By Nina Ruggiero
November 04, 2019
Stacey Leasca

When you arrive at Helena Bay Lodge, a secluded sanctuary on New Zealand’s North Island, plenty of lovely humans will greet you — the resort has a staff of 54, even though maximum guest occupancy is only 10. But it’s the non-human residents who will make you feel especially welcome.

We were standing amid rolling green hills overlooking the bay when our guide called out, sending a gaggle of fuzzy-headed alpacas running to greet us, their crooked teeth forming goofy grins. We were on a tour of the property’s farm, where cows, goats, and pigs also roam, and the resident dog rides around in a golf cart with his puppy protégé, watching over the 800-plus acres.

The animals outnumber the people any time of year, but we were in for an extra treat: It was May and the lodge was preparing to close for the season, leaving us as the only guests. There are only five spacious, waterfront suites in all, which means you might be more likely to spot an orca from your patio than you are to bump into a fellow guest, even during high season. If there’s anything more relaxing than spending time surrounded only by rugged natural beauty and friendly farm animals, I’ve yet to experience it.

Stacey Leasca
Nina Ruggiero

Guests typically spend days at Helena Bay hiking the trails, kayaking, playing tennis, swimming, or fishing. A heavy dose of activity is a good idea, because head chef Michele Martino, of Italy’s Michelin-starred Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890, keeps the fresh pasta and wine flowing.

Stacey Leasca
Stacey Leasca

Martino will take you to his lush, herb- and vegetable-filled gardens, carrying a scissor and a basket so he can select the ingredients for your next feast. He’ll host cooking demonstrations for the hands-on types, or leave you to sip a crisp, citrusy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc by the fire while he prepares a multi-course meal with fresh-caught seafood or wagyu beef.

Stacey Leasca

We only spent four days in Helena Bay — a decidedly short jaunt across the planet from Los Angeles — but the experience is so centered around rejuvenation, it didn’t take more than a few hours for us to feel the effects.

Stacey Leasca
Stacey Leasca

When mornings start with sipping a flat white and listening to waves lap the shore, days are filled with movement and sunshine, and nights finish in a giant soaking tub, it’s virtually impossible not to unwind. But Mother Nature does her job to keep Helena Bay from becoming a sleepy spa retreat — the magic of the Northland will shock you out of your blissful, fresh air-induced daze just when you least expect it.

Stacey Leasca

We were out for a boat ride, taking in the scenery, when suddenly a vibrant rainbow appeared overhead. At the same time, as if on cue, two dolphins bowed out of the water and began to swim alongside us. It was not the first time on the trip we felt like pinching ourselves, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Stacey Leasca

With more than two miles of untouched coastline and four private beaches — where Martino will set up the picnic spread to end all picnics — there are seemingly endless places to explore or while away the afternoon, all accessible by hike, bike, or ATV. From drinking rosé while cows watch over you at Mohei beach to looking for bioluminescent glow worms along the shore, the vast grounds are full of small corners of wonder waiting to give you that far-away feeling we Americans go to New Zealand in search of. New to the 2019 season, the property even has a yacht that can take guests to some of the best scuba diving spots on Earth, including the Poor Knights Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site teeming with marine life.

Nina Ruggiero

You can drive to Helena Bay in less than three hours from Auckland, set up a 50-minute private car transfer from regional airport Whangarei, or splurge and arrive by helicopter, watching Auckland’s skyline fade into a natural dreamscape as the sun comes up.

Nina Ruggiero

Air New Zealand offers nonstop flights to Auckland from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston — with an expertly curated menu of local dishes and wines, even in economy — and American Airlines just announced the first nonstop flights between the city and Dallas-Fort Worth.

High season at Helena Bay Lodge is November to April, and bookings for this time should be made six months in advance to secure a specific room. Reserving a year in advance for Christmas and New Year's is recommended. 

Whatever your reason for visiting, be it a honeymoon, family reunion, or just a re-energizing solo trip, one thing is certain: when you return home to the stresses of your daily life and are prompted to close your eyes and think of your “happy place,” you’ll forever picture the rainbow skies, green hills, and friendly, fuzzy faces of Helena Bay.

Helena Bay Lodge provided support for the reporting of this story.

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