Treading lightly in the rainforest

Published in Luxury Travel, Issue 43, Winter 2010

With rooms that feel like they’re floating in the rainforest canopy, the centrepiece of the new Te Waonui Forest Retreat on New Zealand’s South Island is nature itself. Architect & interior designer Richard Dalman says the West Coast rainforest “is such a strong element it’s always going to be there, no matter what you do. So our approach was to try and make it a seamless experience, from outside of the hotel to inside of the hotel, then through into the courtyard.”

Make no mistake though, when Dalman is talking about the courtyard, he doesn’t mean a nicely paved Mediterranean-inspired entertaining area. Instead, the four low wings of this eco resort weave through untouched rainforest. The decision to build around existing forest – instead of alternatives like landscaping new gardens – is part of the reason why Te Waonui Forest Retreat was awarded a New Zealand Institute of Architects award soon after it opened in 2009. The design, say judges, “surprises in the way it forces customers to engage the smell, dampness and density of the rainforest setting”.

The four wings are connected by open-air walkways so that guests can breathe in the scent of the rainforest before they’ve even had their morning coffee. In some places buildings are raised to allow groundcover plants to return. And floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies looking out over the forest make the rooms feel like cosy treehouses.

The focus on the forest is also unusual; the rest of Franz Josef village is clearly centred around the region’s world-famous Franz Josef Glacier. Yet although the sensitive handling of the forest is an obvious part of this resort’s eco credentials, the most eco-friendly features are invisible to guests. “The most high-tech part is what we call the building management system,” explains Stephen Smith, the retreat’s general manager. This, he says, is “a fully computerised system that takes every single part of the hotel and monitors for things like carbon dioxide in the lounge and bar. If there’s not enough oxygen in the air it will automatically open the windows and let more oxygen into the room.” In addition to automatically opening or closing windows, the system can also manage temperature by automatically adjusting under-floor heating, radiators and fans. “It does it all automatically,” says Smith.

The eco benefits of the system – which also automatically cuts off power to unoccupied rooms – are so great that the resort is expected to recover its investment through energy savings alone in just two years.

But as Dalman is keen to point out, environmentally sustainable design involves a lot more than just management systems. “It’s a lot of stuff. It starts out with how you lay the building out on the site,” he says. To keep the surrounding rainforest so pristine, Dalman and his team set out no-go zones for contractors and also looked closely at materials, ordering precast units to avoid the need for big casting beds on site and selecting a lot of timber, which is light and could be easily trucked in. He says: “There’s a lot built into the building itself. We’ve heavily insulated the building … so the heat that we put into the building stays in the building.”

“When we got to interior design, we made sure that each of the things that we put in there were either recyclable or from what we call in New Zealand an Environmental Choice range.” “In New Zealand we’re getting better – we’re behind Australia and Australia’s still behind Europe – but we’re all getting better at assessing the environmental impact of products and trying our best to keep [impacts] to minimum.”

Locally sourced rimu and totra timber from renewable sources has been used throughout, along with wool rugs, carpets and even possum fur cushions. (With over 30 million possums in New Zealand, this introduced pest isn’t exactly popular.)

The focus on the local has also been extended to the menu. “Absolutely nothing that we bring in is from overseas,” says Smith. “We use local, seasonal product … If asparagus is in season in New Zealand, then we will use asparagus for those three months. If it isn’t, we won’t put it on the menu.” With options including vanilla roasted crayfish, wakame seaweed and tuna and desserts served with lavender honey ice cream, guests aren’t exactly starving for choice. Local cheeses and wines also round out the offering.

But it’s the visible things that guests most connect with, says Smith. “We have people note it quite a lot on our comments cards that they are very pleased to see recycling systems in each bedroom.” Sometimes the little things are just as important.

Operation Nest Egg

Harrumphing and grumbling like an old man, Jim scurries back into his burrow. There’s one last shake of the bum and he’s finally gone from sight. We’ve just tramped out into Westland National Park to change the batteries in Jim’s radio transmitter, a crucial job that needs to be done annually. The park, only a short drive from Franz Josef village, is home to New Zealand’s rarest species of kiwi, the rowi. There are only 350 rowis in the world like Jim but populations of this critically endangered species have been slowly growing since the founding of the Rowi Recovery Project and Operation Nest Egg, a special program targeting chick survival and birth rates.

Jim’s radio transmitter is part of a new high-tech monitoring system that has vastly improved the success of Operation Nest Egg. Rangers can now tell by the sound of the radio signal when a couple is getting clucky and can then retrieve the egg to hatch it safely. When chicks are large enough to defend themselves from predators, they are released back into the park. Results are gradual, but things have already come a long way since the dark days of the early 1990s when populations almost dropped below 200.

As they are nocturnal creatures, chances of seeing a kiwi in the wild are slim but visitors can still lend a hand in the recovery effort. Volunteering, even just for a day or two, is hugely appreciated and can also give visitors a fascinating insight into how conservationists are bringing this species back from the brink of extinction. If you’re lucky, you might find even yourself tramping through the bush feeling the excitement as the radio tracker hones in a rowi.

Ice, ice baby

The world-renowned Franz Josef Glacier is unusual because it’s one of the few in the world that flows down into rainforest. It’s also only 19 km from the coast. The glacier is over 12 km long so the only way to take in its full grandeur is by aerial tours such as Air Safaris’ Grand Traverse. This 200 km round trip takes in the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers as well as Aoraki Mount Cook, Mount Tasman, the Tasman Glacier and the Mackenzie Basin.

Another way to experience the scale and drama of the glacier is by foot. For safety reasons, public access ends just below the glacier’s terminal face but groups with experienced guides are allowed onto the ice. On a half-day walk with Franz Josef Glacier Walks, we’ve been given wet weather gear, warm socks, boots and crampons. The first few steps are clumsy but before long we’re all squeezing through crevasses and clambering up ice steps like true arctic explorers. Given the fickle weather on New Zealand’s West Coast, it’s worth allowing more than one day to explore the glaciers. In overcast weather there is still plenty to do, including hiking, cycling and quadbiking. And as Stephen Smith of Te Waonui Forest Retreat says, sometimes the rainy days are the best: “It really is very, very spectacular sitting on the balcony when it’s pouring with rain … It’s when you experience a rainforest in the rain and the colours are just absolutely vibrant.”