Where to Stay in New Zealand
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Where to Stay in New Zealand

Hugh Stewart A deck at the Eagles Nest Hotel.
New Zealand is a place of sublime natural beauty, populated exclusively by sheep, hobbits, and, lately, hoteliers. But for a high-style antipodal experience, it's hard to know where to stay. Unless, of course you happen to be Christopher Petkanas.

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.


Sally's, a mildly funky place facing the harbor, does a
great battered-fish sandwich. A few doors down, Kamakura
strives for something sexier, scene-ier, cooler. It's a
magnet for smooching young couples, braying British film
directors on holiday, and parties of goofy, barely legal
girls in satin camisoles feeding one another treacle
pudding while capturing their horseplay on digital cameras.
The food at Kama­kura is modishly good, but no one
notices that the plummy sauce on the chicken is the same as
the one on the lamb.

Does the name Biskind ring a bell?It will if you're
Enlightened. Enlightenment is a huge global industry, and
the couple are big names in it, which at least explains the
Buddhas poking out of the ferns at Eagles Nest and the
spooky names—Sacred Space, First Light
Temple—of the villas. Sandra and Daniel received the
gift of Enlightenment, and the gift to impart it to others,
from Sri Kalki and Sri Amma, founders of the Golden Age
Movement in India. Their own riff on the movement is
Heartpower, whose adherents undergo "...permanently changed
states of consciousness in which the ego's games have
become impotent in causing self-inflicted negativity, and
where the power of now is constantly present."

Got that?If not, go to www.emissary.co.nz. Eagles Nest is
not a promotional vehicle for Heartpower. But if you visit
Russell and the Biskinds happen to be taking a break from
the seminars they hold all over the world, you can snag
them for some concentrated one-off instruction—what
they call an "energy zap."

Sandra's talents are not limited to zapping. She is also a
decorator with a corporate flair and no color tolerance. I
prefer a warmer, friendlier look, and anything but black
bath towels and chairs covered in satiny leatherette,
though for two nights they were hardly a hardship.

While I fully understand that there is a market for Eagles
Nest, I must be honest and admit that I am not it. The
Biskinds have just seen too many celebrity crib programs to
ever be able to create a hotel that would speak entirely to
me.

Harnessing the power of now, I flew to Christchurch. My
mood improved immeasurably soon after touchdown, thanks to
the limousine that shuttled me to Otahuna Lodge. Even the
most hard-boiled travelers are susceptible to a limousine
transfer, I find.

A predisposition to like a hotel before I've certified that
the hangers are wood and the toiletries are non-generic is
not in my nature, and I worry I'm softening, but Otahuna
Lodge does live up to the promise of that very Jackie
Collins–ish 20-­minute cloud ride from
Christchurch airport. Set on 30 acres amid soft,
sheep-speckled hills that look like the backdrop for a
Masterpiece Theatre production of a Jane Austen
heartbreaker, the house is one of the finest (and busiest)
examples of Queen Anne architecture in Australasia. It
would take a stronger man than me to resist its veranda,
leaded stained-glass windows, and fanciful fretwork.
Heavily paneled in kauri wood and furnished with
inglenooks, those squeezed fireside seats fetishized by the
Victorians, the interiors celebrate the Arts and Crafts
movement: embossed green-and-gold William Morris wallpaper
in the grand dining room (previous owners were fined by the
New Zealand Historic Places Trust for tampering with it),
cast-iron fireplace inserts enclosed by glazed tiles
patterned with sunflowers in the guest rooms. Pack your
Ruskin.

There's more. Otahuna was built in 1895 by Sir Heaton
Rhodes, the dashingly mustachioed and beribboned British
pioneer of this, the South Island's Canterbury province;
commander in chief of the country's forces in the Boer War;
parliamentarian; intimate of royalty and governors-general;
stamp collector; philanthropist; stockbreeder; and
horticulturist. All this added up to Rhodes being known as
the Grand Old Man of New Zealand public life and the
embodiment of landed aristocracy in the antipodes. His
loveliest legacy is Otahuna's formal and semi-wild gardens.
The romantic, loosely stitched patchwork of arbors, drives,
ponds, bridges, lawns, woodlands, and herbaceous borders so
beloved by the colonialists was designed by a man who
trained at Kew Gardens in London. Rhodes died at the lodge
in 1956 at age 95, but as in his day, vast fields of
daffodils still erupt in bloom every spring, a scene that
conjures garden parties attended by ladies with 22-inch
waists, leg-of-mutton sleeves, cottage-loaf coiffures, and
beaded reticules.

