Amanda Jones
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Fabulous Four - New Zealand

Written by Amanda Jones for Town and Country

The New Zealand of my youth was a place of barefoot hikes in luminous woods and bareback canters across unfenced paddocks. Summers seemed like a protracted beach barbeque, hopping between rafted yachts and groups of happy-go-lucky people. The national work ethic sanctioned six weeks of holiday for everyone, and everyone took every second of it. But back then New Zealand was also a place of mediocre cuisine, unimaginative hotels, and a cavalier attitude towards sophistication. Thirty years ago, my country was not a place for the luxury traveler.

I left twenty years ago to move to the States, and during those twenty years New Zealand has quietly reinvented itself. So much so that when they won the America’s Cup, when terrorism drove tourism to the haven of the South Pacific, and when the Lord of the Rings trilogy flabbergasted millions with its scenery, the country was prepared. 

Endowed with an almost hyperbolic abundance of topography, New Zealand has always drawn naturalists with its beauty. But in the past five years tourism has spiked by 35% because it has now also become a Mecca for fishermen, gourmands, families, and adrenaline junkies in search of non-litigious playgrounds. And, as if they felt the need to atone for past negligence, the hospitality industry takes the concept of luxury very, very seriously. By day visitors can be as active or inactive as they please surrounded by scenic splendor, but by night they are assured of Frette linens, sumptuous décor, top-notch wine lists, and exceptional cuisine.

The sophistication found in New Zealand today is world-class—but with a uniquely Kiwi flourish. Much of this comes from the cultural convention that expects young New Zealanders to travel abroad. Call it island fever, but New Zealanders refer to it their “O.E.,” or “Overseas Experience,” and any resume is bereft without it. From the sheep farmer to the CEO, most Kiwis have traveled overseas for a year or longer, and with their maverick pluck, many experience the best of the best while they are away. They study culinary arts in Paris, architecture in Florence, design in London, retail in New York; then they grow heartsick for empty beaches and ocean-washed air and return home. They incorporate their newfound urbanity, incorporating it with New Zealand products, art, lore and the vibrant sense of humor. Lately, several of these sophisticates have returned to create uber-luxe rural lodges.

It wasn’t until 1984 that New Zealand had a lodge befitting the sophisticated traveler. Huka Lodge, a fishing retreat, was revamped, drawing a multi-national crowd. Fifteen years later a string of luxury lodges began opening—Wharekauhau, Blanket Bay, Kauri Cliffs, Paratiho Estate, and Treetops. Many of these frequent the “World’s Best” lists and are widely touted in travel and design magazines. In the meantime other, smaller lodges and boutique hotels have opened, also catering to the elite traveler. These have had less coverage, and many are in New Zealand’s more gloriously remote areas.

Having previously stayed at (and loved) the six abovementioned “Superlodges” as they are known, I had an urge to try these other intimate lodges and hotels, in part because they are owned and operated by Antipodeans (three of the of the Superlodges are owned by Americans). Many are also in locations where larger lodges cannot operate.

Rob Young, owner of Exclusively New Zealand, a New Zealand-based company organizing private luxury travel, assisted me in choosing my accommodation. In order to eke the most from my time, he also arranged for me to be transported by helicopter where possible and have private guides for activities.

New Zealanders own more helicopters per capita than any other country. There are many reasons for this—one being their sheer love of adventure and excitement, another being the convenience of avoiding tedious drives on harrowing country roads (many still metal). For the visitor, swooping over the landscape is like watching your very own IMAX movie. Every exclusive lodge in the country has a helipad and helicopters are a safe, fast way to access remote wilderness for fishing or hiking. A helicopter can land where no road goes.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for travelers to pick up a helicopter at the airport in Auckland and never step foot on a commercial flight.

And being privately guided means you are immediately whisked off the well-trod tourist path and shown some of the most isolated and beautiful areas of the country, often on private land. Guides also have a tendency to encourage participation in activities you might not be brave enough to do alone, but once you’ve done them, you’ll talk about it for the rest of your life.

