peaks opposite.

On arrival, we are immediately greeted by the enthusiastic and immensely helpful front office manager, Magnus Giaever.

He's also knowledgeable as to the lodge and the area, providing a rapid-fire tour and helping carry our luggage to our suite. More importantly, he invites us to a pre-lunch cocktail if so desired – but “at our leisure”.

This place isn't guided by a timetable.

Entirely private

Our accommodation, as with the other 10 suites, is oriented with the signature view in mind. And our king suite boasts a jaw-dropping panoramic scene through floor-to-ceiling windows. There is no point in the room where you aren't exposed to the omnipresent lake and its craggy backdrop – from the bedroom, bathroom and lounge, or small private deck.

The bedroom can be shuttered from prying eyes – presumably from an eagle-eyed passenger on Air New Zealand flights on final approach. That's unlikely, and all the suites are entirely private, surrounded by low-level scrub, tussock and kānuka down to the water's edge.

A walk to the lake and to a private jetty provides access to the Seven Mile Track, on which we enjoy an easy morning walk ahead of a rather excellent coffee. There are also little touches such as updates on weather, sunrise and sunset and subtle advice on how to dress. 

The upstairs library at Matakauri, also used for private dining. (Image: H Schnell)

Giaever, as it turns out, was only the advance guard of 18 very professional and friendly hotel and restaurant team members. Next on the welcoming committee is food and beverage manager Marek Przyborek, the former sommelier and cellar manager at Central Otago’s Amisfield winery.

Nothing is too much trouble for him, either, and at lunch, he quickly gets on my good side by pairing a 2019 Wooing Tree "blondie" with my entrée, Te Kouma bay oysters served with salmon caviar and citrus mignonette. I follow this with a beautiful Whitianga kingfish sashimi, while my partner opts for a Big Glory Bay salmon.

At dinner he marries a syrah from Martinborough’s Dry River Wines with a superb lamb rack from Royalburn Station, near Arrowtown.

The choice of a Dry River wine isn't altogether surprising, given that the winery formed part of the Robertson family’s NZ tourism interests until they sold it last November after 20 years of ownership, preferring to focus on their hotel business. 

Focus on seasonal food

It is in the kitchen where the real magic happens, however. This is the domain of Auckland-born head chef Jonathan Rogers, who started at Matakauri in 2011 and currently manages a team of 10.

Rogers, an avid snowboarder and noticeably limping after a skateboarding incident when he speaks to us, first came to Central Otago in 2001 following a three-year stint training at the Orbit restaurant high in Auckland's Sky Tower. The plan, he says, was to spend a season in Queenstown. 

His worldview on food is, of necessity, focused on seasonality, and the menu changes every day. As he says in the recipe book he self-published in 2019, “What we make is dictated by our community, the farmers, growers and purveyors that supply the lodge. Whatever they have available that day is what we cook, and paying such close attention to the seasons means learning the nuances of the micro-seasons within each one.”

Robertson Lodges, founded by the late US hedge-fund guru Julian Robertson, bought the 3.6-hectare Matakauri site and lodge in 2009, making it the group's third property after Northland’s Kauri Cliffs and The Farm at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay

Royal honeymoon
After extensive renovations overseen by architects Sumich Chaplin and designer Virginia Fisher, Matakauri reopened in August 2010 in plenty of time to host Prince William and his bride, Catherine, in the four-bedroom owner’s cottage for their honeymoon. The couple booked in again during their 2014 tour of NZ.

The larger place – which, to be honest, doesn’t align with my definition of a "cottage" – is also home to the Robertson family and frequently used by company CEO Jay Robertson.The seating area in the owner's 'cottage' master bedroom. (Image: Robertson Lodges)

Robertson Lodges sales manager James Cavanagh tells us Matakauri will be closed during September for "minor touch-ups" and a splash of paint. That will see the stunning pool, spa and jacuzzi area upgraded, including extending the pool to 20 metres. 

The short path to the jetty will also be sealed, which Cavanagh says will allow golf-cart access to the water, help with boat arrivals and make it easier to provide lakeside cocktails, sunrise yoga in summer, and private dinners.

Winter drawcard

Matakauri is currently offering a winter special of $925 plus GST per person per night twin share, including meals and matching wines. That rate is also being offered at the North Island Robertson lodges, where the special also includes a choice of golf or spa activity.

The hotels are members of the Relais & Châteaux global luxury hotel and restaurant group and have various online booking channels, although Cavanagh says the best rates are available through the Robertson Lodges website, which includes the regional specials.

Queenstown-based Brent Melville and his partner stayed at Matakauri Lodge as a guest of Robertson Lodges.