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.
CASS, SOUTH ISLAND
In South Island high country, people tend to leave off the zeros. If the manager of a station, as a ranch is called here, tells you he has 126 acres, he means 126,000. Twelve Merino sheep is 12,000. Playing down the numbers is perhaps the local way of dealing with the heroic scale of this place. The isolation is both exhilarating and terrifying. And the elements can be punishing.
A sheep, deer, and cattle station that is also an extremely smart seven-room inn, Grasmere Lodge offers a concentrate of everything beautiful and challenging about life here in the Southern Alps, 75 miles west of Christchurch. The printed material that hotels leave out for guests is rarely useful, but at Grasmere it's a tonic orientation: "In an emergency, dial 0 and we can contact a doctor. However, the nearest is likely to be in Darfield, 80 kilometres away. . . ." "Almost everywhere in the country is a long-distance call. . . ." "Grasmere is set at an altitude of 700 metres but is still dwarfed by the 1,100-metre mountain behind. . . ." "The weather can be very changeable. Please let us know your plans and when you plan to be back. . . . " Founded as a farm in 1858, Grasmere is run by Oliver Newbegin, former director of a New Zealand travel-agency empire. Before a man-against-nature backdrop of beech forest, subalpine scrub, and prime fishing opportunities— eight creeks, four large rivers, and eight lakes— the civilities Newbegin has brought to the lodge have a thrilling potency. Box topiaries in Versailles-style planters line the drive. Guest rooms, models of upholstered comfort, are stocked with shortbread and carafes of port. If you leave your book lying spine-up, the housekeeper will mark your place and put it on the nightstand, where she thinks you'll want it next. Dinner is at a mahogany pedestal table set with silver chargers. The fare— smoked lamb with mustard fruits (apricots, figs, and prunes marinated in mustard and vinegar), herb-crusted venison with onion marmalade— is unexpectedly refined and imaginative.
Farm life runs parallel to inn life at Grasmere. As manager Eden Crawford dumped salt blocks from his pickup among the sheep one afternoon, I opened and closed the gates between paddocks, a station-country ritual. "Now you're a real Kiwi," Crawford said.
State Hwy. 73, Cass, Canterbury, South Island; 64-3/318-8407; fax 64-3/318-8263; doubles $500, including breakfast and dinner.
RUSSELL, NORTH ISLAND
I knew I was in the subtropics when I saw children walking to school barefoot and my watchband started to stick. If you've left behind a New York winter, New Zealand stickiness isn't just tolerated— it's wanted. And to think Bay of Islands, some 150 of them at the top of North Island, hadn't made it onto my shortlist of places to visit in New Zealand until the fifth revision! Missing this bay three hours north of Auckland would have meant overlooking the most sensual spot in the country— and the charms of Kimberley Lodge.
Built in 1989 on a lush bluff above the bay and the winsome Victorian village of Russell, the Kimberley has gingerbread cutouts under its gables and double porches wrapping a clapboard façade. Four of the five guest rooms open onto porches with unobstructed water views; the fifth looks out on the garden. From the lodge you can walk past native bush to Long Beach, where the sand is satiny and the water gin-clear. Or you can take boat excursions that promise some of the best big-game fishing in the world.
In the 1830's, whalers in search of grog and women put Russell on the map. Seamen and convicts established a permanent European settlement, one of New Zealand's first. The indigenous Maori, who had arrived from Polynesia more than 800 years earlier, signed a treaty in 1840 granting the British sovereignty; the Maori have disputed the treaty ever since.
One thing nobody disputes is the friendliness of the Kimberley's managers, Amanda Turner, Doug Irwin, and Libby Williams, who turn out breakfast (ham, eggs, and all the trimmings) and perform porter duties with equal dedication. Most guests are effusively grateful for the attention the three devote to helping plan activities, not to mention the care they bestow upon faxes (something no backwater traveler takes for granted). But other guests rightfully grumble that prices here are way out of line.
About Kimberley's rooms. The velvet window swags and satin bedspreads were chosen to create an atmosphere of elegance. But that's not how they read. In this far-reaches-of-the-world setting, they come across as ingenuous. Sweetly so.
Pitt St., Russell, Bay of Islands; 64-9/403-7090, fax 64-9/403-7239; doubles from $315, including breakfast.
CLEVEDON, NORTH ISLAND
My path to Inverness was paved with good and friendly omens. At a Sunday morning crafts fair in Clevedon, locals selling their own beautiful hand-knits and herbal soaps crowded the sidewalks. Too lazy and jet-lagged to reach for my map, I came away from a roadside farm stand with not just directions but an armful of apples the grower said I must try— for free.
Adding to the excitement of a first-time arrival at Inverness is its hidden setting, in a natural amphitheater backed by thick bush rising from a steep gorge. On the twisting way in I passed an equestrian ring (Thoroughbreds are available to guests) and vineyard workers patiently draping netting over the grapes to discourage hungry thrushes. The modern white board-and-batten house that finally revealed itself through an allée of tall kanukas made all the right references to New Zealand colonial architecture, including a deep porch below a crisply articulated roofline. Also typically Kiwi was the loudly declared interest in gardening: lavish hanging baskets and wide borders filled, I would learn, with more than 400 varieties of roses, from Constance Spry to Abraham Darby.
