What do a titan of Wall Street and the former head of Levi Strauss know about running first class hotels? A lot, you’ll see – if you check into their lodges. By Melissa Biggs Bradley
Before he became know as “the wizard of Wall Street” for his prowess at picking stocks, Julian H. Robertson, Jr., picked New Zealand for an extended vacation. It was 1978, just after he’d ended a successful twenty-one-year career at Kidder Peabody and before he started Tiger-the hedge fund that would earn him fame and a spot on the Forbes 400 list when Robertson and his wife, Josie, moved with their young sons to Auckland for a much-needed sabbatical. They got the rest they wanted and a revelation: they fell in love with New Zealand, its majestic landscapes of fjords, glaciers, mountains, rain forests and beaches. Robertson returned five years ago to buy 4,000-acre farm 150 miles north of Auckland. Ever the financier, he planned to buy it as an investment, but then he landed in a helicopter on one of the property’s three beaches. “As soon as I saw it, I saw the golf course,” explains the sixty-eight-year-old Robertson about the site that he’s developed into the Kauri Cliffs course, which has already been dubbed one of the five best in the world by David Seanor of Golfweek. Designed by David Harman, who has worked with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus on some of their signature courses, the par-72 Kauri Cliffs course has six Oceanside holes, and all but three of its eighteen holes have sea views. “It was like buying Pebble Beach for the price of a modest New York apartment, “ says Robertson.
Though the sitting is as beautiful as that mecca of golf, the course is a much longer trip from L.A. or New York; and when it opened in February 2000, the closest place to stay was not a four-star hotel, like the Lodge at Pebble Beach, but a sheep station down the road. Josie told her husband he had to build a hotel for the people who came to play, “but he didn’t want to become Conrad Hilton,” she says. In the three years that it took to finish the course, Robertson changed his mind. Staying regularly at the aforementioned sheep station, the Robertsons worked with architects from the States and New Zealand and interior designer Virginia Fisher (she had decorated the country’s top hotel, Huka Lodge) to complete the Lodge at Kauri Cliffs in just ten months. Today the plantation- inspired main house, which opened in January, overlooks the golf course and pacific views more dramatic than Pebble Beach’s because of the dozens of small Cavalli Islands just off the coast.
As grand as the scenery is, the minute you pass through the front door, you feel at home. And the lodge was home to the Robertsons and their three sons for six weeks when it opened, so they has the chance to add their final personal touches. You’re greeted by a cluster of kiwi bird sculptures on the front-hall table; they perch next to a pot of fresh daisies. To the left is the Tiger Room, where an enormous Iranian tiger carpet presides; will-chosen books, games and an entertainment center line the wall. At the end of the main hall, sun streams into a living room flanked on two sides by fireplaces. On the wooden mantels are enormous Mexican silver candlesticks and blue-and-white china urns holding hollyhock sprays. The pale, wide totara-wood planks on the floor are set between strips of concrete, a rustic look that the Robertsons copied from their house in Sun Valley. A blue-and-white theme – picked up in the dhurries, checked chairs, striped pillows and quilts – had brightened their recently redone New York apartment, so they imported that too, along with the antique armoires on which blue-and-white china is displayed in the adjacent dining room.
The luxurious feeling the main house conjures – that of staying in a super-chic person’s house – continues in the sixteen suites, located in eight cottages nestled in “the bush,” as Josie refers to a thicket of trees down a hill from the lodge. In each of them, beige and white fabrics blend with blond wood floors, pale walls and rattan furniture. There’s a gas fireplace that roars with the flip of a switch, a huge white pitcher filled with daisies in one corner and a balcony with a chaise facing the sea. And while each suite feels like a perfect mini beach house, the bathrooms are major productions, with gigantic porcelain tubs.
The golf course will be the biggest draw. New Zealand’s golfing elite, from industrialists to rugby stars, already arrive in their helicopters daily. As one journalist wrote of the course: “It’s what the sport is all about, a battle of wits and skill, in the most perfect surroundings.” But in addition to golf, there is great deep-sea fishing, hiking (the property has a forest of New Zealand’s famous sequoia-like kauri trees and a hidden waterfall), tennis, sailing, sightseeing and scuba diving. Even the swimming has options: with dolphins in Cape Brett, at one of the private beaches or in the infinity-edge pool. “For so long, New Zealand catered to the backpacker and fly-fisherman, so the lodges were spartan,” says Robertson, who visited many of the best before building his own. The scouting trips also proved head-hunting missions. Robertson lured away superb chef, Paul Jobin from Huka. He serves Pacific Rim-influenced dishes, such as scallops with mango, bok choy, shaved coconut salad and Malay lemon-grass sauce. Whether people come for the golf or to experience New Zealand’s new comfort level, Robertson believes the country’s beauty will captivate them – as it did him twenty-three years ago.