The Wanaka area, on South Island, typifies the awesome scenery that drew me to New Zealand in the first place – towering mountains, lush green valleys, native bush, forests and meandering rivers. It is as untouched as it is dramatic. Here, you will find the ecolodge Mahu Whenua (meaning ‘healing the land’ in Māori), set in some 550sq km of private land made up of four high-country sheep stations – Motatapu, Mt Soho, Glencoe and Coronet Peak – and stretching from Glendhu Bay in Wanaka to Arrowtown in Queenstown.
In the last few moments of the drive up to the lodge, I had goosebumps observing the staggering position of Mahu Whenua, which has panoramic views of the mountainscape beyond. As the charming manager told us on arrival, the land has a long history. It is located on the Motatapu River, which was named Mota Tapu (meaning ‘sacred river’) by the early Māori who used the Motatapu Valley as an access route from Lake Wanaka to Lake Wakatipu for food gathering and the movement of pounamu ( or ‘greenstone’). Early European explorers didn’t find their way here until the Gold Rush of 1862, when thousands of miners forged up the valley and scoured every river in search of gold. Today, you can see remnants of the old gold-mining huts.
The unpretentious entrance to the homestead is emboldened with the words ‘sweet az’ carved into the wood, which roughly translates as Kiwi for hakuna matata or ‘no worries’, and this laid-back approach is at the heart of the hotel. It is utterly relaxing being at Mahu Whenua – the team looking after the guests have a ‘make yourself at home’ attitude where nothing is too much.
The interiors are rustic, using locally sourced materials and the feeling is very homely and comfortable, akin to a country estate, which is perhaps not surprising when one considers that, until recently, it was a private home.
This is also an amazing place to enjoy some exceptional food and wine, as we learnt in the precious day we spent there. The ingredients are locally sourced and the results were delicious. Drinks in the evening are served communally in the sitting room, but then individual tables are set up in different rooms of the main lodge, so there is the chance for some conversation with fellow guests but also time for privacy.
There is a swimming pool in the garden, but it is the pull of the outdoors that draws most people here. There are stables on site and the horse riding here is a must for riders, as are the hiking trails, yoga, conservation experiences, jet-boating and scenic heli trips to take in the stunning alpine vistas at each turn. Our favourite hike here follows a stunning trail through the mountains high above Lake Wanaka. Along the way, your guide will introduce you to local flora and fauna, and we will arrange a superb picnic lunch for you to enjoy in a scenic spot.
There is so much to enjoy at Mahu Whenua, but for me, it is its story that makes a stay here so special. Since buying the property in 2005, the owner’s vision has been to regenerate the land on the sheep stations, following many years of extensive high-country farming. In addition to introducing sustainable agriculture practices, he has started an impressive plant regeneration and native bird breeding programme, which has been a huge success. To ensure that these fantastic projects continue, more than 90% of the land is protected by the QEII National Trust, making it the biggest conservation effort on private land in New Zealand’s history.
Mahu Whenua is undoubtedly one of our favourite retreats in New Zealand. It is a wonderful place to spend at least three nights and, being just a 10-minute helicopter flight from Queenstown and 25-minute drive from Wanaka town, combines well with Queenstown and the Fiordlands. We would highly recommend it to any of our clients who would like to make the most of all the walking and horse-riding opportunities in this region while staying at one of the country’s most spectacular boutique lodges.