Kate Ayrton connects the dots between the North and South Island on the ultimate Kiwi road trip with pit stops at some of New Zealand’s finest hotels.
If you want to experience the best that New Zealand has to offer, then the concept of Relais & Chateaux’ “Routes de Bonheur” is hard to bypass. This exclusive French hotel collection has been drawing in discerning travelers since 1954 when a group of hoteliers and restaurateurs between Paris and the French Riviera rallied together to share their passion for excellence, fine cuisine and the art de vivre. In its nascence, there were just eight establishments along the “route de bonheur”—a road affectionately known as the “road to happiness” because it led out of the city and towards the coast. Some 58 years later there are 518 members in 60 countries, including six in New Zealand.
Sydney to Auckland
My journey really begins on the Air New Zealand flight from Sydney to Auckland when I buckle up to the hilarious video of Richard Simmons doing an eighties-disco version of “fit to fly”—the most entertaining in-flight safety demonstration video you’ll ever see and a good introduction to Kiwi humor. If that doesn’t put you in the zone then an episode of the Flight of the Concords and a glass of “New Zeeelan suv blunc” should do the trick. Arriving in Auckland, I’m met by a local guide courtesy of the Exclusive Travel Group who cheerfully chaperones me through downtown “Auckers” toward the waterfront Sofitel Auckland with a view of the marina and home to the legendary America’s Cup sailing yacht. Known as the “city of sails,” what better way to start the trip than aboard New Zealand’s pride and joy, NZL 41, on a sunset sail around the capital’s Waitemata Harbour, meaning “sea of sparkling waters.”
Auckland to Taupo
While there’s much to see and do in Auckland, I’m keen to get on the road to Lake Taupo to visit New Zealand’s most iconic hotel, Huka Lodge, nestled on the banks of the trout-filled Waikato River with its crystal clear waters. Built in the 190s as a fishing lodge, its fame soon spread all over the world attracting avid anglers like Charles Lindbergh and Sir Edmund Hillary, along with H.M. Queen Elizabeth II and H.R.H The Duke of Edinburgh (the list goes on…). Renovated by Dutch-born entrepreneur Alex van Heeren in 1984, this award-winning hotel is more than just a sporting lodge, it’s a piece of history and understandably regarded as one of the top retreats in the world.
Discreet, elegant and intimate, the main house sits in the middle of 17-acres of beautifully manicured grounds overlooking the river and blends traditional Anglo-Scottish décor with unique Maori art and sculpture, including an old British Empire style “Trophy Room” complete with stuffed animal heads and portraits of the Queen. If that’s not your cup of tea then check out the subterranean wine cellar, which is lovingly and knowledgeably stocked by Huka’s General Manager, Louis de Bièvre, who presides over the estate with great pride and gusto, seeming to hail from another world and another time. The cavernous stone rooms are perfect for candlelit dinner parties with no fear of waking up the guests—only a few spirits.
Dotted along the river are 18 low wooden Junior Lodge Suites with beautiful riverside views and sliding doors that open up onto a private deck. The interiors are sumptuously decorated in natural muted colors with soft furnishings and ambient lighting to create a feeling of peace and calm, as well as a fireplace and thick duvets to snuggle into on misty mornings. Book-ending either end of the property are two large private cottages: the original Owners Cottage, which contains four suites, and the newer Alan Pye Cottage containing two suites. Each has its own infinity pool, private garden and entrance; both are stunning.
The Owners Cottage was originally built in 1937 and is virtually hidden from sight, cocooned in its own universe. Beautifully styled in cream and camel colors the décor evokes character, comfort and a bygone era as suggested by a pair of lovingly restored 190’s French oak armchairs. The cottage also displays some wonderful artwork by some of New Zealand’s foremost artists—Max Gimbler, Mervyn Taylor, Don Binney, Paul Dibble and Dick Frizzel to name a few. The Alan Pye Cottage is a more modern interpretation of the traditional Arts and Crafts bungalow. Bold colors that compliment and reflect the turquoise river give it an eclectic yet elegant vibe that doesn’t substitute style for comfort. Ideal for entertaining, this is a popular venue for weddings and special events.
Once settled in your room, it’s hard to leave given all the creature comforts but dining at Huka Lodge is an unmissable and very social event. Guests traditionally gather in the main lodge for complimentary pre-dinner drinks before dining communally at one long table to feast on the Chef’s five-course dinner showcasing the best local seasonal ingredients. (Alternatively, guests may dine privately in one of the many romantic settings on the estate, including the Queen’s favorite—a cozy table by the fire in the library.)
