Huka Lodge, New Zealand -- a rustic kind of elegance

Nestled among the Kanuka, spruce, and poplars on 17 acres of land stretched two miles along the Waikato River in New Zealand's north island (near Lake Taupo) is Huka Lodge, the history of which dates back to early New Zealand.

Zane Grey wrote novels from the cottage he had built there. James Michener describes Huka in "Return to Paradise." Charles Lindbergh occasionally flew in. Gen. Douglas MacArthur used it for "r&r" -- rest and recreation. Such visitors helped to establish Huka's reputation as a one-of-a- kind resort. Today, the lodge still bears the stamp of charm, elegance, and quality, yet it is affordable by the not-so- famous.

I'm not so sure I can really answer why there isn't another place in New Zealand like Huka Lodge," pondered the owner Harland Harland-Baker, stroking his salt-and-pepper beard.

"It's a combination of the right people with the right motives at the right time." He was referring to the Irish immigrant Alan Pye, who founded the lodge at the turn of the century. When he died, he was one of the last autocratic- types of his era, Mr. Harland-Baker said.

Huka Lodge remained in a state of shambles with rundown buildings and unkempt grounds for 15 years before Mr. Harland-Baker bought the property. Able to acquire only a second-option on the estate, he anxiously waited for five years until the first holders dropped out.An American airlines company had hoped to build a major resort complex on the property, but the New Zealand government mixed the plans, paving the way for a "smaller company" to take over.

With brother Charles, their parents, and their wives, the Harland-Bakers set up a family business and reopened Huka in 1973. "We completely restored the place to what it was like in the old days, similar to a traditional Scottish fishing lodge," Mr. Harland-Baker explained. His younger brother, a building contractor from Wellington, supervised the restoration process. Photos of the old Huka, which means "foaming waters" in Maori, adorn the walls in the dining room above the fireplace.

"I conceived the lodge as an extension of our own life style and developed it as a concept with the optimism that the place would pay for itself," explained Mr. Harland-Baker, who used to publish a culture and arts magazine before turning hotelier. His investment ($100,000 plus) has paid off. During the last three years the lodge has doubled its cash flow and has become a viable income property, according to Harland. Recently golfer Jack Nicklaus and his entourage rented the entire place for one week before playing in the Australia Open.

Huka Lodge accommodates 18 persons in its rustic-yet- cozy cottage rooms. The subtle roar of the river flowing is soothing. The carefully kept grounds, clean air, and quietness attribute to a comfortable and memorable setting. The grass volleyball court and picnic table and benches are reminiscent of some neighbor's backyard at home. A natural hot springs mineral pool is nearly repaired. Double occupancy rooms are $57 with private bath, suites, of which there are two, are $87. The Zane Grey cottage is being remodeled into suites. Included in the tariff are breakfast and dinner.

But a Huka Lodge meal is more than just eating, it is an epicurean ritual. Awarded recognition by the New Zealand Government Tourist Bureau for its culinary excellence as well as for the lodge's restoration design, Huka specializes in wild game dinners and country morning feasts. Both are patronized by nearby residents as well as by overseas visitors not staying at the lodge.

A typical five-course dinner offers a soup -- it might be venison or rabbit broth -- choice of fresh oysters, clam or vegetable omelette, roast wild boar, venison, pheasant or duck, served with garden fresh vegetables, rice or potato, topped with home-baked desserts. For the person "not so game," beef, lamb, poultry may be substituted. Dinners are casual, slow-paced, and conversational, a crackling fire resounds during pauses as the candles flicker.

Breakfasts, served from any hour until 10:30 a.m. are cooked to order at the kitchen counter by either Charles or Harland, attired in their chef's outfits. Homemade breads and jams, wild honey, juices, preserved fruits complement porridge, eggs, venison steaks, bacon, ham, or sausage with a selection of beverages. Separate breakfasts cost $6, dinners $18.

"We like to think that Huka is a home away from home," said Charles Harland-Baker, who shares the hosting and serving duties three days of the week when his wife, Diane, cooks. The other three days Harland and his wife, Diana, take over. "Working together in the lodge has brought the family closer together," says Charles.

Neither Charles or Harland or their wives have had past experience in the tourist business though they themselves have traveled extensively through New Zealand and other parts of the world. "I think that not being in the business all our lives is an advantage because we have a fresh perspective of what might be novel and interesting to an overseas visitor while vacationing in New Zealand ," Charles reflected. He thinks that three to four weeks would give a visitor a respectable time to "feel" what New Zealand and New Zealanders are all about.

Huka Lodge does not try to cater to everybody. "We have skillfully weeded out the type of person we feel would not appreciate our special place here," Harland Harland-Baker said without snobbery. "Our philosophy is to direct a certain market to our lodge who we ourselves would like to have over in our own home, which Huka in essence is," he explained.

In Alan Pye's day the market was the idle rich. "But today, we are attracting a new breed and a larger group, otherwise we could not survive," Harland Harland-Baker confessed. "We don't want just the jet set, but the fringe of the jet set, too." Average length of stay is four or five days.

The lodge is close to tennis and golf and boating and swimming on Lake Taupo. Accessible from Auckland (A 3-hour drive) and from Wellington (1 1/2 hours by air), Huka Lodge is an atypical tourist spot and a worthwhile New Zealand experience, thinks Harland Harland-Baker, a fifth generation native-son. "It is not the Huka Hilton and never will be," he said.

For more information contact: Huka Lodge, Huka Falls Road, Wairakei, Lake Taupo, New Zealand; write: PO Box 95, Taupo, NEw Zealand; telephone 85-791. (American Express cards taken just this year.)

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