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Where to Stay in New Zealand

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.


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