Wildlife Watching at New Zealand’s Tree Tops Lodge

Wildlife Watching at New Zealand’s Tree Tops Lodge
The Olive House is part of Hapuku Lodge, located in Kaikoura, about halfway between Picton and Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. The size of an apartment and outfitted like one, with a full kitchen and a living room big enough for a wedding reception, the Olive House is the largest of the lodge’s “Tree House” suites.

Native woods and copper shingles suit the landscape well, and along with the buildings themselves, the hand-crafted furniture was designed by the owners – the Wilsons, a family of several generations of well-know architects. A quick tour revealed a double spa tub on a low platform in a window-enclosed corner of the huge bedroom.

We made note of that for later, but we had a date with a whale. Several of them, actually, and some seals and a pod of dolphins. We had added Kaikoura to our New Zealand itinerary because it’s the Serengeti of sea life, with seal colonies all along the shore, a sea full of dolphin pods, Great Sperm Whales and large colonies of Northern Royal Albatross (whose wing-span is about 10-feet) and the even larger Giant Albatross.

We started our wildlife watch close to the lodge, with an hour of delighting in the antics of a dozen seal pups playing in a high tidal pool.

Kaikoura offers a variety of ways to get good sightings or up-close experiences with the sea life, and we chose the best way to see the whales, from above, with Wings Over Whales. Sightings are almost certain because the planes can move quickly to circle a whale that’s surfacing for breath, and the perspective is the only way to see the whole whale, since they lie just at the surface of the water.

After watching several whales, we went dolphin hunting, and were astonished at the almost endless numbers of them we could see from the air. It doesn’t replace the experience of having these engaging creatures “playing” with a boat, but it gives a different view of their numbers, how they swim in formation and how pods interact. We finished off with New Zealand’s most popular half-day hike, around the Kaikouru Peninsula for more seal watching, all experiences suggested (or, in the case of Wings Over Whales, arranged) by our host at Hapuku Lodge.

Of course being close to all this seawater made us think of seafood, so we returned the lodge in time to relax before a leisurely dinner. The manuka trees’ thick foliage screened our windows from the ground, so we opened the bottle of wine we’d bought at Sileni vineyards on North Island and watched birds in the treetops at eye level, from our tub of swirling water.

While only the Tree Houses have spa tubs, all rooms (there are six more in the main lodge, in addition to the other Tree Houses) have many of the luxuries we found on exploring our own -- custom designed furniture, heated floors and towel rails in the bathrooms, rain fountain showerheads, DVD/CD players, complimentary wireless internet, coffee and tea makers, and pre-loaded I-POD sound systems.

One of Hapuku Lodge’s many attractions is its dining room, emphasizing local ingredients – seafood fresh from the boats and produce following the seasons at a local organic farm. We ordered two local specialties: venison and grilled crayfish – koura in Maori language, accounting for the town’s name, which translates to “crayfish place”.

After the four-course dinner we walked back to our lofty suite under a sky lit by 80% more stars than are visible from the northern hemisphere, and poured out the last two glasses of the bottle of Sileni Pinot Noir we’d begun as sundowners. We could grow used to this Kiwi lifestyle

If You Go
Air Tahiti Nui flies to Auckland, NZ, from New York, via Tahiti (ask about a free stopover).

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