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An Intimate Tour of New Zealand

 A view of the harbor on the way to Akaroa, 
a former French settlement on 
New Zealand’s South Island.

Photo: Mark Roper

Nearing Canterbury, the rocky terrain gives way to a sweeter, softer-again English country landscape. Nearing Christchurch we turn to Tai Taupo, and just as the light is faltering find our way to Otahuna Lodge.

Full disclosure—I cheated a bit here. I wanted to spend at least a night at one of the great lodges. I could see from the map that the recently refurbished Otahuna was a day’s drive south of Ruby Bay. So I dropped a hint: Did Bob and Anne by any chance know anybody at Otahuna? Wouldn’t that be a fine recommendation—for variety’s sake? They admitted they knew some folks there but not the owners. From Clifftops I called Otahuna preemptively and talked to Miles Refo and Hall Cannon, the American gentlemen who own and run the stately home. They agreed to let us come on shorter notice than is generally required. Rules are rules, but sometimes it’s okay to bend them, especially when it means a visit to a Queen Anne mansion with a tennis court.

The lodge was built in 1895, and has since served as a monastery, commune, and hotel. We change and are served dinner in a private room off the drawing room. Prawn ceviche with a soup of green, yellow, and red tomatoes. Locally raised duck, served rare. There is an almost comic formality to it, following yesterday’s dinner at an outdoor fish shack and our manic all-day road trip. But the food is good and we’re happy to take our glasses of port to our plush room just up the stairs.

After a morning of misty tennis we join Hall for breakfast in the airy kitchen. “I’ve traveled the way you’re traveling,” Hall says. “This is an easy country to do it in.” When he and Miles, formerly New York City real estate and marketing types, were looking to change their lives and find a grand project in New Zealand, they drove around the country for three months, taking advice and direction from those they met along the way.

“A lot of folks come here with intricate itineraries, with multiple flights, helicopters, and dolphin watches. The irony is that traveling on your own in New Zealand is about the safest, easiest thing you can do. I’m probably shooting myself in the foot here, but if you’re coming here and you’re staying only in the so-called super lodges, you might be doing yourself a bit of a disservice.”

The pair have mastered the handle-anything calm of seasoned hoteliers. If someone could market this unperturbable suavity in pill form I think it would be a hit for the pharmaceutical companies. Hall and Miles are accustomed to complex guest needs, so my request barely registers as a challenge. We’re in your hands for a night, I explain. Send us somewhere nice to stay with people you like.

“Akaroa,” Hall says, not missing a beat. “It’s the only French settlement in New Zealand. The street names are in French, little cafés, a charming bay, an amazingly scenic drive.”

After an hour of hairpin turns we descend to the harbor from which the French planned to secure a colony in Australasia. The British beat them to it, leaving sweet, tiny Akaroa as a museum relic of what a Gallic New Zealand might have looked like. Apparently it would have been unspeakably cute. Imagine if the French took over Devon and transplanted it to the Pacific. Again, we find ourselves somewhere we’d never heard of the day before, buoyed along by good advice, unburdened by advance planning, never sure which New Zealand we’d see today. We’re only halfway down the South Island, but we’ve come a long way from Anne Moore’s Maori returning place at the top of the country.

From his office at Otahuna, Hall had called Carol Hyland and told her he had some friends he wanted to send over to Maison de la Mer, the bed-and-breakfast she runs with her husband, Bruce. Our room has a nautical theme. There are cookies in the cupboard and a large round window looking out over the boats in the bay. That evening, the Hylands ply us and their other guests with wine and tell stories about decades spent raising their children on a sailboat traveling the world. We excuse ourselves after a couple of glasses, as we’ve got one final recommendation to pursue. Akaroa is said to have one of the best fish-and-chips shops in New Zealand. You can find it if you go. Just ask around.

Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.

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