Not too long ago, travel to New Zealand implied lumpy beds and overcooked lamb. No more. Guest rooms— whether in a gingerbread house in the North Island's sultry Bay of Islands region or a working ranch in the South Island's rugged Southern Alps— are packed with personality. Surprisingly sophisticated meals are served at communal tables. And good beds ease the jet lag (flying time from Los Angeles to Auckland is 12 hours, so get ready). Go from November through February, which is late spring and summer there, and plan to dawdle— and be indulged. Kiwi hospitality, though it comes at a price, is reason enough to journey to the Southern Hemisphere.
Having woven flax into utilitarian objects for centuries, the Maori recently started applying their craft to that most nineties of catchalls, the backpack, often with a charming shell closure. You can find them for sale in North Island craft shops, such as those on and around Auckland's Vulcan Lane, for about $40. Pick up one early in your trip for sorties to the beach and pool: this is that rare backpack that lets damp swimming paraphernalia breathe.
MOUNTFORD VINEYARD LODGE
WAIPARA, SOUTH ISLAND
Buffy Eaton spent Easter 1991 in a tent studying sheep on 190 acres of South Island farmland. She was about to buy the property and needed help choosing a location for a lodge, as inns here are called. The spot the sheep gravitated to became the site.
The fun wasn't over yet. During the year it took to construct their quarters, Buffy and her husband, Michael, slept among the hay bales in one of their outbuildings. Twice a week they made the 40-minute trip to Christchurch for a good wash. Thanks to the couple's sustained vision, Mountford Lodge, with just two guest rooms, is now one of the most stylish places to stay in New Zealand, as much for its old-fashioned roses massed in antique pewter tankards as for its bee-embroidered bed linens.
It was all done on a shoestring. Rescued iron rail-yard sheds, which these days are used for storage, flank the main house, built from dismantled sheep-shearing sheds. A former decorator, Buffy found the mossy stone that led to the decision to paint everything khaki.
A stay at Mountford has a terrifically improvised quality. You might be eating breakfast in the dining room, when a hamper appears: someone has decided that the day is made for a picnic at Lake Tennyson, a mere 85 miles away. You are back in time to help strip buds from Pinot Noir stock in the vineyard, the Eatons' other enterprise. Dinner, prepared by Buffy, is rabbit, fennel, and chestnut stew followed by a textbook Pavlova, the cream-and-fruit-topped meringue that is New Zealand's national dessert.
As the buzz on Mountford spreads, the Eatons worry they won't be able to meet people's expectations. Not a chance.
434 Omihi Rd., Waipara, North Canterbury, South Island; 64-3/314-6819, fax 64-3/314-6820; doubles $275, including breakfast and dinner.
BROOKLANDS COUNTRY ESTATE
WAINGARO, NORTH ISLAND
"I thought I heard a car."
An ebullient fortyish woman who introduced herself as Penny, the night manager, caught me cooling off under a ceiling fan, admiring the cracked leather on a couple of old club chairs. Heaped atop a floridly carved antique oak dresser were sheaves of dried lavender and hats for bush-walking. We were standing in the library of Brooklands, which is just 90 minutes south of Auckland, on the North Island, but feels like a million miles from nowhere.
Penny's frisky willingness to please became the motif of my stay. My welfare has not been so well looked after since I was six.
"Are you warm enough, Christopher?"
"Not too cool for you, is it, Christopher?"
"There, now, got everything you need, Christopher?"
Hiring can-do staff is the policy of owner Peg Bull, a handsome, outdoorsy sort in the mold of Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley. Her late husband's family built the lodge as a farmhouse at the turn of the century. For Bull, finding multiple Pennys is not as difficult as it would seem. The Waikato province— rolling countryside with turkeys as wild as the lilies on the side of the road— specializes in them. Before coming to Brooklands, these farm women cooked for shearing gangs, raised lambs in their kitchens, drove school buses, arranged the flowers in their churches.
The employees' resourcefulness pays off in nourishing ways. When I wondered out loud what I would do for lunch since I'd be on the road between noon and two, a box filled with smoked-salmon sandwiches and New Zealand cheddar and venison salami arrived for me to take in the car. Food is one of the big draws at Brooklands. For dinner I ate duck confit on a cushion of field mushrooms. From my seat in the dining room, I looked out past a vine-entwined veranda to a croquet lawn and a tempting swimming pool.
Brooklands has just 10 rooms. Mine was snuggled under the eaves, a wonderful essay in single-color decorating. It felt as if I were sleeping in a dish of clotted cream.
Waingaro, North Waikato, North Island; 64-7/825-4756, fax 64-7/825-4873; doubles $416, including breakfast and dinner.
TAUPO, NORTH ISLAND
There isn't a person with a room to let in New Zealand who does not speak of Huka Lodge with reverence and longing. It's what they dream of becoming. Never mind that they never will. Having set the standard, Huka makes every hotelier in the country strive to do better.
How does a 20-room lodge become one of the engines driving an entire nation's hotel industry?By making news: Huka is the only place in New Zealand with the refinement, sophistication, and service to equal that of virtually any establishment in Europe— with rates to match. For owner Alexander van Heeren, a Dutchman whose main business is shipping, the lodge is a dalliance that keeps life amusing. Hotels like to boast about finding solutions that are imaginative and cost-efficient, but that's not the story here. Huka reeks of money; the smell is delicious.
The lodge is the centerpiece of a 17-acre sanctuary on the North Island's central plateau. Nearby Lake Taupo is considered by many to offer the finest brown and rainbow trout fishing anywhere. Guest rooms are grouped along the Waikato River in 12 cedar cottages, so discreet as to disappear below a canopy of firs. If you lie in bed with the wall of French doors open, the water rushing by yards away, the idea of going outside seems redundant. The faux-rustic rooms suggest what might result if David Hicks and Albert Hadley, two of this century's greatest decorators, ever team up.
Huka gets a worldly crowd. The woman on my right at dinner had a W8 London postal address and a country house by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The woman on my left had two places on Long Island and one in Maine, and had been taught to cook by Marcella Hazan and Diana Kennedy. Our own meal at Huka— sweet-potato-and-ginger soup, crab ravioli, venison— was the only food I ate in New Zealand that was prepared to top international standards.
Hendrik Wassenaar runs Huka with a precision worthy of the Swiss rail system. Ludwig Bemelmans, a great chronicler of hotel life, would have immortalized him.
Huka Falls Rd., Taupo, Central Plateau, North Island; 64-7/378-5791, fax 64-7/378-0427; doubles $735, including breakfast and dinner.