Indagare’s Eliza Harris reports on her recent trip to New Zealand, where she explored both the North and South islands, experiencing the country’s jaw-dropping natural beauty and warm hospitality.
“Hop out here,” our New Zealand guide Doug Beech said as our helicopter alit on the sandy shore of the Tasman Sea. “It’s time to catch our lunch.” Curious, we stepped out onto the beach and surveyed our surroundings. My husband and I and our two teenage sons were on the third day of our family trip to New Zealand. We had spent the morning exploring the southwest coast of the South Island in a wilderness area called Fiordland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on our way towards Milford Sound, the iconic glacier-carved fjord. We had walked through a stretch of moss-carpeted rainforest, amongst bird calls, ducking under giant tree ferns to see long-whiskered seals lounging on the rocks amid the sound of surf. We had flown over braided rivers and swooped past granite cliffs and glaciers.
We ate overlooking the lake and the surrounding wilderness, on top of the world physically and mentally.
Doug attached a long rope with a big hook on the end to the bottom of the helicopter. As we stood by, the heli sped off, dipped the hook into the ocean, and miraculously managed to snag a wooden trap holding spiny rock lobsters. Our Minaret Station pilot Blair headed back with the trap dangling and spinning below. We loaded the lobsters into a cooler, boarded, then took off again. “Around the next corner,” Doug told Blair as we rose up through the Southern Alps. “That lake there.” He pointed to the summit of a nearby mountain with a wide, flat stretch of grass surrounding an emerald-green lake. We landed and got out to walk around and admire the view from 9,000 feet while Doug and Blair prepared our lunch: pan-fried lobster and steak with salads and fresh fruit. We ate overlooking the lake and the surrounding wilderness, on top of the world physically and mentally.
One of the great benefits of travel is the chance to try on a different way of life. The life our family got to try on in New Zealand was one in which we were outdoors all day on adventures, constantly exclaiming over the beauty that surrounded us, laughing with our rugged guides and feeling like this was exactly how life was meant to be lived. Over dinner, my husband put it this way: “It’s a land of majesty and awe and the people reflect that. They have a humility and they are grateful to walk this earth.” They are also cheeky. I mean, who other than a Kiwi would think, “You know what we should try? Catching lobster from a helicopter.”
New Zealand is compact and narrow, about the landmass of Colorado, with a population of just 5.1 million people, a third of whom live in Auckland. The Southern Alps form the spine of the South Island, wet to the west (rainforest, lush with ferns and silver beeches) and dry to the east (grassland). In the southwest corner of the country is Fiordland, a remarkable landscape of glacially carved, U-shaped valleys cut by waterfalls pouring into vast royal-blue lakes. While the Fiordland peaks are crenellated—all sharp, jagged edges, scree slopes and steep sides—the Alps further north near Christchurch are softened by tufted grasses, which give them gentler silhouettes and a tawny color. To the east is the flat, verdant farmland of the Canterbury Plains, where property borders are marked with long rows of poplar trees that serve as a windbreak from the strong prevailing westerlies.
If the South Island is for the mountains, the North Island is for the beach. It’s subtropical with warmer temperatures, palm trees, undulating lime-green hills, vast sandy beaches, teal water, and hundreds of islands that form an archipelago. It’s a place for surfing, ocean swims and boat excursions. One of the most charming islands is Waiheke, just off of Auckland, which is full of vineyards, art galleries and a groovy crowd. The North Island is also known for some of the best golf courses in the world, including Kauri Cliffs, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, Tara Iti and acclaimed newcomer Te Arai, expected to be soon named world’s best new golf course.