It's probably just as well that Rhodes didn't live to see
his home become a hotel, but at least it takes a page from
his book and aims high. Otahuna's goal, a huge one, is to
become competitive with Huka Lodge, the property that sets
the bar for luxury, service, and style in New Zealand. With
Jimmy McIntyre cooking (braised lamb shank with Yorkshire
pudding, fillet of beef with beet chutney), the food is
already there. But the staff isn't, and neither is the
design.

While perfectly comfortable, Otahuna has mostly
reproduction furniture and not the best quality at that. In
any case, there's not enough of it. These are massive rooms
from a more extravagant era, and they cry out to be filled.
There are a lot of ways a decorator could go. My own
preference would be for a lightened, rather tongue-in-cheek
version of the stuffed look seen in photographs of Otahuna
taken at the turn of the last century: petticoat
lampshades, potted palms, animal heads, folding screens,
and a giddy profusion of gewgaws. Executed by a real pro
with a natural and playful feeling for the period,
that would give Huka something to worry about.

If I'm hard on Otahuna it's only because, beyond my being a
sucker for clambering antique houses, the place has such
crazy potential. Even in its current, under-­realized
state, it still gives me jelly knees, and whether or not my
lampshade advice is followed, I'd go back tomorrow.


After Otahuna, it became difficult to keep up the fiction
that there might be a truly great, world-class hotel in
Kiwiland. (I had been through this before, in the Low
Countries, where 1,800 miles clocked over 11 days turned up
precisely nothing.) I had one more place to check out on
the South Island, and it did not sound hopeful. And yet
hidden improbably at the end of the street in a blah
Queens­town subdivision was...my breakthrough New
Zealand hotel.

Azur is nine 800-square-foot guest rooms in nine
freestanding villas on a steep cliff opposite a Tolkien
landscape of mountains and water. Its managers,
part-owners, and creators, Anthony Ross and Nejat Sarp, are
very sharp blades. Both were formerly attached to Mandarin
Oriental: Ross as corporate operations manager for the
entire group, Sarp as manager of the company's Singapore
outpost. To design Azur they went straight to the top,
tapping architect John Blair of Queens­town and
superslick Singapore-based Lim + Teo + Wilkes Design Works
(LTW) for the interiors. Possibly you've stayed at an
Oberoi, Raj, Banyan Tree, or Mandarin Oriental hotel or
resort someplace in the world where LTW has worked its
tough brand of glamour. Blair's projects include Craggy
Range Winery, American tycoon Terry Peabody's $35 million
vineyard in Hawke's Bay, North Island; Poronui Station, the
luxe fly-fishing camp San Francisco businessman
Mark Blake and his siblings commissioned over the mountains
on a more than 16,000-acre sheep station southeast of
Taupo; and an upcoming winery and residence for Blake in
the Napa Valley.

Blair's villas at Azur are honest and simple gabled forms
roofed in flint-­colored corrugated steel and
clad in ­Oregon red cedar and indigenous schist. If you
know what you're looking at, you can see his fond, oblique
references to the vernacular dwellings musterers, or
shepherds, build in the clouds here. Without asking, you
know that LTW's brief was to make the rooms wildly plush
without stealing attention from the views. Mission
accomplished with husky sectional sofas in faux microsuede,
coconut shell–veneer Parsons tables, and headboards
covered in squares of aqueous Jim Thompson silk.

Azur wouldn't be worth more than a trip across the street
and a look-see if it was all divine surface, but Ross and
Sarp have seen to the service side of things, too. Timothy
Ogle, whom they pinched from the Heritage Queenstown hotel
down the road, is the only member on the South Island of
Clef d'Ors, the international association of concierges and
one of the few such groups that means anything. Less than
one month after Azur's opening last December, Ogle had
already persuaded a high-country farmer to accept a party
of heli–mountain bikers by paying the man in Mount
Gay rum; surprised a guest with a gift of pounamu
(greenstone) after the woman casually admired it on display
at the hotel; scrounged around on Christmas Day trying to
meet a cruel request for hydroponic lettuce (he eventually
found some in a market garden, but it had just been sprayed
for slugs that morning); and heroically filled an
order for Château Haut-Brion 1989.

