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
DOUBLES FROM $600
23 MACKINNON TERRACE, QUEENSTOWN
Eagles Nest Luxury Villa Retreat
DOUBLES FROM $900 60 TAPEKA RD., RUSSELL
DOUBLES FROM $470 RHODES RD., TAI TAPU, CHRISTCHURCH
WHERE TO EAT
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
DINNER FOR TWO $65
THE STRAND, RUSSELL 64-9/403-7652
DINNER FOR TWO $80
THE STRAND, RUSSELL 64-9/403-7771