Dempsey & Carroll’s Austin Ackles sat down with ex-pats Hall Cannon and Miles Refo to talk about life in New Zealand and their wonderful resort, Otahuna Lodge.
AA: The lodge was built more than a century ago and not long after Christchurch was founded. Who was its first resident and what are the origins of the Otahuna name?
HM: Otahuna’s first residents were Sir Heaton and Jessie Rhodes. Having just married his bride, Heaton set out to build New Zealand’s largest private residence for his young wife as a rather extravagant wedding present. Heaton would go on to live at Otahuna (which means “little hill”) for more than 60 years during which time he would be knighted no fewer than four times and come to be recognized as the “grandfather” of modern New Zealand politics. It was a pretty amazing life!
AA: Was Otahuna always a working farm?
HM: Essentially, yes. During Heaton and Jessie’s time the property comprised more that 5000 acres and was utilized as a sheep and cattle station. (A New Zealand station is the equivalent of a US ranch.) However, after Heaton’s death in 1956 the property became a teaching seminary of the Christian Brothers and then in 1972 was converted into a commune. Following the commune days, the house was used a private home for several families before we opened it as a Lodge in 2007. Today, we utilize the grounds to grow some 120 different varieties of fruits, nuts and vegetables and raise our own sheep, chickens and pigs. For us, the concept of farm-to-table isn’t new or faddish but is instead just a modern interpretation of how the property was originally conceived.
AA: The lodge is grand and has just a handful of exquisite suites. Do you ever get the urge to expand or do you enjoy the intimacy too much to even consider the idea?
HM: We love our size at Otahuna. Part of what makes the property so special is the ability for guests to stay in a living, breathing piece of New Zealand history and experience a unique level of personal interaction with our fantastic team. But, make no mistake, the house is no museum. Rather, we just have the opportunity to be a part of some 120 years of stories. And, while we may be small with only seven guest suites, there is a lot in the works for the Lodge including our launch later this year by Random House of our first book, For the Love of a Place: The Stories and Cuisine of Otahuna.
AA: There are endless wonderful experiences to be had in the area including fly-fishing, exploring the Southern Alps, horseback riding, and swimming among the world’s least common and smallest dolphins. What was the most unusual experience a guest has requested and what were some challenges in the process of fulfilling that wish?
HM: Almost every day we curate interesting, “out-of-the box” experiences for guests. A particular recent stand-out was creating an “ice bar” for guests at 10,000 feet! The bar, set high on a glacier, in the Southern Alps was carved from glacial ice and served as the perfect spot to chill a bottle or two of champagne for a special group. Reachable only via helicopter, we had to keep a close watch on weather conditions, but we pulled it off for some very surprised guests and the experience was truly an ultimate, “only at Otahuna” day!
AA: Are there certain experiences that you find guests requesting over and over?
HM: Sure. We’ll see nearly every day a request for a guided tour of our historic botanic and productive gardens with Head Gardener Steve Marcham including a prerequisite visit to “Oink-a-huna,”our pig pen featuring our rather adorable Devon Black piglets. Also, there is no better way to understand the connection between our gardens and our acclaimed kitchens than to enjoy a cooking lesson with Executive Chef Jimmy McIntyre and, of course, a sneak peek of our Wine Cellar in what was originally the property’s Game House.
AA: Lastly, please tell us what you miss most about New York City?
HM: Honestly, what we miss most is Mexican food! In fact, we now grow chilies and peppers here in our gardens so that we have access to the necessary ingredients to make a perfect enchilada or tamale “down under” and right here at Otahuna…