With so much wilderness to explore and so little infrastructure, you might imagine it would be hard for an outsider to find a foothold, but that is where New Zealand excels for the luxury traveler. Many of its dozen or so “super lodges,” as they are known, provide access to extraordinary remote areas that would be otherwise inaccessible. Take Minaret Station Alpine Lodge, for example, which was our first stop on our trip. Set on 50,000 acres of working farmland in Wanaka in the Southern Alps, just north of Fiordland, it is reachable only by helicopter or boat. The vision of the Wallis family, whose spirit infuses every part of the experience, it is an utterly unique and immersive lodge with only four cabins and a superb team, including a private chef. Because we wanted to make the most of our time, we came straight off the plane from the U.S. to a helicopter ride onto Minaret’s property, where we were dropped off a few miles east of the lodge. We then hiked our way along a river to a cabin in the woods, where we found our helicopter pilot sautéing fresh fish with cajun spices and garlic over a camp stove. After lunch, we continued our walk to the lodge. Arriving, it felt like we had already had a full-day excursion and we hadn’t even dropped our bags yet.
The second stop on our trip was the stylish Matakauri Lodge, in Queenstown. Ten years ago, on my first trip to New Zealand, I got it in my head that I wanted to come back with my family and hike one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. On our fourth day in the country, we got up early and did a 15-mile stretch of the Routeburn Track in Glenorchy. I had spent months training so that I could keep up with my “hill-fit” teenagers, which I mostly did (phew) over the 4,000 feet of elevation gain. The wide and perfectly groomed trail traverses beautiful sun-dappled woods with ferns, open understories and wobbly suspension bridges over rivers that run a robin’s-egg blue, but the real majesty is above the tree line. Kiwis take their meals very seriously and we came home to a three-course feast at Matakauri, much of it sourced from the garden on property. This, too, is part of the appeal of New Zealand: you can plan a trip going from one world-class lodge to the next. Each one is intimate, special, full of personality, and beautifully designed, with warm staff and farm-to-table food—a destination in itself.
The next day, we continued further north to the Homestead at Flockhill (Indagare’s full review coming soon), an exceptional new fully staffed, four-bedroom takeover villa. Set an hour and a half from Christchurch in the Southern Alps, Flockhill is a working sheep station. As with all the properties we visited, we quickly got to know and bonded with the staff, including the wonderful chef Craig and his fun brother Corie. Sean, our guide, took us out with his sheepdogs to show them in action. Obeying different whistles, they rounded up the sheep. The Heading dogs use eye contact to drive the sheep towards you, while the Huntaway dogs bark to move the sheep away. Sean deftly tackled a sheep, wrestled it to the ground, gently pulled its lip back and showed us how he checked its teeth to assess its health. He encouraged my oldest son to try and we all had some laughs as my son chased sheep around while they scattered. Sean also took us hiking through huge limestone boulders on the property. (Fun fact: The Dalai Lama meditated among them and called them the spiritual center of the universe.)
At the end of the week, my husband flew back to the States so the boys could go back to school, while I stayed on to see a few more properties. A highlight was the stunning new residences at The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs: three-bedroom villas with private pools that are perfect for families. I also saw the new Te Arai property in Mangawhai (Indagare’s full review coming soon), an hour north of Auckland. Set on a wide, gorgeous beach, it has a golf course that is considered one of the best in the world. I ended with a night at The Boatshed, a casual spot on Waiheke Island.
Having been to the country before, I had had high expectations for our trip, but they were all exceeded. In New Zealand, everything starts with the landscape. Because it’s a small country, it’s simple to get around and you can cover a lot of ground, even if you only have 10 days. I expected to like the South Island best, because it is so alpine, but I ended up torn between all of the different landscapes and unable to pick a favorite; the richness of the experience was in the variety and the contrasts. I did quite a few helicopter rides, the national hobby, and found them an excellent way to relish in the natural beauty and get a lay of the land. It’s so easy in New Zealand to live a life totally integrated with the outdoors. Yes, there are morning beach walks, ocean swims, boat rides, e-bikes and afternoon hikes. But it’s also everything in between. So many seemingly ordinary moments, like a simple airport transfer, provide transfixing beauty. There’s a wholesomeness and purity to New Zealand that helps you reconnect with the best parts of yourself, and this in turn helps you believe in the fundamental goodness of the world.
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