Invariably conversation turns to the day’s activities and this is an ideal time to figure out your plans for the next day, whether it be a spot of fly fishing on the Tongariro River, para-sailing on Lake Taupo, river rafting on the Rangitaiki River, horse riding through the local countryside or taking a heli-trip to explore the volcanically active Whakaari (White Island). Back at the lodge, guests can enjoy the heated pool, tennis, pètanque and croquet, as well as a range of beauty and massage treatments. If you’re looking for location with haute style and stellar service—Huka Lodge is in a class all of its own. A charming and impressive place where the the answer is always yes.
Taupo to Hawke’s Bay
Next stop is Hawke’s Bay, a scenic two-and-a-half hour drive from central Taupo on the southeast coast of the North Island. Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s second largest wine growing region and home to over 70 wineries. Also a well-known pastoral farming area, it is often referred to as the ‘fruitbowl of New Zealand’ making it a popular destination for epicureans. We stop at the Te Awa Winery in the Gimblett Gravels wine region for a tipple before making our way up the chalky escarpment to The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, which sits in pole position 1000 feet above the bay on 6,000 acres of rolling hills with breathtaking views of the Pacific.
Cape Kidnappers was one of the first places in New Zealand to be visited by Europeans, and Captain James Cook gave the bay its name in 1769 when local Maori tried to kidnap the servant to his Tahitian interpreter. Among Maori, however, the Cape will always be known as te Matau o Maui or “the hook of Maui.” Today it is owned by American hedge-fund pioneer Julian Robertson and his family who fell in love with the area and bought up the large tract of land in the 90s. A ten-minute drive from the front gate to the main house crosses a working sheep and cattle farm, and the property is now home to one of the world’s most spectacular coastal golf courses designed by legendary golf architect Tom Doak.
The Farm is anything but, rather it’s a luxe agricultural estate spread across the hilltops with clusters of barn-like cottages, impeccably decked out with large porches, high-vaulted ceilings and big picture windows that drink in panoramic views. In total, there are 24 large guest suites, all designed with rustic flair using sheepskins and old farm equipment as wall decorations with fireplaces to cozy up to on cool nights. The commodious bathrooms offer scenic views from the over-sized tubs, perfect for soaking in at twilight.
The main house stands as an elegantly converted barn and silo with a strong rural vibe and a very natural charm. Natural daylight and candlelight enhance the ambience, including the use of old copper milk urns as lamps. Designed by an Aspen, Colorado-based interior designer who had previously worked with the owners in Sun Valley, Idaho, Linda Bedell’s clever use of wood, stone, straw, leather, sheepskin, cowhide, and wrought iron elements has helped create a complimentary sylvan setting against the dramatic backdrop of the Cape Kidnappers bluff.
Dining at the The Farm is a highlight for foodies keen to sample the local produce. Chef Tim Pickering works closely with local farmers, butchers and cheesemakers to create an à la carte dinner menu that changes nightly. Previously a formal affair, The Farm has recently relaxed their evening dress code so that guests may gather for drinks and dine in casual attire, which seems more fitting with the comfortable surroundings. No point feeling constricted when you sit down to a feast!
A good way to walk off all the fabulous meals is along one of the property’s numerous nature trails through forests and native bush or take a cliff side hike down to the beach and visit the gannet colony where 20,000 some birds can be seen carrying out their daily routine from September until May. The lodge also offers special Kiwi Discovery Walks where guests can get up close and personal with New Zealand’s national symbol. About the size of a domestic fowl, the very cute kiwi, a rare and endangered bird, has coarse, bristly, hair-like feathers and can easily be cuddled in two hands. Because kiwis are a semi-nocturnal, secretive and flightless bird, few New Zealanders have even seen their national bird in the wild, let alone held one.
For thrill seekers there is also horse riding, ATV quad biking, paragliding and my personal favorite, hot air ballooning where you float over farmland, orchards and vineyards and admire the passing backdrop of distant mountain ranges with a glass of champagne in your hand. But be sure to check out the lodge’s Summer Series, which offers a range of special activities on certain days of the week to entertain guests. (Summer Series events run Dec. 23rd – Mar. 31st and are complimentary.)
No trip to The Farm would be complete without a few stolen hours in the Cape Kidnappers Spa neatly tucked into the hill above the main farmhouse. It has the best views and is an ideal sanctuary for humans who can enjoy earth stone massage treatments, jade and crystal facials, and geothermal scrub and mud wraps in a stylish and relaxed environment. Follow up your treatment with a sunset swim in the nearby infinity pool and jacuzzi, complete with its own mini-bar and poolside cabana, perfect for conking out in after a hard day’s work on the land.
