Tom Butler: Mountain Man


The rugged high country of New Zealand's Southern Alps is no place for lightweights. The weather can be ferocious; windy and icy cold in winter and baking hot in the summer months. But none of that was going to stop mountain man, Tom Butler, from fulfilling his dream of a picture perfect guest lodge amid the stunning, blockbuster scenery.

Still in short pants, young Tom helped family friend and then owner, Oliver Newbegin, create his vision of an ideal rural retreat near the foreboding Arthurs Pass, 160 kilometres west up the steep glacial ranges from Christchurch. After school, Tom would head up to the site where the historic homestead was being painstakingly restored. His duties were modest; digging, shovelling and carting material from site to site.

Dating from the 1870s, the original structure was built by Arthur Hawdon, one of the Canterbury region's pioneer settlers. The house and the landholding passed through a century of convoluted transactions to Oliver in 1988. Over the years, the property had bred beef cattle, fine merino wool and deer for venison and continues to do so today with the working portion of the land leased out.

Despite the inauspicious beginnings, Tom was already well familiar and deeply fond of the area around the tiny, former fettlers' village of Cass, one stop before Arthurs Pass on the famous TranzAlpine Railway that cheerfully lugs tourists between both sides of the South Island to Greymouth on the West (wet) Coast.

With obvious affection, Tom shows lodge guests around what's left of Cass, pointing out the 'batch' (shack) his family regularly visited while he was growing up.

"Mum and Dad would bring the whole family up for weekends of tramping (hiking), fishing and later, hunting," recalls Tom, still an enthusiastic and expert hiker, climber and kayaker.

After the bulk of the work was finished and the homestead began welcoming its first guests, Tom set off for the UK and later returned to finish his university studies. Proudly clutching his new degree, Tom was quickly back at the lodge to exercise his new management qualifications. Things went well and Oliver gracefully faded into retirement, leaving the running and ownership of the lodge with Tom and another local business partner.

All staff, including Tom, live fulltime on the property attending to guests whims around the clock. The lodge is continually being added to and improved with the original homestead rooms converted to spa treatment, dining and relaxation areas. Accommodation for the maximum of twenty guests is now in brand new suites, a cottage and chalet that attract the highest echelon of luxury and affluent travellers from all over the world. Tom is not a name-dropper like some, but with a little prompting will divulge some of his celebrity visitors.

"I'll always remember Billy Crystal as a regular, down-to-earth guy who mixed with the other guests and was gracious and uncomplicated," says Tom, "he and his wife did like to dine alone in the cottage, but otherwise he was another guest enjoying the experience."

The much-revered and anonymous luxury arbiter, Andrew Harper, rates Tom's lodge as one of his favourites in New Zealand, describing it "a sensationally sited high-country hideaway that luxuriates beneath some of New Zealand's most awesome alpine scenery "

"Mr Harper has been here three times now," says Tom with a curious twist, "but I've never met him. He always books under a pseudonym and keeps a very low profile."

Then there's the story of the Texas oil baron who, obviously charmed by Tom and his ranch, bought two acres from a sub-division on the property after dinner one night.

Now, if you've followed the story so far you are probably wondering what the name of this esteemed lodge is. A member of both Select Hotels and Small Luxury Hotels, it consistently rates among the top luxury properties in Australia and New Zealand, gathering awards and accolades each year.

The retreat is Grasmere Lodge and its overwhelming success is the result of a bloke who displays vision and foresight beyond his years. Girls take note, Tom Butler, athletic outdoorsman, entrepreneur and lover of life is still in his early 30s and very single.

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