Nestled in the South Pacific and untouched by modern civilization until the 1800s, New Zealand is still relatively “new,” which makes for a fascinating geography of wonders and a country unlike anywhere else in the world. Prior to becoming part of the British Commonwealth in the 1800s, New Zealand did have a population of settlers called the Mori, whose Polynesian culture and influences are still found through much of the island nation. Comprised of two main islands—North Island and South Island—New Zealand possesses a vast array of anomalies, including a diverse collection of native avian species, such as the unique Kiwi bird. From its coastal towns to its mountainous communities, New Zealand can play host to everything from a relaxing retreat to an adrenaline-fueled adventure.
One commonality in New Zealand is the trend of luxury lodges—which feature a common main lodge and individual, stand-alone guest lodges—as the preferred form of hospitality. When you’re halfway around the world, it’s a wonderful respite to have that kind of privacy, space, and convenience (breakfast and dinner are typically included in the pricing). For being a relatively small nation—New Zealand’s two islands are collectively about the size of Colorado—there’s no shortage of options when it comes to lodging. Retired American hedge fund manager Julian Robertson has spent the last decade developing three of the most luxurious, all located in the most distinct and desirable locations New Zealand has to offer. Last December, I journeyed to New Zealand to check them out.
The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs
Touchdown in Auckland is a welcome relief after a long, but enjoyable flight on Air New Zealand, but what’s even more welcome is the helicopter arranged to take me straight to The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs (kauricliffs.com), the first of the three destinations on this epic journey. No amount of caffeine can wake you up quite like a helicopter ride up the coast of New Zealand. (I now understand why all dramatic entrances happen via helicopter—there’s nothing better.) Heading north and hovering over dormant volcanoes, and offshore oyster farms, and flying over jagged cliff sides, leads us to an on-site helipad and waiting Land Rover, all of which is a stone’s throw from the main lodge of Kauri Cliffs.
Greeting me is Jay Robertson, Julian’s son, and his wife, Claire. Jay and Claire manage Kauri Cliffs, and their expertise shows; Business Insider recently named The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs “number-one hotel in the world.” The main lodge, equivalent to an impeccably designed New England cottage, boasts two sitting areas (replete with magazines, games, and movies) and a light and airy dining room, which opens to a wraparound porch with views of their PGA Golf Course and the Pacific Ocean. The Totara Forested path outside the main lodge leads to the 11 cottages on-site.
With 6,000 acres on the property, the activities are endless, but after a day of travel, a visit to the spa is definitely in order. After the refreshing jetlag massage treatment, a festive barbeque down at the property’s infamous pink beach is the perfect conclusion. Turndown service includes a crackling fire in the room’s stone fireplace and freshly baked cookies on the minibar. Despite the fact that I’m in a different continent, it’s difficult to not feel immediately at home.
After a rousing round of golf the next morning with the course’s unofficial mascot, Tiger the Goat, a delicious omelet made with New Zealand eggs is served on the porch. After tasting it, I understand Queen Elizabeth II’s passion for New Zealand eggs at breakfast. Refreshed and refueled, I head out on horseback for a guided tour of the property, the best way to experience the vast semi-tropical farmland, and manageable for even novice riders like me.
With its location in Matauri Bay, The Lodge is in an area where many local Kiwis (as New Zealand natives are commonly referred to) come to vacation, so you know it’s worth the trip. To really experience the local flair, make a point to check out Mangonui Fish and Chips for an unrivaled, indulgent treat. The shop allows customers to pick their own “catch of the day” and then fries to order. There were no bad choices, but in this editor’s opinion, look no further than the scallops and the flounder.
The Farm at Cape Kidnappers
Moving further south on North Island, I arrive in Hawke’s Bay, home to many award-winning wineries, as well as The Farm at Cape Kidnappers (capekidnappers.com), Robertson’s second New Zealand property. Like a true farmhouse, it takes a good 15-minute drive to get from the front gate to the rustic-chic main lodge. Inside, you’ll find intricate stonework, exposed high beams and a dining room that will make you go weak in the knees with its floor-to-ceiling glass doors and verdant views. There’s even a “silo” called The Snug; the circular room can be reserved for private dining.
Twenty-two suites occupy the property, all with ocean views (one of the pluses of island living) and a wealth of amenities. The activities are boundless at Cape Kidnappers, but an ATV ride through the property is a must, along with a visit to the property’s garden, where much of the produce used for meals can be found. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy features at Cape Kidnappers is its on-site golf course. Truly a work of art and precise architecture, this challenging course boasts breathtaking views and stunning cliffside tee offs.
But the can’t-miss experience, unique to Cape Kidnappers and New Zealand itself, is the Kiwi Discovery Walk. Robertson has hired experts from Environmental Services to guide guests on a short hike to uncover the famous flightless Kiwi bird, descendant of the now extinct Moa and native to New Zealand. The experience allows you to be up close to a unique creature in its natural habitat. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and is exclusive to hotel guests.
Hawkes Bay is New Zealand’s wine country, and there is no shortage of wineries. Make a day of it and visit a few, but be sure to eat lunch at Elephant Hill Estate & Winery. The coastal winery has a sleek modern design to its award-winning restaurant and their Pinot Gris is not to be missed.
You cannot make the journey to New Zealand without visiting Queenstown, home to The Remarkables mountain range, bungee jumping capital of the world (this is where it was invented), and filming location for both The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia series. With its jagged mountain ranges enclosing a lush inlet centered with a cerulean lake, it doesn’t take long to understand why Hollywood chose Queenstown and its suburbs to portray fantastical, far-off lands. And the resort town’s quaint downtown, reminiscent of Aspen or Jackson Hole, is the perfect place to unwind after a long day of film shooting, bungee jumping, or mountain climbing.
The last stop on my epic journey across New Zealand was Matakauri Lodge (matakaurilodge.com), the newest member of Robertson’s trio. Situated on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Matakauri Lodge employs a modern, sleek design that makes use of the commanding outdoor scenery by incorporating as many windows as possible in both the main lodge and outlying suites (there are a total of eight suites, two lodge suites, and one lodge room).
Since Queenstown is notorious for adrenaline junkies, it’s only fair to give in to a ride on a jet boat. Flying down the Dart River at high speed, it is a front seat tour of the best scenery in Queenstown and the surrounding areas, including an aptly named town called Paradise, filming site for The Hobbit trilogy. Adrenaline-fueled adventures tend to work up quite the appetite, and luckily, Queenstown has a famous answer to the hunger pains: Fergburger. The famous eatery, known for its burgers, typically has lines spilling out onto the sidewalks. Calling ahead with your order helps, as does walking off the afternoon indulgence with a little retail therapy in downtown Queenstown.
The final hurrah on this whirlwind adventure is a day trip to Arrowtown, a historic and quaint gold mining town that could be mistaken for a movie set. It is the perfect cinematic ending to a place where the beaches are pink, mountain ranges are named Remarkable, the sheep outnumber humans nine to one, and the warmest month of the year happens to be January. Luckily, it’s all real, and I can’t wait to go back.