Guests enjoy unspoiled wilderness at Treetops Lodge

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Room Key: Treetops Luxury Lodge & Estate

Address: 351 Kearoa Road, Rd1, Horohoro/Rotorua, New Zealand

Phone: (011) 64-7 333-2066

Fax: (011) 64-7 333-2065

E-mail:[email protected]

Web:www.treetops.co.nz

General Manager: Heiko Kaiser

Accommodations: Twelve villas plus a four-bed, four-bath family wing.

Rates: Family wing: June to August, $307 per person, per night; September to May, $512. Private villas: June to August, from $373; September to May, from $610. Rates include breakfast, cocktails, dinner and selected activities.

Commission: From 10%

Review: Part ecolodge, luxury hotel, and family adventure camp, Treetops immerses guests in New Zealand, especially native Maori, culture, cuisine, history, geography, flora and fauna. Accommodations are sophisticated and luxurious while ecofriendly. With just 12 villas spread over 25,000 rain forest acres, guests feel like they have the entire wilderness to themselves.

As the gravel road winds and twists its way through the lush New Zealand forest, a handwritten sign assures visitors they are on the correct path. Keep going, it reads. A mile or so later, theres another. Nearly there, this one promises. And when it seems that it surely cant be the right way, theres one more sign: Just a bit farther.

But wait, was that a hobbit poking its head above the silver fern? Nope, it was just a possum, one of millions of the silky-haired, brush-tailed marsupials in New Zealand. But the cheerful signs, the bumpy road, the dense bush -- and the shadows of a fleeing possum -- are the perfect introduction to Treetops Luxury Lodge & Estate, a laid-back resort with abundant wildlife and endless open space.

Treetops, an adventure camp and ecolodge near Rotorua on New Zealands North Island, traces its genesis to the 1980s, when real-estate developer and New Zealand native John Sax purchased four adjoining parcels of forest to preserve them.

I find it hard not to be humble when I gaze into the canopy of a 800-year-old forest giant, and I wonder about the generations that have come and gone since that little seed sprang into life, Sax said.

On land that had been deforested, he planted 175,000 native trees and bush to provide a year-round habitat and food for protected species such as the kereru, a native wood pigeon, and the New Zealand fern bird. He created four lakes for wading birds and ducks. And when the groundwork had been laid and the forest restored, he built Treetops.

Horses, not machines, were used to clear a spot in the bush, and buildings were constructed from stone and naturally felled trees found on the property. The main lodge is angled over a trout stream so as not to divert the waters flow. Guests cross a timber bridge to reach the lodges foyer.

With just 12 villas spread out over 25,000 acres, guests feel like they have the wilderness to themselves.

Each villa is like a private home, with a fireplace, in-room spa tub, separate living room and bedroom, a view from every window and a grassy backyard overlooking forested hills and dales.

The main lodge, with its twig chandeliers, Maori carvings and stone floors, is comfortable and cozy. Theres a game room, library, communal dining room and kitchen.

Were as eco as we can be, said lodge manager Heiko Kaiser, as he caught a black fly in midair with his bare hands and released it outdoors.

A stay at Treetops calls for plenty of time exploring the bush. All one has to do is step outside to hear elk bellow and wild birds shriek and sing, while peacocks and pheasants prance about. Even a walk to the main lodge requires a hike through the rain forest (or a three-minute ride on a golf cart).

Its as pure, pristine and wild as anyone could want New Zealand to be, and as luxurious and sophisticated, too.

Guests become immersed in local culture, cuisine, history, geography, flora and fauna, with activities such as guided hikes, bird-watching and four-wheel-drive safaris. Theres opportunities to spot elk, deer, water buffalo and wild pigs. Maori crafts- people and artisans visit the lodge to demonstrate weaving and woodcarving.

For an extra charge, the lodge will arrange horseback riding through the rain forest (from $94), helicopter excursions (from $628), lake cruises (from $4,295 for three hours), trout fishing (from $410) or a visit to Kiwi Encounters ($16), where participants meet kiwi chicks and learn how to help the flightless birds, which are threatened with extinction.

Guests may also participate in a tasting and wine-paired dinner ($58) hosted by vintners from nearby wineries.

Eat like a Maori

The Maori Indigenous Food Trail is the lodges most interesting offering. Guests take a walk through the rain forest with Charles Royal, an ecologist, chef and native Maori who sports holes in his earlobes as big as quarters, tattoos covering much of his body and a fist-size tiki pendant dangling from a chain around his neck. (Thats nothing, he said: His grandfather wore a dead bird behind his ear.)

Royal teaches guests to locate and harvest plants and herbs that the Maori have used for food and medicine since they migrated from Polynesia a millennium ago. Then he sets up camp under the towering Bridal Veil waterfall and fries up grubs (yes, the maggot-looking, crawly things), which he said are protein-packed and taste like peanut butter.

If guests request it, Royal can assist the Treetops chef in preparing a multicourse meal incorporating native plants such as horopito, a chili pepper; pikopiko, a fern; kumara, a type of sweet potato; and fried kawakawa leaves, from the tree of the same name. The price for the package is $115 per hour, including food and wine.

We want guests at Treetops to enjoy a distinctive New Zealand experience and not something they can get anywhere else, Sax said.

Treetops allows guests to experience what is all too rare in modern life, the joy of simply experiencing ones senses. The cycles and dynamics of natural life help put things into perspective.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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