Travel writer and whiskey expert Brad Japhe has visions about living large on an island known more for high-adrenaline adventure then high-thread-count bedding
By BRAD JAPHE
I’M HARDLY the only person dreaming of New Zealand these days. The remote country, which is reported to have effectively eliminated the coronavirus, is also the destination of choice for those in the market for US$2 million (RM8.51 million) investor resident visas and pandemic bunkers.
After months of being cooped up, I’m more interested in lodging that encourages access to the elements. New Zealand’s South Island is famously home to some of the world’s most majestic and varied terrain, dotted with dark sky reserves, glacial carved fjords, the soaring crags of the Southern Alps and untamed rivers connecting them all.
Many people go to take advantage of the extreme adventure afforded by the dramatic landscape. My goal is somewhere between theirs and that of the indulgent survivalists — to lounge around in the luxurious inns and cottages that opened in the past few years to pamper the adventurers. I will proceed to drink lots of local wine and beer.
This is how it will play out.
The emerging segment of ultra-luxe lodging that has blossomed from Marlborough Sound down to Invercargill offer unimpeded access to nature. But it’s not glamping: Most of the luxury rooms start at US$3,000 per night and comprise highly designed spaces that don’t include tents.
On the northeastern end of the island, the promise of reputable wine has helped drive high-end tourism, particularly in recent years, as Marlborough became synonymous with world-class sauvignon blanc.
The region’s primary town, Blenheim, remained stubbornly resistant to luxury accommodations until Angela Dillon discovered a 120-year-old convent in need of refurbishing. “There was plenty of interest in the wines, but nothing that could convince visitors to stay overnight,” recalls the hotelier.
She converted the Old St Mary’s Convent into the Marlborough Lodge, 10 stately suites set on 16 acres (6.5ha) of woodland gardens, ponds and vines — also known as my ideal wineland interlude.
Last time I visited, the building’s updated Victorian aesthetic promoted the sense that I was sojourning in some grand country home. In addition to the usual hallmarks of luxury — premium linens, marble bathrooms, turndown service, farm-to-table cuisine — the lodge provides exclusive winemaker experiences.
I’ll be able to dirty my hands and fill my glass amid the vines. Dillon has just started harvesting her own vines, which were previously leased out.
While that wine matures in barrels, I’ll arrange for local vintners to meet me on the property for private tastings at the “Wine Shack”, a charming cabin alongside a private lily pond. If I’m feeling adventurous, I might follow it up with a truffle-hunting expedition at Limestone Hills in nearby Waipara Valley, a scenic day trip to the south. (New Zealand has a burgeoning truffle industry; you see the delicacy on more and more menus at these luxury establishments.)
The following day, a lengthy drive south will take me to red wine country. What sauvignon blanc did for Marlborough, pinot noir is now doing for Central Otago. The vast U-shaped valleys that corrugate this remote part of the South Island’s interior have historically held scant life, grazing sheep notwithstanding.
But with the planting of grapes has come the construction of rooms. The Lindis Lodge opened in late 2018, a five-suite property that scans less like a building and more like a flying saucer emerging from the centre of the Ahuriri Valley.
“The design inspiration came from the land around us,” says GM William Hudson of the structure’s undulating shape. The contoured wood exterior mimics the surrounding topography, with only a narrow slit of horizontal glass.
To arrive at the remote, ethereal spot by land, you need to follow a 30-mile (48.3km), no-cellphone-zone dirt road that dead-ends into a mountain. Most guests come by private helicopter; since this is my daydream, it will be a chopper for me, too.
Almost all activities involve adventurous immersion in the elements, such as sky- gliding or some of the world’s finest trout fly- fishing rivers. But enough of that: I’ll opt to relax in the lounge, with chef Cesare Stella’s locally sourced charcuterie as an afternoon snack.
At night, he prepares dishes that incorporate flavours from his native Italy with such products sourced from nearby farmers as his herb-crusted New Zealand lamb. The wine list emphasises local offerings that include an intense pinot from Felton Road’s 2017 vintage.
Recently, the property debuted guest pods. Detached from the primary residence, they showcase an even greater sense of seclusion — along with private outdoor bathtubs and uninterrupted sightlines. Even if it might whiff of solo lockdown, it’ll be an indulgence well worth the US$1,250 a night.
Before wine tourism took hold, the island’s upmarket centre of gravity was in and around Queenstown, a sort of Saint Moritz of the Southern Hemisphere. It has evolved into a destination where jet-setting gastronomes rub elbows with manicured adrenaline junkies.
Peering out at the Remarkables (an aptly named mountain range, if there ever was one) with the deep blue of Lake Wakatipu directly between, I couldn’t help but recall the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy; several of the films’ most otherworldly scenes were shot there.
On the western edge of town, Matakauri Lodge, which opened in 2010, boasts a dozen distinctly non-Hobbit style cottages and suites suspended just above the lake. The majestic vantages are maximised by extensive floor-to-ceiling windows.
Chef Jonathan Rogers is charged with the unenviable task of competing against perhaps the most stunning view I’ve ever encountered in a dining room. During my first visit, he took artichokes from the adjoining garden and plated them, roasted, alongside the South Island’s legendary farmed venison. The 2016 vintage School House pinot noir from Gibbston Valley was the sublime accompaniment.
If I can persuade a handful of my friends to join me on the journey, we’ll stay at Matakauri’s new 5,000 sq ft (464.5 sq m), US$9,100-plus per night Owner’s Cottage. It affords ample privacy under the shadows of gnarled summits, with an oversized balcony and infinity edge jacuzzi.
Matakauri now has competion. An opulent penthouse suite at Eichardt’s Private Hotel goes for US$6,500 a night.
At Blanket Bay, set along the northwestern shores of the S-shaped Wakatipu, pampering is a relative bargain (from US$800 per night). The lodge offers activities such as half-day helicopter excursions that start on the property’s front lawn and travel over Fiordland National Park into the iconic Milford Sound — fodder for a million Instagram “likes”. Pitstops atop a glacier for a wine break have been known to take place.
My final stop will be the treetops at Hapuku Lodge and its elegantly appointed treehouses (from US$850 a night). Sandwiched between ocean surf and snowcapped peak, the lodge is a 2 1/2-hour- long coastal drive from the South Island’s main city, Christchurch.
Each treehouse is equipped with a jacuzzi, a wood-burning stove and a mini-fridge stocked with an eclectic collection of such local liquids as natural wines from the neighbouring Canterbury region and bright and bitter craft beers made with native hops.
It also includes one of the most plush and pillowy bedspreads ever set amid the trees. I know nothing of thread counts, but the 360-degree views are nothing short of majestic.
Luxury lodging is a compelling dream, but many Kiwis would be happy for any sort of roof over their heads. New Zealand has one of the highest homeless populations in the developing world, an issue laid more bare by the Covid-19 crisis.
While I wait for the border to reopen, I’m donating additional dollars to Habitat for Humanity New Zealand, which has already housed hundreds of families across the country in temporary shelters that they can work toward owning. They also construct pensioner housing and through facilities for elderly populations. — Bloomberg