“Kauri Cliffs has to be the best place on earth.” That was just one of the many amazing compliments inscribed in the lobby guestbook. There are just 16 rooms, and the lodge has been open just a year and a half, yet hundreds of entries were written in this vein, many including the phrase “privileged to visit.” It’s rare that paying customers feel this way about a hotel, but when it was time for us to leave Kauri Cliffs and it was too soon, we understood.
Finance guru Julian Robertson, former head of investment firm Tiger Funds, chose to enter the world of high-end boutique golf resorts instead of retiring. Kauri Cliffs is his first effort, to be followed in 2004 by a second New Zealand property, and probably a third. He succeeded admirably the first time, tying together his passions for golf, the natural beauty of New Zealand, and the luxury lifestyle to which he is accustomed. The highly acclaimed resort just became the first Relais & Chateaux property in New Zealand, and was named number one in the country by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report.
The golf at Kauri Cliffs (Rating: 17) is very, very good. When you combine (the golf) with the lodging, service, setting, cuisine and unbelievable array of activities at the resort, it is not only worth the trip, it is a trip you simply must make. And while New Zealand is long way, it is worth the effort, and from the west coast it’s as easy to reach as Scotland. Once you get there, Kauri Cliffs has enough activities to entertain you for a full week, and if you visit at the peak of New Zealand’s summer this February, you can also watch the America’s Cup races.
Kauri Cliffs sits on 500n coastal acres at the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island, home to the nation’s best weather. It overlooks the Bay of Islands National Park and the Cavalli Islands, two of the country’s greatest natural treasures, creating some of the finest views in golf. 5000-acres is the kind of number usually reserved for the largest golf resorts like Kapalua (August 2002) with multiple large hotels, several golf courses and hundreds of homes. For 16 rooms and one course, it is a staggering amount of land, and it is a key to the resort’s success.
The course was designed and built by little-known Florida-based David Harman, the man behind two acclaimed high-end daily fee layouts at Orange County National on Orlando, FL. He made more than 40 visits to the property, dutifully analysed both the land and the seasonal prevailing winds, and the result is a beautiful, fun and playable tract. Mostly treeless and windswept, the land has a links feel, lacking only giant sand dunes. The topography is similar to Pebble Beach, set on a cliff top parcel overlooking the ocean. Five holes run along the edge of the cliffs, while ten more overlook the ocean from the slightly higher inland elevations and three sit in a small valley.
Kauri Cliffs has several amazing holes, but two stand out. The signature hole is seven, a mid-length par-3 along the ocean with the beautiful Cavalli Islands to the right, and a tee shot that is all carry over an inlet fjord, Kauri’s answer to Cypress Point. The fourth is a very reachable and very risky par-5 that Michael Campbell, the resort’s touring pro and New Zealand’s top golfer, calls among the five best par-5s in the world. A good drive almost demands going for it in two, since you will be left with between 200-230 yards slightly downhill. But the green is perched on the edge of a precipitous drop-off, and anything long is gone. Two large bunkers guard the left side of the green, while a penal jungle ravine guards the right.
There are courses with more great holes than Kauri Cliffs, but the layout does not have one weak hole, and packs in a lot of variety, with two driveable par-4s, and three inland holes in a valley that guests consider the best stretch strategically, even though these are the only holes without stunning ocean views. The design is also very playable, with only one short forced carry besides the par-3s, all four of which are excellent. From the white tees, irons will do the job on several holes, but from the back, long drives are a must. Like many courses with wide fairways and no water hazards, the main defences are the wind, which can howl, but often does not, and the greens. They are among the finest we have seen, an amazing combination of being very soft and receptive to well hit shots, while being very fast and tricky to putt. Mostly it is plain fun to play, over and over again. The US$180 green fee allows all-day unlimited play, and with 30 golfers on a busy day, you can easily play 36 in the winter and even 54 in the summer. Tee times are an unheard of 30 minutes apart! Caddies are available, and while a long routing, it is a pleasure to walk, especially the pedestrian bridge on six that crosses one of the property’s two waterfalls.
Eight cottages each house two guest rooms, which feature a large sitting and sleeping area with gas fireplace, comfortable furniture, a huge walk-in closet and huge bathroom with his and her sinks and heated towel racks, as well as separate shower and soaking tubs. There is radiant under floor heating throughout, and the style is airy country lodge with all the amenities, from an elaborate wet mini-bar (complete with hole made cookies daily) to a large television and VCR, with free videos available. All the cottages overlook the tenth hole and the sea, with great sunset views from private decks. Two rooms have an extra bedroom attached, perfect for families.
Mr Robertson is building a house alongside the cottages for himself, which is not surprising. What is surprising is that he will rent it out when not in residence. It has 3 bedrooms, a private pool and hot tub, numerous fireplaces, as full kitchen, and will be ready for the summer season (December).
Rates include breakfast and dinner daily, plus a pre-dinner cocktail hour where guests mingle. There is just one restaurant, but the food and variety are excellent, with local specialities such as fish, lamb and venison. No entrée is repeated in a two-week period, assuring you won’t get bored. You can also opt for room service. Lunch is served indoor and out, but because of the numerous diversions on the property, many guests opt for picnic lunches.
Here is where Kauri Cliffs sets itself apart from other golf resorts. The property is both vast and gorgeous, including three private beaches, one of them the only pink beach in the nation. These can be reached on foot or by four-wheel drive vehicles chauffeured by the staff on request. In fact, staff will do most anything on your request. Ample walking paths criss-cross the property, with the best trail leading to the larger of kauri’s waterfalls, which is stunning, straight out of a South Pacific fantasy. While many golf resorts feature water trickling over rocks, this is a major league waterfall, hidden in a jungle ravine, perfect for a picnic. Another of the featured walks takes you to the resort’s namesake Kauri tree, the kiwi version of the redwood.
The area around the resort is one of the best in the world for watersports, ranging from diving to surfing to kayaking to big-game fishing from boats and shore. You can do many of these right at the resort, or for charter boats, a short drive away. For divers, the sunken hulk of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior is a world-class wreck dive just off the seventh hole. And the nearby Poor Knight’s Islands are a migratory stop for many fish species. You can also swim with dolphins, take scenic boat rides or sightseeing flights in planes or the resort’s helicopter, drive on famous 90-mile beach just up the coast, go horseback riding, visit local wineries, tour the Bay of Islands, go skydiving or take guided nature hikes. The resort is home to more than a dozen of the very rare and endangered nocturnal kiwi birds, and guided night viewings are offered. Perhaps the most unusual activity we have ever seen at a golf resort is offered nightly upon demand: guided wild boar hunting at the resort, with your choice of gun or knife, no experience required. A new activities director is implementing additional offerings, from afternoon wine tastings to evening lectures. Until a full service spa is finished next year, in-room treatments are available.