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Where to Stay in New Zealand

New Zealand is the new Eden, its clean and green image the beneficiary of a public-relations windfall direct from Middle-earth. Americans are not just visiting the country in numbers unimaginable only five years ago—they're immigrating, drawn by an arcadian ideal (never underestimate the pacifying effect of several billion sheep), breathtakingly cheap waterfront real estate, see-through fish-tank architecture, and an investment climate that, as one Las Vegas resort owner–cum–South Island winemaker puts it, makes New Zealand "the Switzerland of the South Seas."

One of the most powerful forces in the shilling of the nation is Helen Clark, familiar to all Kiwis as Madame Prime Minister. In her book, there are no bad tourists, only ones with shallow pockets. And in a recent campaign that will go down in history, Clark aggressively packaged and promoted New Zealand as a place where Californians in particular, because of their relative proximity and the kinship in lifestyles, might consider putting down roots. "Active recruitment," she called it, and some of the state's richest residents signed up. Vive le marketing.

But what if you can't quite quit the job and sell the apartment and put the dog in the pound and move to New Zealand tomorrow?A trip might be the next best thing, provided you can ever figure out where to stay.

There's too much choice. Everyone in New Zealand is a hotelier, or so it can sometimes seem. All you need is a moderately big house in a pretty location (not difficult in this country) with an orange juicer, a couple of en suites, and some misplaced confidence that you know something about travelers' needs and expectations, and you're in business. It's infuriating.

"These days it just seems everybody's like, 'Hey, I'm going to open a lodge!' " a young Queenstown tourism official told me.

The worst of it is that travelers are being sold the rush of new places as temples of luxury and refinement, when the reality is quite thin. And while the New Zealand hospitality industry is not celebrated for its culture of professionalism, things may be getting out of hand. Ticking off what they frame as virtues, hotel owners give you this long song and dance about how cozy and informal and familial their establishments are, but it's all really just a cover-up for the fact that they're amateurs and unable to produce a true, complete hotel experience. They run their properties on a lazy B&B model, except that instead of $150 a night, they charge $1,000. Then there are the enforced communal meals. I know a lot of people love them, but with their false bonhomie and numbing conversation ("Your bags went to Delhi instead of Auckland, how awful!"), these strained gatherings are my least favorite feature of New Zealand hotels.

Three places, at least on paper and based on word of mouth, promised to be different. If I were the sort of person who traveled with an entourage and demanded unbreachable privacy, all of my needs would be met by Eagles Nest, a clutch of streamlined Bay of Islands villas. Otahuna Lodge, near Christchurch, would satisfy my love of pedigreed old houses. And if it were the hyperefficient service and glossy elegance of a top hotel in a world capital I was after, I would take myself to Azur, in little old Queens­town.

Everywhere I went in New Zealand, people gasped when I told them I would be staying at Eagles Nest. All but unknown in America, the hotel is that famous there—famous for its setting (directly on the water in the placidly beautiful Bay of Islands), the scale of its four (soon to be five) freestanding villas (the smallest is 1,107 square feet), its aesthetic profile (brusquely modern with acres of glass), and its prices (they start at $900 a night, though deals can sometimes be struck). Sadly, since I do not conform to the starry idea Kiwis have of the Eagles Nest customer—I don't look like an arms dealer or a member of Coldplay, and I vacation with neither a bodyguard, a secretary, nor a nanny—I was not always taken at my word that I held a booking.

With no public spaces, villas sporting full up-to-the-minute kitchens and dedicated lap pools, and personnel who are trained to make an appointment with guests if they need to see them (and there had better be a good reason), Eagles Nest is an utterly private experience. Owners Daniel and Sandra Biskind include in the tariff all the fixings for breakfast, which you are invited to make yourself. Few accept the invitation, of course: most people who can afford these rates do not tend to be very skilled at frying their own eggs. Cooking is what chefs are for, their wealth has taught them, and for a fee the hotel will send one over in less time than it takes to burn toast.

A chef can also be brought in at lunch and dinner to fire up your tank-sized grill and toss on a loin of venison, a couple of lobsters—and how about a dozen local rock oysters while you're at it?Those who fear death by surf and turf choose among the cafés and restaurants in Russell. Think of Russell as Camden, Maine, relocated to the Pacific. The well-bred town is less than 10 minutes by foot from Eagles Nest, at the bottom of a sharply pitched hill edged in lush bush.

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