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Choosing the wide-open spaces

Those seeking privacy and luxury usually opt to rent a private island, but increasingly, adventurous travellers want more than just sun, sand and sea. Many prefer a wilderness experience, but in the past, that has entailed roughing it. Not any more. Family-run Stockman's Camp at Branches Station on the South Island of New Zealand has just opened for intrepid guests who really want to get away from it all, and judging from the way guests are flocking there, seems to be the beginning of a new luxury-in-the-wilderness trend. 

This 36,500-hectare high-country working sheep and cattle station in the middle of the wilderness is accessible only by 4-wheel drive on a treacherous, dirt road 30 kilometres from Queenstown. So most guests take a private helicopter for the 10-minute ride to this opulent four-bedroom "musterer's camp." 

In 1979 former New Zealand farmer Bill Shaw and his wife Annette, pioneers of luxury tourism in New Zealand, bought a 5,500-acre sheep farm near Wellington, created a four-suite lodge, and two years later, took their first paying guests. Anticipating the future of tourism to New Zealand, the Shaws added six partners to help redevelop the lodge. They turned it into the luxurious super lodge, Wharekauhau, with oversized suites and spacious public areas designed by award-winning New Zealand designer Virginia Fisher. The resort offered gourmet dining and a myriad of activities. Guests could even try sheep shearing, if they were so inclined.

It was the beginning of an authentic type of tourism -- one in which guests could interact with real New Zealanders and workers on the farm. By the time she was a late teen, Victoria Shaw, though only nine when her parents took in their first guests, was encouraged to help run the hotel. At 23 she became Wharekauhau's sole chef and three years later she took over as general manager. Her 29-year-old brother James was responsible for the farm tours and activities and her 28-year-old brother, John, ran the farm operation.

Not content to rest on his laurels and looking for his next challenge, in 2001, Bill Shaw and his partners bought and renovated a former hotel in the historic district of Queenstown to create the ultra-opulent Eichardt's Private Hotel, also decorated by Virginia Fisher. 

Shaw brought his daughter Victoria to totally re-develop Eichardt's after the 1999 floods, while the Shaw brothers remained at Wharekauhau. Victoria transformed Eichardt's from the local pub to a five-suite hotel.  Having cut her teeth on Wharekauhau, Victoria Shaw employed the same leadership skills and professionalism as her father, and like him, emphasised hospitality and service in the new hotel, which became one of the best hotels in New Zealand. Under Victoria Shaw's management, Eichardt's recently expanded its accommodations to a new Lakefront Cottage a few doors away.

As much as Bill Shaw loved coming to Queenstown, his heart was that of a farmer.  Eight years ago, Bill Shaw and his partners purchased the 36,500-hectare high-country Branches Station -- not to create another high-end destination, but simply as a wilderness location where the partners could come to vacation and work the land.  His partners came for the muster, but Bill Shaw went at least once a month to drove cattle, muster sheep, shear, and do all the other activities farmers do. "It is the real thing," says Bill Shaw. "We are serious farmers, and we're all involved. We don't go there to look at the scenery."

Originally, Branches Station had only an unheated farmhouse, sheep shed, and musterer's hut. Since then, the partners have built a new musterer's hut called Stockman's Camp  -- luxury lodge is a better word -- with four bedroom suites, spacious living room, open kitchen, large dining area, and floor to ceiling windows throughout, designed by Virginia Fisher. 

Each year, the partners return to Stockman's Camp for the muster.  Bill Shaw says: "It's authentic. That is what makes it so important. It's a large part of the New Zealand dream: man alone mustering on horseback in vast barren space."

Bill Shaw might be a farmer but he's also a businessman and knew the property was underutilised. He and his partners decided to open the pristine high-country property to outside guests, and Victoria Shaw became the general manager. Guests staying at Eichardt's can now combine their visit with a stay at Stockman's Camp, a ten-minute chopper ride away. 

Here, staff from Eichardt's joins them: a top chef cooks gourmet meals, a hostess attends to all their needs, and an adventure guide is available for guests who want to heli-ski, heli-bike, horseback ride, walk/hike, kayak, fly fish, go white-water rafting, hunt, mountain bike, take a nature tour, go gold panning, or shoot clay pigeons.  A farm manager lives on the property and is happy to let guests accompany him and even bottle-feed a lamb, if it's the season.

At both Eichardt's and Branches Station, Victoria Shaw continues the family tradition of offering the ultimate resort experience with stunning surroundings, great accommodations, and first class service. Says Victoria: "Both are truly New Zealand experiences, full of history, and wonderful stories that we just want to share with our guests, who by the time they leave ultimately become our friends."

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