Headed north along State Highway 73 on New Zealand's South Island, I was having a hard time admiring the mountains without driving my rental car off the road. I had been behind the wheel of a right-hand-drive vehicle only once before, an anxiety-ridden outing on the North Island a couple of years prior, and never really got a feel for where the wheels were.
Now, winding my way up into the Southern Alps of the South Island, hurrying toward an increasingly jagged and snowcapped horizon, I was suffering through a familiar challenge: keeping the car's left wheels out of the shoulder gravel.
Although fraught with a swarm of visual distractions -- wandering streams, dense evergreen forests, golden valleys -- the drive from Christchurch up to Arthur's Pass National Park isn't a terribly long one. About 90 minutes after leaving the airport, I pulled into Grasmere Lodge, relieved to be parking my diminutive vehicle for the night.
Once spanning more than 60,000 acres, the original Grasmere homestead dates to the 1850s. It operated solely as a farm for sheep, cattle and even deer up until about 1994, when its owners decided to try their luck in the accommodations business. Home to a total of 15 high-end guestrooms, all located in a charming collection of understated buildings, Grasmere Lodge is still part of that working farm today and offers visitors a chance to soak up a little of the region's hospitality and culture.
"We often get people who are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to New Zealand," said owner Tom Butler. "So they're coming through wanting to take in the sort of scenery that maybe they've seen in the movies and also meet people who are from the area."
Nightly rates at the lodge, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection, also feature some excellent South Island cuisine, including a nightly cocktail and hors d'oeuvre session followed by a five-course dinner.
"Then, in the mornings, we do a continental or full breakfast," Butler added. "And we also include a 90-minute farm tour around the property, so that people get to actually touch some sheep and see how a farming operation works in the high country."
Depending on the season, according to Butler, the farm maintains a flock of as many as 3,000 merino sheep, raised almost exclusively for their legendary wool.
"The merino are a very hearty sheep," Butler explained. "They're able to survive the cold winter climate that we get with the snow and ice, but at the same time they're producing very, very fine wool."
Along with great food and an introduction to Kiwi sheep farming, Grasmere offers guests a wide variety of outdoor activities, including on-property horseback riding, fabulous trout fishing and kayaking in a range of nearby rivers and lakes, clay pigeon shooting and trail hiking in neighboring Arthur's Pass National Park and Craigieburn Forest Park.
"That's probably the most popular thing for people to do while they're here," Butler said, adding that highly popular guided treks should be arranged with the lodge a couple of months ahead. "We've really got hundreds of kilometers of hiking suitable for just about any ability level.
"We also have a spa, so if people push it a bit too hard on the hiking, they can come in and have a nice deep-tissue massage."
Given the lodge's dazzling alpine backdrop, finding a comfortable spot to simply enjoy the property's phenomenal vistas is another must.
"Grasmere Lodge is one of my favorite places in the world," said Ian Swain, owner of Ardmore, Pa.-based Swain Tours. "Its location in the high country of the South Island is superb, and the views are just wonderful. We've never had a client not like it."
High season runs from October to April at the lodge, when room rates begin at about $485 a night. Visit www.grasmere.co.nz.