"We have a terrible habit of encouraging indulgence," said Hannah Butler, assistant lodge manager, as she showed me around the Farm at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke's Bay, New Zealand.
And to be sure, indulgence — civilized indulgence — is the byword there and at its sister resorts, Kauri Cliffs and Matakauri. The three are owned by American billionaire Julian Robertson, and with this trio he has raised both the bar and profile for luxury accommodations in New Zealand.
Although they have very different architectural styles, the resorts have conceptual similarities. Each is set on water in a dramatic location in a region of high interest to visitors. All have on-property spas. Each is anchored by a mothership lodge that has multiple public spaces and dining areas, with additional suites (and, sometimes, multiroom cottages) within easy walking distance.
Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers have expansive grounds, 6,500 acres each, yet Kauri Cliffs has only 23 keys, and Kidnappers has 24. (Matakauri has 11, on a significantly smaller footprint.) The larger properties have 18-hole golf courses, but much of the land is either farmed or protected, and Robertson gets high marks from locals for preserving such large swaths of land.
Fine dining is central to the experience at each. All are members of Relais & Chateaux and are staffed with a well-trained team of chefs, sommeliers and servers (the staff-to-guest ratio in each is 1-to-1). In the evening, the atmosphere becomes somewhat formal; men are expected to wear jackets when guests come down for fireside cocktails and canapes, followed by multicourse dinners.
Because the lodges are broken up into several small dining areas, each of those rooms retains a sense of intimacy. But decorum only goes so far in New Zealand; the service leans far more to the friendly than to the formal, which saves it from feeling stuffy.
The menus vary considerably from lodge to lodge, with ingredients sourced locally to the extent possible. The chefs proved themselves creative and versatile, from the appetizers right through to dessert. The wine lists are extensive given the relatively small number of guests served, with special focus on New Zealand grapes (some of the labels are from wineries also owned by Robertson).
Golf and golf
Golf is clearly the biggest draw for many visitors to Kauri Cliffs and the Farm at Cape Kidnappers. Kauri Cliffs' ranks 25th on Golf Digest's list of best golf courses outside the U.S., and Kidnappers is in 13th place as well as being 33rd in a Golf Magazine list of the best golf courses in the world.
The par-72 Kauri Cliffs course was designed by David Harman, and Tom Doak laid out Cape Kidnappers' par-71. Both properties have practice ranges and a pro shop.
The courses themselves are characterized by jaw-dropping coastal views, and ocean winds add a dimension of complexity to the play. The two have hosted the Kiwi Challenge, an event featuring four PGA Tour players under the age of 30.
Golf is also the centerpiece of a nine-night "Tiger Tour" package that's being offered this March and April. The first, from March 11 to 20, will be limited to four couples and includes jet and helicopter transfers, three rounds of golf, meals, a dedicated guide and additional sightseeing. (All three properties are visited, including Matakauri, which does not have a course.) The cost, at the current exchange rate between U.S. and New Zealand dollars, is approximately $23,085 per person, double occupancy, tax included.
The April tour, which begins on the 15th, is identical except flight segments will be on commercial Air New Zealand flights, and the tour will have a maximum of eight couples. The cost is approximately $12,945 per person, double occupancy, tax included.
(The "Tiger" of Tiger Tours is not a nod to Tiger Woods but rather to Tiger Management Corp., a hedge fund that property owner Robertson founded. A carpet in the Kauri Cliffs lodge, emblazoned with the image of a tiger, once lay in his office.)
Each property also has a spa. The treatments and atmosphere vary at each, and regional elements are integrated in some therapies.
For instance, at Kauri Cliffs, guests approach the spa via a short forest path, and the building is designed so that each treatment room features a patio on a small stream. Its Pink Beach Manicure or Pedicure incorporates ground shells from the resort's own beach.
Cape Kidnappers offers a scrub and wrap featuring mud from Rotorua, New Zealand's center of geothermal activity, as well as a massage featuring locally grown lavender.
And Matakauri employs pebbles from the shore of Lake Wakatipu, which borders that property.
