We couldn’t believe our luck as we drove in towards the backbone of the Southern Alps along the access road to Aoraki Mt Cook, catching ever-enlarging glimpses of the mighty Cloud Piercer, New Zealand’s tallest mountain. At Pete’s Lookout, 20-odd kilometres from the road-end, we joined a chorus of campervans and tourist buses stopped in the gravel car park, their occupants out snapping countless pics of the snow-clad mountains framing Lake Pukaki’s brilliant blue headwaters.
As we wound slowly higher, past Glentanner Station and its attendant outdoor activities centre, the mountains became larger and began to creep around behind us, enfolding us in their icy claws. Shadows lengthened and the gullys and ravines high above took on a dark foreboding presence. I could almost picture Gandalf riding out of the distance on his white horse, across the stony riverbed feeding into Lake Pukaki – you get the picture.
One more corner, and there it was. More cars stopped beside the road – long lenses propped on car doors and big rocks, trained onto the proud form of the mountain before us. Its jagged outline carved into the blue sky behind, the shiny white snow drawing a stark contrast to the vertical black rock it clung to. Many photo-stops later we crawled up to the Hermitage, completely photographed out, having only just arrived at our destination.
The Hermitage is a very handsome building built to take full advantage of its world-class alpine setting. As the porter unloaded the car we commented on the fine view of Aoraki Mt Cook we had photographed all the way up the final miles. “That’s not Mt Cook”, he said, “that is!” and pointed to an even more impressive mountain slightly around the corner from where we were looking. “You’ve been looking at Mt Sefton.” Slightly mortified, we thanked him, wandered through the impressive number of tour-bus passengers checking in at the group counter, and rode the elevator to our room.
Now, one of the perks of this job is that we get to stay in some rather nice places. But nothing had prepared me for this one. Outside the huge picture window, which takes up all of one wall, Aoraki Mt Cook, Mt Sefton and several other equally impressive mountains completely filled the view. We sat there for hours, drinking most of the complimentary hot and cold drinks provided, watching the mountains change from bright white to silver, to orange, then pink to grey, before finally disappearing into the soft alpine gloom of a summer evening.
We felt we had definitely already had our money’s worth and we hadn’t yet left our room. And at this point we didn’t know that waking in the morning, curtains wide open, we would see a complete re-run in reverse as the rising sun hit the soft, pearly peaks at six o’clock. We were in a Premium Plus room but other less ambitious budgets are equally catered for as the Hermitage has a selection of rooms, chalets and family units – most with mountain views, others with garden views – and the restaurants and bars all have great views as well.
A stay at the Hermitage will be governed to a degree by the weather. Some days the cloud stays firmly on the ground, others the sun shines all day. In winter it can snow in considerable volumes, which adds another fantastic dimension to the trip. There are a number of excellent day-walks that take in the terminal lakes of two glaciers, alpine plants and flowers, unbelievable views and some serious mountain terrain. These walks range from ten minutes return to several days. There are scenic flights – both fixed wing and helicopter – and in winter there’s heli-skiing on the higher snowfields. Add in the nearby lake and river fishing and you’ve pretty well filled several days.
And if the weather is bad you can fill your time without leaving the hotel, enjoying all those bars and restaurants with their huge picture windows.
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(C) by Sue Farley