A helicopter met me at the Auckland airport and airlifted me to Waiheke, an island 12 miles off the city. Located on an isthmus of the central North Island, Auckland, although built around a lovely harbor, has over a million inhabitants, making it the New Zealand’s largest and most congested city. It is also where most international flights land.

Aucklanders consider Waiheke to be sybaritic refuge. The island spans 37 square miles and has flame-tree-fringed beaches, sapphire swimming waters, award-winning vineyards, excellent restaurants, and good hiking in native bush.

“Remember when Waiheke was once a happy hangout for hippies?”  Sally Tagg, an Auckland magazine photographer reminded me. “We never went there. Well, now it’s the in-place to build a palatial home and plant grapevines.”  Real estate prices on Waiheke have skyrocketed as savvy Americans and wealthy New Zealanders snap up its verdant shoreline. Locals boat out in the summer to swim in sheltered bays and have lengthy lunches on the loggia at the Mudbrick, one of New Zealand’s finest restaurants.

Because there are no large hotels on the island, most travelers don’t make out here. However, now there’s the Delamore, a superb four-suite lodge. Visitors can bypass the fray of the city and helicopter directly into the nature they came to see. Located on Waiheke’s bushy northwestern tip, Delamore opened in 2002 and immediately became the trendy locale for national celebrity weddings and romantic getaways. Built of curvaceous stucco with an earthy, Mediterranean feel, each glass-fronted suite has a 280-degree view of the sea and silhouetted city. For those who crave the city lights, reaching Auckland takes 30-minutes by ferry or seven minutes by helicopter.

Between gourmet meals at Delamore, guests walk the island’s meandering trails and beaches, wine taste, and visit the galleries selling local art and chic mother-of-pearl jewelry. The island also has gourmet olive oil plantations, and the quality is so good that one won a blind tasting in Italy.

New Zealand’s South Island is the larger and lesser visited of the two islands, and at the risk of seeming traitorous (I was raised in Auckland), I think of it as the more spectacular. In landmass New Zealand is comparable to Japan or California, but the population is a mere four million (as opposed to Japan’s 128 million and California’s 36 million). Three of the four million live on the North Island, leaving the South Island with great tracts of open wilderness.

On 13,000 acres of this wilderness is Grasmere Estate, a lodge located in the Canterbury High Country of the central South Island. Cantabrian landscape is so dramatic that the upcoming film The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, starring Nicole Kidman, chose to locate the surreal land of Narnia among Canterbury’s ancient escarpments, boulder plains, expanses of sky, and swift rivers. On the valley floor, Grasmere sits on green plains hemmed by the towering majesty of the Southern Alps, the mountains that run like a spine down the center of the island.

At first sight, Grasmere reminded me of an English gentry country house with its mullioned windows, overstuffed chairs, stacks of cloth-bound books, roaring fires and glasses of port at the ready. Grasmere’s main building is an historic house from the settler days, nestled at the foot of mountains with the gloomy names Mt. Horrible and Mt. Misery. “Those Brits were a cheery bunch,” chuckled Tom Butler, Grasmere’s gracious young manager. “Settlers came from England, often the black-sheep sons of aristocrats who were bribed to leave home. Not much used to hard work.”  Nowadays, the homestead has been converted into an elegantly genteel lodge for 26 guests, perfect for couples or families traveling together. I was in a recently built River View suite, with a massive window framing a never-ending view down the valley.

Grasmere is in what the New Zealanders call the “backabeyond,” a three-hour drive or a 25-minute helicopter flight from Christchurch, the nearest city. The closest town to the lodge is Cass, population: one, sole inhabitant: Barry, the self-elected mayor. There is an authentic frontier feeling to Canterbury.

Over a silver service meal of salmon mousse and homegrown venison, I was introduced to Liam Taylor, my guide for the next few days. Liam was like most South Islanders—forthright, cheerful and genuine. Like the two islands, New Zealand is also divided in attitude. As one Aucklander put it, Southern men are “tough country blokes who could survive a month in the bush with nuthin’ but a strip of rawhide and a bit of fencing wire.” I’d wager Southern women could do the same. In return, those tough Southerners think of the North Island as a mouse-on-a-wheel morass. It is true that the South Island is populated almost entirely with relaxed, wholesome, happy people. When confronted with anything that resembles a problem, the inevitable response is, “No wurries mate, she’ll be right.” And it typically is.

