See diverse New Zealand in all its glory
New Zealand | July 12, 2018
Stunningly beautiful scenery, ample space and a network of incredible luxury lodges.
It’s completely silent. No noise, no people; just me and a breathtaking view.
A view so spectacular, it feels like droves of tourists must be hiding around the corner waiting to jump out and interrupt my special moment. But that would be impossible – the only way to reach this spot is by helicopter.
It’s not often we’re left alone. Especially in this social media age, where we share our every moment with one another. It’s rare that you get to escape; time and space are luxuries in themselves these days. But I was well and truly alone (if you don’t include my helicopter pilot, Rhys) on the 6,100ft-high Mount Tutoko glacier. The mountain’s peak is the highest in the Fiordland National Park.
I’d landed here as part of a heli tour with operator Over The Top, which started in Queenstown and combined a glacier visit with a trip to Milford Sound. The sky was bright blue, the sun was beaming down and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. A perfectly crisp autumnal day. These conditions aren’t common during New Zealand’s colder months. Come winter, glacier landings are often impossible.
After taking a few pictures of me and the helicopter, Rhys left me to bask in the silence. There wasn’t even the sound of the rotor blades whizzing overhead, because Over The Top is the only helicopter company in the area that turns its engine off on landing on the icy surface of a glacier.
The glacier is just a 20-minute heli hop to Milford Sound. The contrast between the two places was astounding, from the silent, white paradise of the glacier to the blue waters and lush surroundings of the fjord.
Fiordland National Park sweeps along the west coast of the South Island – covering more than 4,600sq miles of mountains, lakes, fjords and rainforest. However, 98% of it is inaccessible by road and that’s where helicopters come in. Road trip fans can get to Milford Sound by car. It is an eight-hour round-trip from Queenstown but, by all accounts, the scenery makes it worth it.
Milford Sound is the smallest of 14 fjords that make up the national park and seeing it from the skies is incredibly special. But to get a true sense of its scale, I’d recommend taking to the water too. A cruise along the mirror-like fjord out to the Tasman Sea (the body of water between New Zealand and Australia) and back again takes around an hour.
With imposing rock faces and cascading waterfalls surrounding you, and countless wildlife-spotting opportunities, you’ll quickly realise why Rudyard Kipling once described the sound as the eighth wonder of the world. During my cruise, we watched New Zealand fur seals basking in the sunshine. And it isn’t uncommon to see bottlenose dolphins and Fiordland crested penguins too. If you’re really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a southern right whale.
Tourism New Zealand is pushing the country’s high-end offering, and with 32 outstanding properties making up the Luxury Lodges of New Zealand portfolio, the country isn’t short of options for affluent travellers.
Each lodge is independently owned and unique, but to be a member of the association they must meet high-standard criteria and offer guests a consistent experience. For example, all lodges must offer complimentary pre-dinner drinks and canapes, and breakfast, while some also include dinner. Guests staying at multiple lodges during their New Zealand adventure will receive sublime service. Behind the scenes, the lodges share certain guest information to make sure any dietary requirements or unusual requests can be met throughout.
Just an hour and a half outside Queenstown lies one of the newest Luxury Lodge members – the four-suite Mahu Whenua Ridgeline Homestead and Eco Sanctuary. Set in a sprawling 135,000 acres of land, this beautifully rustic lodge was once home to country music star Shania Twain and her then husband Mutt Lange.
While Lange is now the sole owner of the property, which opened to holidaymakers just last year, Twain’s influences remain. Her love of horses still shines through with an impressive on-site paddock, and horse riding trails she created are now used by lodge guests.
My suite, named Tui (after the native bird), brought an instant smile to my face, with outstanding views across the countryside to Lake Wanaka – all from the comfort of my freestanding copper bathtub or the glass-enclosed shower.
But it’s the land itself that is at the heart of Mahu Whenua, which translates from Maori as ‘healing the land’. It’s what left the biggest impression on me. The lush green valleys, rolling hills, streams and rivers, and towering mountains all around the lodge are like having your own private national park on your doorstep. And it may as well be, with more than 90% of the land protected by covenants, making it the largest conservation undertaking on private land in New Zealand’s history.
The owners and management team have introduced sustainable farming practices and have embarked on an extensive plant regeneration programme. More than one million trees have been planted and native birds such as weka and pukeko are also being reintroduced to the area.
On your drive back to Queenstown, visit Amisfield – a vineyard and bistro that serves delicious dishes alongside spectacular wines from the Central Otago region. Quaint Arrowtown is also worth a visit.
