I pull back the blinds of my window and watch the theatre outside. Endless tussocky grasslands look like sheets of beaten gold. The Southern Alps have their heads in the clouds; the mountains are all so close that if I ran a little, I’d touch their blue-green surface dusted with snow. I am looking for one in particular, that which Maoris reverently call the “cloud piercer”—Aoraki, or Mount Cook, Australasia’s tallest peak at 12,315 feet.
I wait for the cloud cover to clear, for a dramatic maiden glimpse that no filter would do justice to. But it doesn’t come, so I turn to my immediate surroundings. My room at The Hermitage Hotel is spacious and minimalist—a king-size bed, pastel walls, the works—so my eye always gravitates to the panoramic window. The hotel lies in the 700-square-kilometre wilderness that is Mount Cook National Park, part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site of milky glaciers and icy peaks. From most rooms at this South Island hotel, guests have front row seats to a landscape sculpted millennia ago. The hotel sits in what was the playground of Sir Edmund Hillary as he trained for his Everest and Antarctic expeditions.
Living at the Hermitage is deeply tied to experiencing the Mount Cook region, and Hillary’s life is celebrated inside the hotel as much as climbers invoke him outside. Hermitage is the home of Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, a museum largely dedicated to the pioneer’s mountaineering exploits, and also showcases the history of the Aoraki/Mount Cook region and its climbers. I can’t help but smile when I read how in 1906 the first car to ever make it to the Hermitage took two days to drive 150 kilometres, dodging boulders and fording rivers. I learn that the first Hermitage was built close to the current structure in 1884 and was destroyed by a flood; the second building was ravaged by fire in 1957. Inside the museum is also a planetarium that screens 3D films on Mount Cook daily.
The statue of Sir Edmund Hillary at the hotel is an ode to his exploits in the region. Photo Courtesy: The Hermitage Hotel
For lunch, I head to the mezzanine floor, to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Café. In addition to steak sandwiches, salads, and stone-oven pizzas, it serves delicious buffet lunch and dinner. In spite of the winter chill, most of us patrons grab seats under bright blue umbrellas set up in the café’s open deck, and watch the looming mountains. Mount Cook is still invisible, so I turn my attention to another mountain that has snow curiously arranged in the shape of a handheld fan. Travellers drive from across South Island only to lunch at the hotel, for this view. But I’d find it impossible to tear myself away, knowing that I can take multiple walks that will trans-port me to thick-as-friendship bushes and subalpine grasslands.
The lure of catching a magical sunset amid the valleys is so potent that I soon bundle up in layers, strap my boots and raincoat on, and step out in the heavy drizzle. Mount Cook is notorious for its fickle-minded weather, but then I look at the statue of a young dapper Hillary outside the Hermitage, gazing at the peak with squinted eyes and a loving look. Who says “no” to anything in Mount Cook?
A wintry view of the Hermitage Hotel. Photo Courtesy: the Hermitage Hotel
Right outside the Hermitage I follow the sign to the two-hour Kea Point Track, and soon find myself in the middle of those golden grasslands I had admired from my window. But in minutes I am smacked and shoved so strongly by the wind that a passer-by could think I were swaying drunk. It roars in my ears with ominous ferocity. The thing about being in Mount Cook is that such primeval beauty also brings with it a sense of dread of the unknown. Wiping the rain from my face and knowing Hillary would have never approved, I retrace my steps. I walk back to the village instead, with its tiny sloped-roof homes, a population of 150, little motels, and a high school where only 10 students study. I cross little creaky bridges and walk deeper into the Governors Bush Walk that takes me into a silver beech forest. I barely meet another soul that evening, and when the sun casts purple shadows over the mighty bluffs, I walk back to the Hermitage in the quietness of twilight.
Back in the hotel, I bump into Janet Wang, who sells parkas in the hotel shop by day and is an astronomy geek by night. She and her colleague Marissa pack 30 of us in a bus and take us to a clearing amid the mountains with not a pinprick of light in sight, and three giant telescopes pointed at the skies. The South Island’s skies are recognised as an International Dark Sky Reserve, which makes this ground one of the best stargazing spots on Earth. The streak of the Milky Way looks like a portal to another world, and the stars look as if someone splashed gallons of glitter in the skies. Stunned, I peer at Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons, learn that I’m named after a constellation, and that zodiacs turn upside down in the Southern Hemisphere sky. I spot a shooting star and don’t think twice about making two corny wishes—it’s that kind of night where anything is possible. “These stars are thousands of years old. So in essence, we are looking at the past,” breathes Marissa.
Whatever clout shooting stars have in universe, it worked: I wake up to Mount Cook at my window the morning after. It looks carved from the finest marble, so white that it glistens. It is time, I tell myself, to tramp the legendary Hooker Valley Track, that will take me to the very base of the mountain.
The Hermitage Hotel offers easy access to the best day-walk of Mount Cook National Park, The Hooker Valley Track. Its wobbly bridges and icy peaks charm even seasoned hikers. Photo Courtesy: The Hermitage Hotel
I don’t have to dangle over rocky chasms or follow in Hillary’s footsteps to witness the power of this national park. Beyond the tussocky spread, I watch the Mueller glacial lake that blinks like brilliant blue zircon. I gingerly cross the first of three swing bridges, my ears flooded with the cry of the Hooker River below me. Anywhere else and I would have been surprised to see a barely-four-year-old boy tramping this four-hour track with his mother, but not here. I rarely bump into people and when I do, it is usually lovers stopping to kiss at wonky bridges, a couple having their pre-wedding shoot atop craggy rocks, or little groups munching bread and cheese on little benches along the track. We are all finding ways to make this time stretch. And when I reach the end of the track, I keep my camera aside and sit down: this isn’t something any device can bottle. Hunks of icebergs float on the satiny surface of the glacier lake. Clouds cotton themselves into strange symbols in the skies, and Mount Cook isn’t hiding for once. Suddenly, I hear the rumble of an avalanche crashing in the distance. I’ll never forget that sound.
As I prepare to leave, I remember a line I read in an old newspaper cutting at Hermitage’s museum: “Get up into those valleys and you soon forget that your hair is getting a little thin on top.” The copywriter sure got the Hooker Valley down pat.
Guests can sign up to gaze at the Southern Hemisphere sky after watching a film at the hotel’s planetarium.Photo Courtesy: The Hermitage Hotel
Getting There The Hermitage Hotel lies in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in the South Island of New Zealand. The nearest airport is in Queenstown (260 km/3 hr southwest). Regular Intercity buses connect the national park to Queenstown, and rental cars are a popular option too.
Stay The Hermitage Hotel has 164 rooms and most of them offer stunning views of Mount Cook and snow tussock grasslands (www.hermitage.co.nz; doubles from NZD160/Rs 7,650). The Premium Plus rooms are pricier but have the highest elevation, panoramic windows and even a little balcony to linger in. It is worth buying the hotel’s Explorer Pass that gives guests unlimited access to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre and the six 3D films screened over the day (NZD20/Rs 935). If the skies are clear, sign up for Big Sky Stargazing, one of the biggest draws of the hotel (adults NZD70/Rs 3,270, children 4-14 NZD35/Rs 1,633). Hermitage offers guided full-and half-day walks that include the Hooker Valley Track (from NZD76/Rs 3,550, children 10-14 years NZD40/Rs 1,870) but tramping the region on your own is equally rewarding.
loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes. She is the former Commissioning Editor of Nat Geo Traveller India.
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