Later, a friend of Liam’s told me a story that illustrates the Southern mindset. He’d been out fishing with a friend when their Range Rover broke down on a lonely backcountry road. Guffawing, he recounted how he handled what would surely be considered a life-threatening crisis in the States. It was winter and a storm was coming in. “I always keep a crate (of beer) in the back just in case, so we grabbed some Steinies (Steinlagers) and started walking. About ten kilometers later it was pitch black and snowing. We still had several miles to go, but it was great—we had plenty of beer, yarns to spin, and it was a real beauty of a night.” 

Liam had laid out an activity plan involving hiking through native bush, horseback riding, wading a river-cave, and fly-fishing—his specialty.

Canterbury has excellent fly-fishing. River water is gin-clear and fishing is done by sight. You spot the trout, creep up and catch it. At least that’s how effortless Liam made it look.

Further towards the southern end of the central South Island is Queenstown, a mountain township at the heart of the Lakes District. The surrounding area is where Lord of the Rings crews filmed much of the scenery viewers assumed was computer-generated. Most of it wasn’t.

Queenstown is a hopping, hip town with many large hotels, good restaurants, adventure outfitters and chic shops. Tourism keeps the town alive and Queenstown caters to everyone from the backpacker to the high-end traveler. In 2002 Eichardt’s Private Hotel opened, cocooning travelers in its unabashed opulence. Built in what was once a plush 1860s gold rush hotel, Eichardt’s sits on the edge of Lake Wakatipu in central Queenstown and is arguably New Zealand’s most ravishing boutique hotel. Of the five sublime suites, most overlook the lake, and they all have rich, velvety living rooms, fireplaces, and unrivalled bathrooms (with the largest bottles of private label shampoo you’ll ever pilfer). Tossed casually across each bed is a luxuriant possum-fur throw.

Before venturing to New Zealand it’s important to understand that possums are considered awful pests. Introduced from Australia, there are now 70 million of them raping the native forests. Possum fur is boldly labeled “eco-fur,” and it’s turned into deliciously warm hats, sweaters, cushions and coats. Anyone who calls them “cute” is liable to receive a withering glower. While it takes tremendous chutzpa to call any fur “eco,” you’re indeed doing the nation a favor to buy anything made of possum.

Virginia Fisher, New Zealand’s superstar interior designer (Huka Lodge, Kauri Cliffs and Wharehaukau), was given free rein with Eichardt’s. The result is a glorious mix of state-of-the-art and old-world, seamlessly blending glass, slate, pebble, wood and steel with the original stone and precious antiques. Eichardt’s breakfasts are sublime and the service is prescient, never obsequious (New Zealanders don’t believe in fawning). At night, I would return from walking beside the inky lake to a roaring fire lit in my fireplace and a bottle of port and cheese bedside.

During the days in Queenstown, my local guide John Thomssen (JT) would take me out exploring. Handsome and oozing adrenaline, JT had me signed up to horse ride, river raft, fish, kayak, hike and paraglide. I had, after all, requested some “light adventure.” A typical Southern Man, JT was expert and wickedly irreverent. Having him around was plain fun.

It rained on the day we helicoptered into Milford Sound, a soaring fiord on the West Coast and one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions. We took off in brilliant sunshine, flew low over emerald lakes and wind-beaten hills, rising high above craggy, snow-mottled peaks. We hovered above the spray of waterfalls as they leapt off rock cliffs and disappeared into bristling bush below. Then we swept into Milford Sound and descended into cloud and drizzle.