Hawke’s Bay to Nelson
Swapping our wheels for wings we have to wrench ourselves away from Cape Kidnappers to travel by air from Napier on the North Island to Nelson on the South Island. Surprisingly, there are no direct flights and we have to transit through Wellington, which makes the journey one hour and 40 minutes long. It’s faster than driving, but nevertheless a rude interruption to the enjoyable, leisurely pace we have set for ourselves on the road. After a few delays, we are happy to get back into the driving seat again in Napier and make tracks to our next destination, the enchanting Edenhouse hotel—an English style country-house located in the beautiful Orinoco Valley, 45-minutes from the airport on the northern tip of the South Island.
Situated on 48 acres of private grounds, this boutique hotel is a hidden gem with a secret garden that is a not only a labor of love, but a work of art, which green thumbs will relish. Hosts Peter and Bobbie Martin make you feel more like houseguests than hotel guests, rustling up delicious home-cooked meals in the kitchen with fresh produce harvested from the garden and orchards. After living in the UK for 18 years, the couple decided to return to Bobbie’s native New Zealand in 2001 with the aim of building a holiday house large enough to accommodate friends and family (including Annie, the family golden Labrador). Friends soon came, and then friends of friends, and the transformation from private house to boutique hotel was complete, making it one of the most popular destinations on the South Island. Only 30 minutes from Abel Tasman National Park, Edenhouse is close to one of New Zealand’s most spectacular natural wonders offering golden beaches, aquamarine waters and idyllic bush walks—a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts.
Nelson to Christchurch
From Nelson to Christchurch in the Canterbury region, it’s a six-hour drive across the scenic Southern Alps via Arthur’s Pass, about 2000 meters above sea level. Before heading east, be sure to stop at Punakaiki to see the pancake rocks, blowholes and famous sea lion colony. The Arthur’s Pass National Park is a contrasting landscape of two halves. On the eastern side you’ll see wide, shingle-filled riverbeds and vast swathes of beech forest. Descend the western side and you venture through dense rainforest alongside deeply gorged rivers. Along the way, watch out for New Zealand’s inquisitive and cheeky alpine parrot, the kea, who tried to rip the windshield wipers off our car… for fun! The Tranz Alpine rail service is another option and considered to be one of the world’s great scenic train journeys.
Whether by plane, train or automobile, arriving at the fabled Otahuna Lodge on the outskirts of Christchurch at dusk is a pastoral delight. The white picket fence that lines the long driveway past a field of daffodils creates a dramatic entrance. The stunning Queen Anne mansion shines brightly against a blazing backdrop of red and orange sun-soaked hills and is gently reflected in an ornamental lake. If ever a house said, “Ta dahh!,” this must be it.
Built in 1859 by a local lawyer and politician, Sir Heaton Rhodes, the 30-acre estate has been lovingly restored (not once, but twice) by two remarkable Manhattan escapees who left New York after 9/11 hoping to find somewhere safe, sane and calm to live their lives. Hundreds of earthquakes later, both the house and its brave guardians are still here with a dedication to resurrection that would make their hometown proud. Listed with the National Historical Places Trust, Otahuna (meaning “little hill among the hills” in Maori) has also been recognized as a “Garden of National Significance” by the New Zealand Gardens Trust. Standing on the front doorstep ready to greet us, Hall Cannon and Miles Refo, warmly receive us in the company of their friendly staff. The house is lit up and sparkling; we feel like we are walking into an episode of “Downton Abbey.”
Inside the seven-suite lodge distinctive features such as the hand-carved Kauri staircase, Rimu paneling, original headlights and fifteen, working wood-burning fireplaces have made Otahuna a bit of a celebrity in historic home renovations. Tastefully done, Miles and Hall have spared no expense in maintaining and enhancing the integrity of this unique property without making it so precious that you are afraid to touch anything. Otahuna is a living museum but one that you can feel totally comfortable in. After our long drive from Nelson, I yearned for a hot bath and a cup of tea. Ben, one of Otahuna’s guest hosts, shows me to my room—the Verandah Suite, where HRH the Duke of York once slept. As if on cue, Ben offers to draw me a bath (bubbles and all), lights the wood-burning fire in front of it and makes me the perfect cup of tea. I practically swoon.
