Even though I grew up in New Zealand and have great national pride, I must admit the place was clueless when it came to sophisticated country hotels. During my youth any Kiwi farmer with a few spare rooms out back could open a "lodge." It went something like this: You'd arrive after dark, having gotten lost (who needed road signs?), and receive a flashlight and a can of insect spray. The owner would point you to your room; en route you'd step in a cow pie. Any wonder New Zealand's countryside wasn't a must-see for discriminating travelers?
Recently, I returned and found that much has changed. In 1984, the remodeled Huka Lodge raised the national standard. Then came smaller properties such as Grasmere and Punatapu, and in 1998, Wharekauhau, a pastoral estate near Wellington. But I was thrilled to find five just-opened lodges that are capitalizing on the country's pristine wilderness.
Urbanites in search of peace are now fleeing to sparsely developed Lake Wanaka, a one-hour drive north from Queenstown. Overlooking the lake and the soaring Southern Alps, Whare Kea is a Modernist six-bedroom house-cum-lodge that offers a glorified version of a homestay. But you get to take the house without the owners--prominent Australian retailers, who use Whare Kea as their ski retreat. The lodge has a carefree, familial atmosphere; meals are served communally and there's a help-yourself bar. If it's solitude you're seeking, you can rent out the entire lodge for $1,514 a night. Want to run the gantlet of New Zealand's notorious near-death sports?Wanaka is the latest epicenter for heli-biking, hydro-sledging, canyoning, parapunting--and on and on. Tamer souls can visit nearby wineries.
Mt. Aspiring Rd., Lake Wanaka; 64-3/443-1400, fax 64-3/443-9200; doubles from $378, including all meals.
No architect could trump Matakauri's incomparable view of the Cecil and Walter peaks and the Remarkables mountain range; therefore the design is uncomplicated, with expanses of glass throughout. Five miles from the heart of Queenstown, the lodge teeters over Lake Wakatipu--the water is so clear you can see trout and salmon trolling for dinner below. Lake breezes cool the three suites and four villas in the summertime; fireplaces and clever heated floors keep things cozy during New Zealand's crisp winters. In the Manata and Cecil Peak villas, sliding windows around two-person tubs allow for soaking alfresco, with cheeky fantail birds as the lone voyeurs. Retire to the deck with a book from the library and a glass of the celebrated local wine and watch the southern sunset. The landscape is so magical it's the setting for the upcoming movie The Lord of the Rings.
Glenorchy Rd., Queenstown; 64-3/441-1008, fax 64-3/441-2180; doubles from $284, including breakfast and dinner.
Lodge at Paratiho Farms
Art collectors Robert and Sally Hunt left Idaho's Sun Valley to seek paradise, and they found it in Motueka, a one-pub town on the South Island's sunny northern coast. The Hunts built their dream lodge on a sheep farm, and in this bucolic setting, Paratiho is almost unbearably opulent. Lacquered walls brim with Fortuny drapery, Asian antiques, and art by Hans Hofmann and Alexander Liberman. Outside, there are kinetic sculptures by George Rickey. The six suites, housed in three cottages, have Persian carpets, four-poster beds, crystal whiskey decanters (full, of course), and cavernous bathrooms--claw-foot tubs, monsoon showerheads--that open onto private fern gardens. The courtly Hunts dine nightly with their guests on chef Will van Heeswyck's delicacies, such as grilled cervena (venison).
545 Waiwhero Rd., Nelson; 64-3/528-2100, fax 64-3/528-2101; doubles from $875, including all meals.
Three decades ago, Levi Strauss president Tom Tusher and his wife, Pauline, had the foresight to purchase 55 acres on Lake Wakatipu 40 minutes north of Queenstown. "There was nothing here--just a hell of a lot of sheep," says Tom. The good news is, not much has changed, except that the Tushers bought 60,000 adjacent acres after they retired, and in December 1999 opened the 13-room Blanket Bay. Jim McLaughlin, Idaho's architect-to-the-stars, designed a building that brings to mind hunting lodges of the American West--the 30-foot-high great room has the compulsory stuffed ducks and antler chandeliers. However, the Tushers insisted on using indigenous materials, and instead of logs, covered the exterior with layers of South Island schist. Service is impeccable, with a just-hint-and-it-will-appear sensibility. Ask Choppy, the local helicopter pilot, if she'll spirit you off into the Humboldt mountain range for backcountry fly-fishing.
Glenorchy; 64-3/442-9442, fax 64-3/442-9441; doubles from $515, including breakfast and dinner.
For travelers passing through Auckland, Glenora Estate is a must. Located on Waiheke Island, the weekend escape for the city's elite is just 35 minutes away from downtown by ferry. On eight acres overlooking Church Bay, Glenora is a dead ringer for a hundred-year-old French farmhouse. Indeed, owners Sally and Derek Holland were inspired by European residences they had seen. Demonstrating true Kiwi ingenuity, Derek laid the sandstone floors, cracking some for a worn look; then Sally acid-bathed them for a mottled effect. They filled the public spaces and two bedrooms with French antiques, planted a vineyard out front, and built the one-bedroom Brittany Barn, also for rent. Where to find dinner?One of the region's best restaurants, the Mudbrick, is right down the road.
Church Bay, Waiheke Island, Auckland; 64-9/372-5082, fax 64-9/372-5087; doubles from $142.
Amanda Jones writes for the London Sunday Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner, and Australian Vogue Entertaining & Travels.