There is a fact that New Zealanders like to keep to themselves. The Milford Sound, although impressive, has some of the worst weather in the country. It’s also heaving with tourists. “It keeps the tour buses out of the other gorgeous places,” our heli pilot Alfie Speight told us. “Just send ’em all to one spot.”  Thousands of people trek, bus, boat or fly into Milford daily. Later, JT conjured an appropriate analogy. “Everyone wants to go to Milford. They’re upset when the weather is bad and won’t go somewhere 20 miles east where the weather is good and it’s equally gorgeous. It would be like going to Yosemite and refusing to see anything other than El Capitan.” 

The rain forced us to cancel a kayaking trip in the Sound. Instead, the helicopter headed east, landing on a glacier encircled with spires of ice and snow. Breaking above the sea of cloud the snowy summit of Mount Ernslaw floated, island-like, against a cornflower blue sky.

Back in Queenstown, wine tasting is always a compelling alternative to adventure. The Gibbston Valley, located 15 minutes outside Queenstown, is New Zealand’s Napa Valley with sprawling estates and cutting-edge architecture. Movie stars and well-heeled professionals own holiday sanctuaries or retirement homes among the downy pastures and thriving grapevines. The actor Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) lives near Two Paddocks, his winery, bottling an especially delightful pinot noir.

These wineries continue most of the way to Wanaka, a town one hour north of Queenstown by road or ten minutes by helicopter. Wanaka is a place locals claim has preserved the rural atmosphere of Queenstown 20 years ago. Situated among more glorious scenery, the tiny township is dwarfed by the immensity of the surrounding mountains and the otherworldly blue of the fronting glacial lake.

Whare Kea, a six-bedroom lodge, sits high on a cliff above Lake Wanaka. Wisely, Whare Kea’s refined Nordic décor doesn’t compete with the staggering scenery surrounding it. With mainly glass walls, the building is pivoted to frame the lake, Mt Aspiring and the tailbone of the Southern Alps.

To push the idea of luxury wilderness accommodation to its outer-limits, Whare Kea is building one of the world’s most secluded retreats. On a ridge at 5,600 feet, the two-bedroom Alpine Chalet sits alone among rumpled, purple-hued mountains. Guests will be helicoptered in, discreetly accompanied by a guide and a chef. It is supremely romantic to be in those solitary, silent mountains, surrounded by only the majestic nonchalance of nature.

Silence is possibly the prime reason to go to Wanaka. There’s not much nightlife or shopping here, although there are two excellent restaurants. But for those who revere the outdoors, it’s paradise. In winter, heli-skiing operators collect guests from Whare Kea’s helipad, and in summer there are endless rivers to fish, valleys to hike, trails to bike and cliffs to either scale or jump from. 

JT managed to convince me that I ought to leap off a 5,000-foot cliff on nearby Treble Cone Mountain strapped to a tandem paragliding pilot. Among my accompanying jumpers was an American woman who went from adamantly stating, “I will never do this,” to being the first to “woo-hoo” off the cliff. The combination of the New Zealand wilderness and the enthusiasm of the guides seem to have that effect on people. 

For less extreme adventurers, there are plenty of serene activities to be had in the Wanaka region. The Clutha River is an excellent place for a guided float fishing or inflatable “funyack” trip, and the river is so fish-laden that it’s possible to keep a trout for dinner. Most fishing in New Zealand is catch-and-release and it is illegal to sell trout, but in certain areas it’s permissible to take one back to the lodge and have the chef prepare a meal. The hidden Matukituki Valley has what locals consider as one of the country’s loveliest hikes with grand glacial scenery, a swing-bridge draped over a raging river, and not a tour bus in sight.

From being a quaint backwater, New Zealand has morphed into one of the world’s pet destinations for the discerning traveler. You can find everything you desire there now. But, despite this gentrification, the people have managed to retain their relaxed love of life. The country still possesses the curative power of nature and that soul-rousing promise of adventure we all need from time to time to remain sane and alive.

Telephone numbers listed below, except for toll-free ones, should be preceded by 011-64 when dialed from the United States. When in New Zealand, put a 0 before the first number if calling from out of town.

Best Time To Go

Summer in New Zealand is November to April. The best months to go are February and March. The busy season is over and the weather is best.