Days prior I’d called another luxury lodge home. And while it differs greatly in style and design to Mahu Whenua, Annandale pays just as much attention to the wildlife roaming its 7,000 acres of farmland on the Banks Peninsula and overlooking Pigeon Bay. Annandale is made up of four villas (The Homestead, Shepherd’s Cottage, Seascape and Scrubby Bay). They are so secluded that each is about a 35-minute drive from another across acres and acres of land where cows and sheep happily graze. If you want to escape and bask in absolute solitude, this is the place to run away to.
In fact, guests don’t have to see other tourists at all, even at the airport. Annandale has a partnership with private jet firm Garden City Aviation, which has a lounge and customs facility at Christchurch airport. After landing, jet passengers can board a helicopter and be at Annandale within 15 minutes.
I resided at The Homestead during my short stay, which has a capacity for 12 guests. Dating back to the 1880s, it has been restored and adapted but remains in keeping with its original design. Its grounds now include a private heated swimming pool and Jacuzzi, floodlit
tennis courts, a gym and barbecue area. The Homestead is best suited to families or groups of friends, just like four-bedroom Scrubby Bay, which sleeps 14. One-bedroom villas Shepherd’s Cottage and Seascape are ideal for couples, with the latter a firm favourite among loved-up honeymooners wanting nothing more than each other’s company and epic coastal views.
The food across the estate is exquisite, and almost entirely locally sourced. Even the award-winning olive oil is from Robertson’s Bay, just 20 minutes down the road. Chefs are on hand to whip up an amazing private dining experience, but Annandale also has a ‘We Create, You Serve’ concept, where meals are pre-cooked in advance and left in the fridge with easy instructions on how to prepare.
Annandale is worlds apart from where my New Zealand adventure started. I’d landed in Auckland and jumped on an internal flight to Kerikeri. After a spot of breakfast at eco lodge and golf haven Kauri Cliffs (also a luxury lodge member), I boarded a Salt Air helicopter bound for the architecturally spectacular glass-cased structure that is the presidential suite at Eagles Nest.
Four-bedroom villa Rahimoana is the top offering at the five-villa property. The helicopter landed on my villa’s private helipad, and I was quick to jump head first into life at Eagles Nest and this perfect little corner of New Zealand.
The modern and sleek villa is equipped with everything you could possibly need, and then some. It screams extravagance and comes with a dedicated chef, unlimited alcohol, use of a golf buggy, a private gym and infrared sauna, access to a secluded beach and a private 25-metre infinity pool and Jacuzzi, heated to a balmy 38C. But it’s the outstanding views of the Bay of Islands that make this property so dreamy, and also what it takes its name from with Rahimoana meaning ‘sun god over the ocean’ in Maori.
Guests staying in this villa also get exclusive use of a Porsche Cayenne. This wasn’t something I immediately knew I needed until Cieron from the management team whizzed me down into the town of Russell to visit local institution the Duke of Marlborough, which in 1840 became the first place in New Zealand to obtain an alcohol licence. He then promptly picked me up after a glass or two of Hawke’s Bay’s finest wines and a fish and chip lunch.
Each villa is a secluded paradise, surrounded in greenery for added privacy. They all have a private hot tub, and all but the smallest villa has its own infinity pool, as well as kitchens stocked with breakfast items. During my stay I made use of the services of the private chef and, being extremely jetlagged, I almost hugged him when he arrived at the door.
I’m confident you’ll find it hard to leave the infinity pool at Eagles Nest, but there are plenty of activities nearby to enjoy. On a clear day, grab a paddleboard and head to Waihihi Bay, where you’re likely to be joined by friendly dolphins. It’s also an area of historical importance, home to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of New Zealand. Go to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds & Museums to learn all about it.
Before departing for New Zealand, I’d envisaged the rugged mountains, fjords and farmland I’d experienced on the South Island at Annandale and Mahu Whenua. What I hadn’t expected was the exotic and tropical side of this diverse country, but the Bay of Islands, which sits at the top of the North Island, delivers just that – and getting a glimpse of this paradise from a helicopter is a sight I won’t forget in a hurry.
New Zealand’s landscape is one of the most diverse in the world, and one of picturesque extremes. No matter what terrain you’re seeking, you’ll more than likely find it. On my trip I experienced the lush, rainforest-like surroundings of the Bay of Islands; the rugged coast of South Island; the picturesque lakes of Wakatipu in Queenstown and nearby Wanaka; the dramatic scenery at Milford Sound; and a glacier. All this in a week...and made possible in part by that most luxurious form of transport, a helicopter.newzealand.com/luxury