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Oh, live a little

Your genteel country estate awaits. Drinks? Canapes? Roaring fires? Of course.

October 13, 2013|Amanda Jones

TAI TAPU, NEW ZEALAND — Can you imagine a scene in which you turn into the oak-shaded driveway of a grand country estate, pull up outside the manor house and are greeted by a row of staff standing at attention? The car door is opened, bags and vehicle are whisked off by capable hands and the head steward asks, "Madam, may I draw you a bath?"

Of course you can, especially if you're a "Downton Abbey" devotee like me. You may not get blue-eyed Matthew fawning over you or have a lady's maid to up-do your hair, but a stay at New Zealand's five-star Otahuna Lodge will give you a tantalizing taste of landed gentry living.

In March, I traveled to New Zealand's South Island with my mother, whose quick wit and sarcasm resemble that of Violet Crawley, the dowager countess of Grantham. We spent three glorious nights at Otahuna having our baths drawn, being served tea and cake on the porch, swimming in a pool fit for an Evelyn Waugh novel and sipping Champagne promptly at 7 p.m. We also got to say things to the steward such as, "I'm off to dress, Ben. I'll be down for cocktails in time."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 17, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Otahuna Lodge: In the Oct. 13 Travel section, an article about Otahuna Lodge in New Zealand said that the Prince of Wales left behind a piano when he visited in 1920. The Duke of York, later King George VI, stayed at Otahuna in 1927 and left the piano.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 20, 2013 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Travel Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
New Zealand: An Oct. 13 article on Otahuna Lodge in New Zealand said that the Prince of Wales left behind a piano when he visited in 1920. The Duke of York, later King George VI, stayed at Otahuna in 1927 and left the piano.

Although Otahuna is 120 years old -- a figure at which Lord Grantham would sniff -- it is one of New Zealand's oldest grand homes, built by the son of one of the country's earliest white settlers. In 1895, Heaton Rhodes, a distinguished lawyer and politician, built his home in Tai Tapu, a small farming village in what is now a 30-minute drive outside of Christchurch on the South Island. Otahuna, meaning "little hill among the hills" in the native Maori language, was designed in the Queen Anne style, with pretty, mildly eccentric, meandering architecture, high ceilings and walls of the country's rich native timbers.

In 2005, Hall Cannon and Miles Refo, New Yorkers who were seeking a change of pace, were exploring the world looking for their next abode when they came across Otahuna. They'd fallen for the "grand and extraordinary beauty of New Zealand" and its "almost weirdly honest and easygoing people," as Cannon described them, and the two decided to purchase the house, which had been languishing as a mid-range hotel. "The historic gardens were hopelessly overgrown, I mean lost completely in some cases," Refo said. "It was a crying shame. Not much had bloomed since the 1950s."

The two -- Cannon's background is in Manhattan loft development and Refo's in marketing -- had never considered hospitality, but the house "was crying out to be reawakened, brought back to its former glory and shared," Cannon said. They hired a local architect and remade the house into something fit for haute luxury. After a thumbs-up from Relais & Chateaux, an organization that sets standards for small luxury hotels, they opened the genteel doors in 2007, then closed them again after the devastating 2011 earthquake damaged several of the six chimneys. Repairs and upgrades were made, and the hotel reopened in 2012.

Now there are seven lavish suites, all with roaring fireplaces and paneled or wallpapered walls hung with original artwork. The dining room has been restored to its late 19th century glory, with the original European gilt wallpaper intact and a long table set with silver for elegant, amusing dinners with Cannon and Refo.

We spent an inordinate amount of time at this table eating what I consider the finest food in New Zealand, and I, a Kiwi, have tasted much of it. One of the most celebrated aspects of Otahuna is its chef, Jimmy McIntyre. McIntyre, who had traveled the world cooking in top-notch kitchens, missed home and returned to South Island, finding his way to the fertile, serene Otahuna Lodge.

Each night guests are served hors d'oeuvres in the living room beside a piano said to have been left by the Prince of Wales (who became King George VI, of "The King's Speech" repute) when he visited in 1920. Following, we are escorted to the candle-emblazoned dining table and served a five-course degustation meal.

The menu is seasonal and farm-to-fork. Almost all vegetables are grown from heritage seeds on the property. McIntyre also cures his own prosciutto, makes his own sausage, raises hens for eggs and grows exotic mushrooms. Guests can wander the garden picking produce for the nightly gourmet extravaganza.

The once 5,000-acre estate now sits on a manageable 30 acres of reinvigorated formal hedgerow gardens, vegetable rows, an extensive potager, historic daffodil fields, native New Zealand trees, orchards and several outbuildings, including the old stable, the cheese house (now a gym), the game cellar (a wine cellar) and the mushroom house.

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