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies several times daily to Auckland. They now have direct flights from San Francisco. 800-262-1235;


New Zealanders are more formal than one might imagine. Dressing for dinner is standard, although a coat is not required for men at the mentioned lodges. Always bring warm clothing— a fleece and a rain jacket.

Travel Arrangements

Exclusively New Zealand
7-579-2731; fax: 7-579-2732;

My entire trip—hotels, helicopters, guides and most activities were booked through Exclusively New Zealand prior to departure. Extra costs include restaurant meals and additional activities. Trip prices vary according to accommodations, transport and activities.

All rates are in US dollars and are per night, double occupancy using the conversion rate at the time of press.

Delamore Lodge: Suites $540 USD ($894NZD); rates include breakfast and dinner. Cuisine at Delamore is creative and munificent, with four-course meals the standard. There is also a spa offering massage and Lithos hot rocks treatment.
9-372-7372; fax: 9-372-7382; 

Grasmere Lodge: Suites from $726 ($1,200 NZD) to $970 ($1,600 NZD); rates include breakfast, a five-course dinner and pre-dinner drinks; 3-318-8407; fax 3-318-8263; Grasmere is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

Eichardt's Private Hotel: Lake View Suites$965 (NZ$1595); Mountain View Suites $833 (NZ$1375); rates include breakfast and pre-dinner cocktails; 3-441-0450; fax: 3-441-0440;      

Whare Kea Lodge: Rooms are $606 (NZ $1,000). Request one of the larger suites (same price). The front suite has the best views. 3-443-1400; fax: 3-4439200; Dinner is part of the stay, with inventive food typically cooked from local ingredients. Be aware that meals are served with guests seated as a group. You can request in advance to be seated separately.

Where to Eat

Waiheke Island: The Mudbrick Café 9-372-9050 is one of the area’s most highly acclaimed restaurant. Te Whau Vineyard café 9 372 7191, at the other end of the island, is architecturally stunning and another great place lunch, and it boasts the most extensive wine menu in the country.

Queenstown and surrounds: Saffron 3 442 0131, a restaurant in the quaint gold-mining township Arrowtown, a 20-minute drive from Queenstown, is known world-over. Reservations are imperative. Try the whitebait and delicate local salmon. Also in Queenstown is the chic new Postmasters House 3-442-0991. Although they don’t serve food, stop at the sleekly modern Peregrine Winery 3 442-4000 outside Queenstown to taste their excellent late harvest Riesling. 

Gibbston Valley Winery café 64 3 441 1388 is a great place to taste award-wining wines and eat an excellent pastoral lunch. For dinner in Queenstown, try the uber-chic Bunker 3-441-8030, with only nine tables, a roaring fire and excellent cuisine. Lunch at the intimate Eichardt’s House Bar can’t be beaten; 3-442-0450.

Wanaka: Lunch at the charming Mediterranean-influenced White House 3 443 05010is an excellent choice. For dinner try Ambrosia 3-443-4330. The historic Cardrona Hotel is good for an outdoor, casual lunch 3-443-8153. 

Helicopter Tours

North Island: Heli-Flight; 9-299-1104;

South Island
Queenstown: Heliworks; 3-249-7167;


All activities were arranged using Exclusively New Zealand guides, with the exception of the following:

Paragliding – Lucky Montana’s  Flying Circus; 0800-247-287. Tandem paragliding can be had either after being towed up by a speedboat over Lake Wanaka, or from a cliff. It’s worth doing for the views alone.

Via Ferrata (Iron Way)—; 03 409 0696. For anyone who has ever dreamed of rock climbing the Via Ferrata, or Iron Way, a climbing hill outside Queenstown is the perfect activity. Climbers strap on helmets, harnesses, and then, after safety instruction, they are led up 1,200 feet of sheer rock face. The difference—there are iron rungs drilled into the side of the hill, making it akin to climbing a serpentine ladder.

Moonlight Stables; 3-442-1240;  A private 750-acre farm, you can ride spirited Standard Breed mounts through pre-Fall willows, over rivers and through paddocks. All riding levels accepted.

For more information: , or in the US, call 1-866-639-9325 (open 24 hours)