Kauri Cliffs: Culture, history and more
The three lodges are hundreds of miles apart from one another, and visiting them all provides a good sampling of the diverse geography, natural beauty, history and local cultures of New Zealand.
Kauri Cliffs, in the Northland region of North Island, has a helipad on property, but the four-hour drive there from Auckland's airport provides a great introduction to the country. The property is on the Bay of Islands, a popular vacation spot for Kiwis, and nearby attractions include the historical whaling village of Russell and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the British and native Maori tribes negotiated terms of coexistence. The carved meeting house and war canoes on the grounds are arguably the finest in the South Pacific.
Kauri Cliffs' entrance is located at the end of a rural road off one of North Island's primary north-south highways, and from the main gate, it'll be another 15 minutes of pastoral scenery before arriving at the lodge (part of the landscape includes the country's second-largest kauri, the Southern Hemisphere's answer to the giant redwood).
The lodge itself is perched above Mauturi Bay, with the golf course between it and the water; a private, pink-sand beach is near the southern end of the property, where guests can swim, fish from shore or arrange for a picnic or barbecue.
Other on-property activities include tennis, horseback riding, nature walks, mountain biking and hunting.
Cape Kidnappers: Wine, gannets
The grounds of the Farm at Cape Kidnappers feel the least developed of the three properties. Much of the land can be seen during a round a golf, but a half-day all-terrain-vehicle tour is a great way to explore the rest.
From a seat on a quad bike, one gets a clear sense of why "The Farm" is in the resort's name; although sheep and cattle are present on Kauri Cliffs land, as well, the sheep seem to be everywhere at Cape Kidnappers.
The tour winds up hills and down vales and ultimately through dry creek beds cutting between stone walls (where fossils of sea creatures can be seen in the rock face).
But the highlight is a stop at the world's largest accessible mainland gannet colony. You can see up to 25,000 of these tawny-head relatives of the booby. They're up above, gliding and fishing with an impressive 6-foot wingspan, or chattering, nesting and fighting on a series of cliffs and rocks along a particularly wild and steep bit of coastline.
But there's another type of farm in the area you'll want to explore, as well: The lodge can arrange a tour of vineyards and tasting rooms in the area, which is New Zealand's oldest and second-largest wine-producing region. The country is best known for its sauvignon blanc, but this region also produces 50% of the nation's reds. Like many wine regions the world over, there's also a high concentration of farm-to-table restaurants in the area.
The nearest city to the resort, Napier, is also well worth a visit. It was almost completely leveled by an earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt in the prevailing architectural style of the time, art deco. Think South Beach minus the crowds and attitude.
Matakauri: Scenery, jetboats, skiing
Matakauri, the smallest of the trio, is set on a stunning location along the shore of Lake Wakatipu, 20 minutes outside of Queenstown, South Island's center of recreation and adventure activities. The area's dramatic scenery has attracted filmmakers from around the world, and it provided the backdrop for parts of the Lord of the Rings movies, among others.
Skiing is Queenstown's biggest draw, but the region also is home to the original bungee jumping bridges. It's where the jetboat was invented, providing a noisy, powerful way to skim along in just inches of creek water. Mountain biking trails lace the area, including one that runs along the bottom of the Matakauri property. Parasailing is another option.
A more relaxing activity is an excursion on the TSS Earnslaw, a 100-year-old steamer that chugs along the lake's waters to a working sheep station, where passengers can learn about sheep, shearing and farm station life.
Finally, flightseeing excursions can be made to Milford Sound to see its dramatic fjords.
After inspecting the three properties, I thought back to Butler's observation about "encouraging indulgence."
That characterization might sell the properties a bit short. There are two levels of indulgence going on here. The first is the pampering of guests. The second is exercised by the owner. Julian Robertson's acquisition and stewardship of the properties, widely recognized by New Zealanders, and his vision to be not only a hotelier but a guardian of the land is a worthy indulgence of a different sort, one which draws guests outward, toward nature, toward history and toward culture. It's not just about the finer things in life, but the finer things in the world.
Email Arnie Weissmann at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.