Alex van Heeren

Alex_van_Heeren_with_JeepThis book has been commissioned to celebrate the beauty, diversity and unique qualities of what for me are three of the most stunning places in the world. Huka Lodge in New Zealand, Dolphin Island in Fiji and Grande Provence in South Africa all hold a special place in my heart. They speak to me strongly through their landscape, their rich ambience and their absolute sense of place, within the countries where they so undeniably belong.

It was never my intention in life to become a hotelier but my Father’s adventurous spirit led to a very different upbringing on plantations in South East Asia, giving me a taste for travel and new experiences. During my formative years I enjoyed enormous freedom relative to my contemporaries in Europe. However, this all came to an end when I was sent back to The Netherlands to complete my education and, as my father so eloquently put it, ‘to learn to eat with a knife and fork’.

As a young man my travels took me to the far-flung reaches of the globe as I sought adventure and freedom. Eventually, I gravitated to southern Africa, started a family and founded my own business.

Political events often play a part in life-changing decisions and in the early 1980s we moved our family from a tense and troubled South Africa to a new life in New Zealand. Not so long after our arrival, while standing on a footbridge over the Huka Falls, I saw Huka Lodge for the first time. I cannot readily articulate just how the property held me in its grasp at that moment; however, it did – and still does to this day. Was it the sheer force and power of the turquoise green waters of the Waikato River on the one hand and all that tranquility and softness on the other? Perhaps it was simply the contradiction of the two.

I heard more about Huka Lodge’s legendary reputation and how it was founded in the 1920s by a charming Irishman, Alan Pye. My interest and curiosity grew and then I discovered Huka Lodge was for sale. I took a closer look and found the history and the mystique of the place to be palpable. The Guest Books revealed entries from H.R.H. The Duchess of York, Zane Grey, James A. Mitchener, Charles E. Lindbergh and many other notable people, and also some senior officers from the American Forces stationed in New Zealand during the Second World War – all sharing a passion for the magnificent trout fishing that defined the reputation of the property, along with its generous hospitality.

I purchased Huka Lodge in 1985 though what I knew about hospitality and tourism in those days was rather limited. Extensive travel proved to be my saving grace as it determined the style of property I wanted to create – one I would want to stay in myself. A retreat from the busy world, respecting the character of hospitality originally created by Alan Pye and his wife Leila – focusing on great food and wine, conviviality, relaxation and ambience.

Though there was a desperate need to bring Huka Lodge into the modern world in terms of comfort and amenities, I knew that this had to be handled delicately. A cohesive team of skillful, talented and creative people was required, who would share my passion and whose contribution would be so vital to turning ideas and dreams into reality.

Interior designer Virginia Fisher was engaged for the Huka Lodge project and her eye, her ideas and her style were just what I needed to transform Huka Lodge into the beautiful property it is today. Our collaboration has now extended over two further properties and her ongoing involvement has been a vital element in the success of The Huka Retreats and the accolades they have subsequently received.

Our creative team also includes the considerable talents of graphic designer Donna Hoyle, whose latest project has been the design of this book, and Suzanne Turley who is responsible for the magnificent gardens to be found at all The Huka Retreats’ sister properties. The grounds at Huka Lodge were recently classified as a ‘Garden of National Significance’.

Many others, too many to mention individually, have contributed so much to the creation of The Huka Retreats over the years, and I am grateful to them all for their unwavering support and loyalty.

Dolphin Island was purchased in 1984 as a perfect place for relaxing holidays with my family. The Fijian people have a warmth and genuine friendliness rarely encountered, as those of you who have been lucky enough to spend time there will well know. It is this outstanding quality found within the spirit of the people and their rich culture, combined with the remoteness, the tranquility and those clear, blue, warm waters, which have drawn me back to this place time and time again.

For guests on their way to and from Huka Lodge, Dolphin Island was a perfect stopover, so it was decided we would share its magic beyond more than just our family and friends. Dolphin Island was recently closed for an extensive renovation, reopening to welcome guests once more in 2011, and while the transformation in terms of amenities is extraordinary, it still offers what is best described as a luxury ‘castaway’ experience.

Over recent years we were drawn back to South Africa, especially when two of my children returned to the country of their childhood. I found myself spending more time there and falling back under the spell of this fascinating, beautiful, exhilarating, complex and often troubled country with its amazing spirit.

Grande Provence Estate in the heart of the Western Cape winelands was purchased in 2004. The Estate has been a working winery since 1694 when the French Huguenots settled in this beautiful, fertile valley and founded Franschhoek (French Corner). The rich and colourful heritage, the distinctive Cape Dutch architecture and the lush vineyards were the perfect framework for the style of renaissance we now knew was possible. The Huka Retreats philosophy and ethos were applied to yet another sister property and again the result exceeded expectation.

The three sister properties are very different, but all offer intimate and elegant havens for those seeking respite from the pressures of modern life. My hope is that The Huka Retreats will allow you to step away for a while, gather your thoughts, and contemplate and enjoy nature at its finest in an oasis of calm – while enjoying unrivalled hospitality.

Thanks to the rich images captured so sublimely by photographer Geoff Mason we can now share some of this with you. My dear friend, author Bryce Courtenay, has written as only he can about time spent at The Huka Retreats in his Foreword for this book. I send a deeply felt thanks to him for this generous gift.

Alex van Heeren, Hon. CVO, MBE