Downstairs, guests gather for cocktails in the drawing room at six like mysterious characters in a game of Cluedo, but Miles and Hall soon make everyone feel relaxed and like old friends before the house party really gets underway at the communal dining table in the resplendent Victorian dining room. Each evening, Otahuna’s chefs orchestrate a menu of five small courses matched with a flight of the finest New Zealand wines. The organic ingredients come mostly from the Lodge’s own potager garden and orchard, which contains 120 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Our dinner consists of tasty morsels such as Otahuna onion soup with homemade sourdough croutons, walnuts, Barry’s Bay cheddar and sage; seared yellow fin tuna with fennel and lemon risotto, followed by a mouth-watering caramelized granny smith apple tart with apple sorbet, perfectly finished with a ‘La Strada’ Spatlesse Riesling from the Marlborough region.
Apart from stepping back in time and disporting oneself around the mesmerizing estate—(I’m tempted to take up embroidery)—cooking classes are a popular pastime at Otahuna. Guests can enjoy a three-hour, hands-on cooking lesson with Executive Chef Jimmy McIntyre who provides an overview of the philosophies behind the Lodge’s celebrated food and wine program and a chance to learn first-hand cooking techniques in the kitchen. Private tours of local food and wine purveyors can also be arranged.
Other activities include excursions to the scenic French settlement of Akaroa with its charming picture-book streets with French names and patisseries, as well as the chance to swim with the world’s smallest and rarest dolphins, the Hector’s dolphins. Nearby Christchurch has been through a lot recently, but it’s still worth a visit, even if only to show support for the local community who has demonstrated such incredible resilience, determination and innovation in rebuilding their beloved city. Ditto for Otahuna!
Christchurch to Queenstown
The spectacular drive from Christchurch to Queenstown takes about seven hours through Farlie and the twin lakes, Tekapo and Pukaki, which are part of the Upper Waitaki Hydro Electricity project, from which New Zealand gets about 70% of its power. A popular camping area, it’s a good spot to stop for a scenic picnic, as is Aoraki Mount Cook, half way between Christchurch and Queenstown. Be sure to arrive in Queenstown before dark so you don’t miss the jaw-dropping views of the Remarkables rising over Lake Wakatipu.
We check into Eichardts Private Hotel on the shores of the lake— an ideal place to base yourself when exploring this exciting region that caters to both mountain and water lovers with a raft of high-octane activities such as skiing in the winter, bungy jumping, canyon swinging, jet boating, horse trekking and river rafting all year round. The stylish hotel is only a stone’s throw from the centre of town with easy access to restaurants and shopping.
Just outside of Queenstown the rugged Central Otago landscape beckons wine lovers, especially those prone to a drop of Pinot-Noir, grown locally at one of the many vineyards. If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan you’ll recognize many of the locations of Middle-earth here. Twenty minutes from Queenstown, Arrowtown’s gold-mining history is alive and vibrant in this quaint village that looks like a movie set. Visit the Lakes District Museum or go gold panning at Kawaru Gorge. Forty minutes from Queenstown at the northern tip of Lake Wakatipu is rural Glenorchy and Paradise Valley. From here it’s a short drive into the Mt Aspiring National Park and the start of some of New Zealand’s great walks.
Queenstown to Wanaka
No trip to Queenstown is complete without a visit to Lake Wanaka, an hour’s scenic drive north of Queenstown, or 20 minutes by helicopter (the favored mode of transport for locals). This is where some of the world’s richest people and famous celebrities come to escape the limelight and get back to nature. Martyn and Louise Myer, scions of Australia’s leading retail family, became so intoxicated and passionate about the area that they decided to turn their holiday home into an award-winning boutique hotel perched on the edge of the lake. Whare Kea Lodge & Chalet offers the best of Kiwi hospitality in a very personal and unique setting. (Click here to read our feature on it.)
Sadly, our incredible journey is drawing to an end, and we wanted to save the best for last, so we opt for a heli-tour to the Milford Sounds and Fiordland National Park, flying over lush native and beech forests, glaciers, lakes and rivers. A truly breathtaking experience!
On the way back, we drop in at Minaret Station, a tented luxury camp high in the Southern Alps, for a guided walk and late lunch in the Mountain Kitchen before returning to enjoy our last night at Whare Kea Lodge where we dine with a young couple on the first night of their two-week trip. They want to know where to go. Where do I start? The road to happiness is long and filled with many twists and turns along the way, but it’s hard to go wrong with a Relais & Chateaux guidebook in your hands.
To book this trip with the Exclusive Travel Group, click here to view the complete itinerary.
* Note: Only Huka Lodge, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, Otahuna Lodge & Whare Kea Lodge & Chalet are part of the Relais & Chateaux hotel group.