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  • Liane Morris

Hunter Valley Icon Exudes European Luxury


The team behind Spicers Tower Lodge are on a mission to return the Hunter icon to its status as one of the top five luxury lodges in Australia. This iconic, Spanish-style property in the heart of Pokolbin reopened in July 2022 after extensive renovations and is now hitting its stride as a taste of exclusive European luxury and epicurean delights.

 

Originally built in 1999 by the late Hunter Valley wine legend Len Evans AO OBE and a coterie of his high-profile mates, it was their commitment to quality that saw Tower Lodge win the global luxury lodge category at the World Luxury Hotel Awards in 2010 and then continue to win it five years in a row. Tower Estate was Len Evan’s last business venture before he passed away in 2006, and a testament to his life as a pioneering, inspiring wine judge, ambassador, restaurateur and passionate entrepreneur. It helped Tower Estate’s fortunes that investors over the years included British TV chef Rick Stein; previous co-owner of Rockpool Bar and Grill David Doyle; renowned Hunter winemaker Brian McGuigan; businessmen Andrew Banks; businessman and art collector Basil Sellers; and former News Limited boss Ken Cowley.


In 2013 the property was purchased by the owners of the neighbouring Hope Estate, Michael and Karen Hope, who continued to run it for a couple of years until they converted it to a private residence, in which they lived for seven years. As the family grew older and moved out, the Hopes entered into a collaboration with Spicers Retreats, who added it to their portfolio of Hunter properties. A $6 million renovation later and the newest incarnation of this luxury accommodation promises to be even more divine than its highly successful predecessor.


The exclusive retreat is built in a modern Spanish mission style, featuring warm, earthy textures and colours that blend into the landscape. Handmade Mexican terracotta tiles line the floors, and thick adobe-rendered walls catch the sunset over the Brokenback Range. High ceilings soak up the summer sun, and open fireplaces keep you warm in winter.


Massive, ornate, late 19th-century French coach-house doors give entry to the retreat’s central hub, an enclosed courtyard paved with limestone, circling a dramatic fountain pond. Cloistered walkways framed by timber beams disappear toward suites and a labyrinth of spaces to explore.


David Assef, Spicers Retreats Managing Director, loves the simple, robust design, spacious rooms, and high ceilings.


“We are honoured to be the new custodians of this iconic property. Tower Lodge has a wonderfully earthy and natural design; it’s in harmony with the changing seasons around it, as the vines bud, flower and eventually drop their leaves for a winter display,” says Assef.


The 14 rooms at Spicers Tower Lodge all feature a large bedroom, lounge, dressing room and gorgeous new bathtubs, and some host a private courtyard, open fireplace, or outdoor hot tub from which to gaze across the lawns to the winery and vineyards in the distance.


Assef says, “Tower Lodge is something unique in the Hunter. There will never be a design so personal or esoteric in the area again. Think of Morocco meeting Athens and going on holiday to Spain!”


Indeed, the interior design is winning accolades, with Spicer’s designer Katherine Young taking out the recent HM Award for Hotel Interior Design. The awards recognise hotel and accommodation excellence in the Asia Pacific region.


Such a high-quality property demands the best staff available in Australia, and Spicers have lured Patrick Rodgers to take over as General Manager of the property. Rodgers has a food and beverage background with previous experience including the management of such prestige properties as Bangalay Luxury Villas, Prospect House Private Hotel in Hobart, The Glass House Restaurant, Marrawah Hospitality on the waterfront in Hobart, Restaurant and Bar Manager of the MACq 01 Hotel for the Federal Group and Restaurant Manager at Saffire-Freycinet Luxury Lodge. His background in food and beverage ensures that the customer experience is the number one priority of the team.


“Tower Lodge really is a very special property,” said Rodgers. “The collaboration with Spicers is the ideal marriage and made perfect sense. It’s my job to ensure that our service level, customer care and attention to detail are second to none. There is no other experience like it in regional NSW, possibly the country. It’s unique, and an idyllic blend of Europe meets Australia. We like to tell our Sydney guests that it's a taste of Europe - two hours up the highway.”


The guest journey with us begins at time of booking as Rodgers and his team get to know people before they arrive.