Thirty-five minutes southeast of Auckland on North Island, the lodge is cradled in a valley that was settled in 1860 by Scots from Inverness. Owners Yolande and John Robinson were not initially destined to be innkeepers and wine makers— she is a former headhunter; he has a real estate business in town— but they couldn't resist the long-nurtured fantasy of operating a high-end B&B and boutique vineyard.
Once they'd acquired Inverness, they created four guest rooms, decorating each with handsome wicker furniture and doing over the bathrooms with vintage brass taps and claw-foot tubs. Seven of the 80 acres were planted with grapes, mostly Cabernet Franc; 1997 is the first vintage.
Staying with the Robinsons is as comfortable as crashing at a friend's house. You have the run of the place and can feel free to cruise around barefoot or flop down on the sofa. Yolande does the cooking and is acclaimed for her rack of lamb crusted with rosemary and black pepper. She says guests often want to help clear the table— and there she draws the line.
Ness Valley Rd., Clevedon, Papakura; 64-9/292-8710, fax 64-9/292-8714; www.inverness.co.nz; doubles $320, including breakfast and dinner.
OLD GLENMARK VICARAGE
WAIPARA, SOUTH ISLAND
Was Beatrix Potter a Kiwi?A night at the Old Glenmark Vicarage, on South Island, 40 minutes north of Christchurch, will have you wondering. It's that cute.
Teddy bears are enthroned on beds with sheets edged in eyelet ruffles and quilts of shirred rosettes. Birds' nests and Torquay ware— twee ceramic sailboats and windmills— fill a carpenter-made dresser. Lemony wallpaper is embossed with tiny tulip heads below ceilings of pressed tin. The phone is one of those antique wooden boxes (it works). Bathrooms are mounted with cast-iron pull-chain toilet tanks. And there's a goat and two donkeys in the yard.
If it weren't all so sincere and sparkling, Glenmark would be laughable. Instead it is wonderful, with a quality-to-price ratio and a family-friendliness hard to beat anywhere in New Zealand.
Glenmark and St. Paul's, the Anglican brick church it served until 16 years ago, were commissioned in the early 1900's by the daughter of one of the country's biggest sheep-runners. The parish was seen as a reward for vicars who had endured less glamorous assignments.
Minutes after laying eyes on the pretty house, faced in kauri, a native timber, Malcolm and Penny Pester agreed to buy it. The star of the couple's careful restoration is the porch. Completely new, it has become perhaps Glenmark's most seductive attraction. All four guest rooms open onto it. "We have thermal pools, whale watching, and bungee jumping all nearby," says Malcolm, "but a lot of people come just to sit on the veranda."
His cooking is another selling point. A professional chef for many years, Malcolm delivers big flavor no matter how many things you tell him you are not allowed to eat. For one of his signature dishes, nuts, dried fruit, and blanched vegetables are bound with peanut butter, spread on phyllo pastry, topped with spinach, and formed into a roulade.
The Pesters still hear echoes of the garden parties for which Glenmark was famous in the twenties. Says Malcolm, "It's the conviviality of those times we hope to recapture."
161 Church Rd., Waipara, North Canterbury; phone and fax 64-3/314-6775; doubles $125, including breakfast; dinner for two $60.
charting a course in new zealand
With only 10 days to see New Zealand, I furiously crisscrossed the country, staying in a new lodge almost every night. My ambitious itinerary, it turned out, was not all that exceptional. Everywhere I went I ran into curious and energetic American travelers following similar routes, though they usually (and intelligently) allowed themselves more time in each place. One South Carolina couple and I had a lot in common: four lodges.
When mapping your trip, keep in mind that the North Island is the (relatively) more populated half of New Zealand. Though its landscapes are pleasantly bucolic, they are nothing compared with the humbling, wide-open, heart-catching ones of the South Island. A network of internal flights makes getting around the islands, and from one to the other, possible if not always convenient. There is no direct service between provincial airports; flights on the North Island originate in Auckland, and on the South Island in Christchurch. Air New Zealand offers discounted rates for travelers planning a minimum of two and a maximum of 10 internal flights; for information call 800/262-1234.
1. North Island only; four lodges: Arrive at Auckland International Airport, rent a car, and drive 17 miles to Inverness Estate. When you're ready to move on, head 114 miles north, to Bay of Islands and Kimberley Lodge. Next, fly from Kerikeri to Auckland, and on to Taupo, which is four miles south of Huka Lodge. Brooklands Country Estate is 130 miles northwest, and from there it's an easy 38-mile drive to Auckland for the flight home.
2. North and South Islands; five lodges: Arrive in Auckland, rent a car, and drive 17 miles to Inverness Estate. Continue 45 miles south to Brooklands Country Estate. Then, from Auckland International Airport, fly to Christchurch, rent a car, and drive 75 miles to Grasmere Lodge. Ninety-six miles northeast is Mountford Vineyard & Lodge, which is minutes from the Old Glenmark Vicarage. Drive 32 miles to Christchurch, then fly to Auckland for the flight home.
3. North and South Islands; seven lodges: Follow Itinerary 1 through return to Auckland International Airport. Follow Itinerary 2 from flight to Christchurch.