Arriving at the Alpine Helicopters hanger in Queenstown, I was full of anticipation for our three days at Minaret Station. I’d read about this property and have always had an inkling to go. Now three nights for the price of two, thanks to Covid, we are on our way. This much talked about Minaret luxury lodge, set in a glacial valley in the Southern Alps, is seriously remote. We had to chopper over some of New Zealand’s most inaccessible, jagged terrain to get there.
The well-known Wallis family are at the heart of this working farm. They are acknowledged in the Central Otago community for their contribution to aviation, farming, deer exporting and tourism. Sir Tim Wallis was one of the great deer farming pioneers. As a young man, his love of the land, aviation and adventure lured him into the helicopter business. He pioneered live deer capture from helicopters which lead to a significant industry in New Zealand. His nick-name, ‘Hurricane Tim,’ was well-earned for his daring flying and would not be approved by OSHA today!
As the helicopter fleet grew to support the commercial and agriculture arm of the family business, they decided to diversify into tourism. They started offering scenic flights and heli-skiing in the South Island in the 1980s. Then, in 2010 they opening the doors to the Minaret Alpine Lodge. The family wanted to share the beauty of the 50,000-acre working farm, home to some 12,000 deer, 1,300 cattle, and 1,000 sheep.
As the blades began to spin, we gently lifted off and headed east over Cardrona towards Wanaka. The scenery was magnificent as we soared over the jagged terrain, out over Lake Wanaka before heading up a picturesque glacial valley to our destination. Landing on the helipad at Minaret Station, our delightful hosts Anna and Maggie and chef Ivan greeted us.
The alpine terrain is barren with grasses blowing in the breeze and a pristine river meandering along the valley floor. Four chalets dotted on the undulating land, all face in different directions to provide privacy for the guests of this exclusive lodge. The outdoor spaces included a freshwater hot tub, a brazier overlooking the river, a generous sitting room, bathroom and sumptuous king bed.
Above the chalets, the warm and luxurious lodge provided a communal space to eat, drink and socialise. We sat at the butler’s counter with a glass of wine, warmed by the roaring fire, chatting to Ivan as he prepared our dinner. Ivan told us the lamb, venison, and beef came from the farm, and Stewart Island fisheries provided the seafood for tonight’s meal.
Up early the following day, I was finishing the last mouthful of my crayfish omelette when we heard the chopper coming up the valley. Alpine Helicopters, the transport arm of Minaret Station, have expanded their helicopter tourism portfolio and now include a West Coast Adventure, we were about to experience.
We had loosely discussed the itinerary with Spinner, our pilot, and Doug, our guide, before taking off on a bluebird day. Our first stop was at the top of the Sutherland Falls, the tallest falls in New Zealand. High in the mountains, we admired the alpine flora and fauna and marvelled at the reflection in the lake. Then, onto Milford Sound for a bushwalk and to see Mitre Peak in all its glory.
High in the sky again, over Mt Aspiring National Park, we landed on Mount Tutoko. Stepping out of the helicopter onto the glacier, the snow and ice crunched underfoot as we avoided the cracks from the late summer melt.
Heading to the West Coast with slightly rumbling stomachs, we reached Martin’s Bay and flew up the coast to Big Bay. Circling in the air, we spied the orange buoys, identifying the crayfish pots in the ocean. The lunchtime secret was out. Spinner dropped us off on the beach and returned to retrieve the pots. With a grapple and rope attached to the helicopter, he leant out the door, as he tried to hook the pot. His third attempt was successful, delivering the crayfish to the beach. We sorted through the basket of seething crustaceans, discarding the smaller ones back into the ocean. The large crayfish were also returned as they are regarded as ‘breeding stock’.
Back in the air, with our lunch on board, we headed high above the coast, landing in a small, idyllic clearing, elevated enough to ensure it was sandfly free. Doug and Spinner got to work setting up for lunch with a table and chairs, chilled wine and unveiled a grazing board of nibbles. Behind the scenes, the gas cooker was firing, and the crayfish tails and lamb backstraps were cooking. A more delectable feast in a more sublime setting would be hard to find.
Before we knew it, we were back at the lodge with a glass of wine in hand as we tried to recreate our flight path on large wall map. We all agreed was the day was one of the most memorable of our lives. We felt privileged to have been able to have experienced the ruggedness and remoteness of some of New Zealand most beautiful landscapes.