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.