“We take great care in creating lasting moments for our guests. It’s about connecting with people, pulling at heartstrings. Our team meets twice a day to ensure that we provide the most personalised relaxation experience possible. A lot of our guests come from Sydney. They have two or three days, and they’re time-poor. We aim to have them leaving here feeling as if it’s been two weeks of luxurious relaxation with unique experiences, not just two days.”


Helping to create this epicurean experience is another talented recruit to the Spicers team, chef Gianni Moretto who runs the onsite restaurant, Sebastian. Moretto is an extraordinarily talented young chef carving a name for himself globally. The food experience he offers has been inspired by his work in San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain, with a focus on the highest quality ingredients sourced as locally as possible.

Moretto has worked in Santiago in Chile, Mexico, San Sebastian in Spain, Perth and now the Hunter Valley, and he’s only 30 years of age. It is his time in San Sebastian that has perhaps proved most inspirational in his work, although there are also South American influences at play. Moretto was Head Chef of Rekondo in San Sebastian overlooking Concha Bay from 2017 to 2018. The focus was on the highest-quality ingredients, and their cellar is reputed to be one of the world’s best.


There is already a contemporary Spanish mission style to the retreat, a water feature in the hacienda style central courtyard, a striking stucco tower and warm terracotta tiles so that it is easy to imagine yourself in Basque country and it is the Basque country traditions of pintxos bars that are part of the dining offering that Moretto has created at Sebastian.


“In the Basque region of Spain, it is the tradition to move from place to place, bar to bar, eating one small dish at each stop, enjoying a drink and then moving on to the next,” said Moretto.


“This is called Txikiteo (pronounced chee-kee-tay-o). Each dish is a micro version of a main course with concentrated flavours. The food is unpretentious, healthy, hearty, seasonal and as local as possible. It’s all about fun, gossip, socialising and movement, and we try to give this to our guests.”


“At Sebastian, we present the food to our guests, and we move from one environment to another. We talk about the origin of the food, what is good to try, where the inspiration has come from, and how it’s been prepared. We try to keep the ambience casual, relaxed, and less structured. Our salads are harvested on the day we serve them. We use aged beef because the flavours are more developed. We use whatever we have here, sourcing many wild and foraged ingredients locally. A great example is wattle. It was one of the first things I noticed about the Hunter Valley – there was wattle everywhere. I now create a wattle dessert with the flowers: wattle flower miso ice cream with burnt honey and milk textures.”

Sebastian is open seven days per week for lunch and dinner to guests and visitors, with the set tasting menu at $95 per person for lunch and $135 per person for dinner. A la carte is also available.


Food, the art of foraging and indigenous native produce are important elements of the guest experiences on offer at the lodge. Every evening, the team at Tower Lodge hosts a food and beverage masterclass on a topic drawn from the things loved by Sebastian Restaurant: jamon, olives, cheese, sherry, vermouth, gin, and of course, wine, and you can reserve a range of unique regional wine experiences in advance, including the upcoming Tyson Stelzer’s European Wine Weekend.


Tyson Stelzer, International Wine Communicator of the Year and author of The Champagne Guide, is hosting a unique experience sharing 25 of his favourite wines of France, Italy, Germany and Spain at an exclusive weekend for just 24 guests on 21-23 July 2023. Guests will compare six of Champagne’s most legendary cuvées in Tyson’s Prestige Masterclass and experience the roll call of the greatest wines of France, with the weekend culminating in a gala dinner featuring Champagne, white and red Burgundy and Sauternes.


“It will be an amazing experience,” said Rodgers. “Some of these Champagnes are so rare, and the experience Tyson curates is one of a kind. His knowledge is incredible.”

Spicers Tower Lodge is your perfect romantic base to experience life and explore the delights of the Hunter Valley, tucked away along pretty country roads and enchanting scenery. Located on the corner of Broke and Halls Roads, a two-hour drive from Sydney or one hour from Newcastle, all guests are welcome, whether you are staying in-house or enjoying a meal in the restaurant.


For restaurant reservations or to book a stay, visit spicersretreats.com/retreats/spicers-tower-lodge.

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