"Within legal and moral limits, Azur has the staff and
resources to do anything," Ogle says. "As we speak, I have
someone canvassing all the supermarkets in Queenstown for a
Kiwi delicacy, the legendary toffee-flavored Hokey Pokey
ice cream. The Haut-Brion is an amusing story because it's
the sort of wine that's obscenely expensive and slightly
redundant in this country, given our standard of enology.
None of my sommelier friends were able to source it, but a
former guest with a considerable cellar suggested I try a
dealer in Auckland. One of the dealer's clients had it,
just two bottles of one of the finest vintages in history,
but the man was in Sydney. A couple of calls later, he was
prepared to trade for an impossible-to-attain local Pinot
Noir, the phenomenal Valli Vineyards Bannockburn 2002, and
everyone was happy. Except the guest, who, tasting the
Valli just as it was about to be shipped off, decided the
Haut-Brion could wait."

Since Queenstown has many good restaurants (especially the
Bathhouse) and is only five minutes away, Ross and Sarp
made a pointed decision to offer only an exhaustive
breakfast, plus all sorts of interesting nibbles throughout
the day. Limited-edition Land Cruisers ferry guests into
town around the clock at no charge. So is there anything
not to love at Azur?Well, you do have to pass through that
blah subdivision to get to the hotel. But think of the
alternative. Now don't you love subdivisions?

CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS is a special correspondent for
Travel + Leisure
.


A 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke Island has an
artsy/foodie/boho atmosphere. It's a little bit Berkeley
(barefoot women in flowing skirts), a little bit Napa
(boutique vineyards), and a little bit La Jolla (doubtful
galleries). Waiheke is just 12 miles long, yet in this
small, pleasingly hilly space it combines subtropical
forest and macadamia farms with olive orchards and 2,000
acres of parkland.

Certain travelers demand places where the crowd is
fashionable and, except for them, from not far away: they
want to be insiders. If you're Norwegian and want to be
made to feel insignificant by ferociously chic Romans, you
go to Porto Ercole. If you're American and want to see how
smart Aucklanders holiday, you go to Waiheke.

The island has one of the most exciting new hotels in New
Zealand, the Glass House (33 Okoka Rd., Rocky
Bay; 64-9/372-3173; www.theglasshouse.co.nz; doubles from
$390
). Now, if it would only stay in business. It's
symptomatic of the country's breezy approach to
hotelkeeping that the owners can't decide whether to sell
or to reopen in November. For updates, log on to
www.travelandleisure.com.

The appeal of the Glass House, with just three guest rooms,
is easily explained: location, location, location. Set 480
feet above sea level, it straddles one of Waiheke's highest
peaks. Finding it impossible to sleep in the Pool
Room—a shoebox with not a thread covering the 80 feet
of exterior glass walls—I went home exhausted. People
are said to love getting their groove on in the Pool Room,
but is anybody that brave?I can't imagine it. Biting the
heels of the Glass House is rival Delamore Lodge
(83 Delamore Dr., Waiheke Island; 64-9/372-7372;
www.delamorelodge.com; doubles from $662
). For
those who require a little less exposure, it might be a
better choice.


Summer in New Zealand begins in November, with peak travel
season lasting through February. Away from the mountains,
however, winters are generally mild, and travelers visit
year-round­—the best values can be found from May
through October. Air New Zealand flies directly to Auckland
from Los Angeles and San Francisco and offers an extensive
range of domestic flights (Qantas Airways offers a competing
flight from LAX). Once you're there, driving is the
optimum way to enjoy the landscape.

WHERE TO STAY

Azur

DOUBLES FROM $600

23 MACKINNON TERRACE, QUEENSTOWN

64-3/409-0588

"_blank">www.azur.co.nz

Eagles Nest Luxury Villa Retreat

DOUBLES FROM $900 60 TAPEKA RD., RUSSELL

64-9/403-8333

"_blank">www.eaglesnest.co.nz

Otahuna Lodge

DOUBLES FROM $470 RHODES RD., TAI TAPU, CHRISTCHURCH

64-3/329-6333

"_blank">www.otahuna.co.nz

WHERE TO EAT

Bathhouse Restaurant

Situated on historic grounds near the shore of Lake Wakatipu,
the restaurant serves dishes like sea-run salmon and wild
Blenheim hare.

DINNER FOR TWO $120

28 MARINE PARADE, QUEENSTOWN

64-3/442-5625

"_blank">www.bathhouse.co.nz

Sally's

DINNER FOR TWO $65

THE STRAND, RUSSELL 64-9/403-7652

Kamakura

DINNER FOR TWO $80

THE STRAND, RUSSELL 64-9/403-7771

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