As I emerged from my cottage to take the short walk to dinner in the main lodge at Kauri Cliffs, a kukupa (local Northern dialect for keruru, New Zealand's magnificent native pigeon) swooped across my path and back intothe thick stand of bush. The bird's presence exemplifies the lengths to which the owner of the lodge at Kauri Cliffs, Julian Robertson of New York, has gone to preserve the land he purchased five years ago as an investment for his children's future.
And how lucky New Zealand is to have such a sensitive and enthusiastic investor. Julian, and his wife, Josie, have created a haven a mere 30 minutes north of Kerikeri for well-heeled visitors to indulge themselves. They can relax and enjoy spectacular coast and farmland, three unspoiled beaches and "the best new golf course in the world" (an accolade bestowed by an international golfing magazine in December 2000).
Opened mid-January, the lodge is a solid building that stands high above the golf course, with views that extend from the Cavalli Islands to Cape Brett. Eight cottages with two suites in each are nestled away to the side amongst native bush. Extensive and intensive plantings of native trees and shrubs surround the lodge, the pool, paths and roads.
The property covers 1618 hectares, and the already famous golf course is spread over the length, allowing total luxury (as a golf course can be built on as little as 60 hectares). The effect is amazing as the fairways look as if bright green carpet has been rolled over the farmland. It's challenging and spectacular, as 15 of the 18 holes allow views over the Pacific. Resident golf director, Dwight Segall, was brought by Julian Robertson from his home club of Deep Dale in Long Island to manage the field and provide coaching and lessons.
But Kauri Cliffs is definitely not just for the golfer. Ably managed by Hendrik Wassenaar, previously from Huka Lodge at Wairakei, the accommodation and hospitality is superb. Guests can play tennis on two astro-turf courts, swim in a heated pool, exercise in a fully equipped fitness centre, walk, or simply while away the time on the verandah of their cottage in peace and tranquility. In one of the stands of bush is a 1300-year-old kauri to view, which Julian Robertson has gifted to the Queen Elizabeth Trust, and he is currently investigating the preservation of kiwi that live on his property.
Other nearby activities include game fishing, scuba diving, sailing and hunting. Northland played a leading role in the first recorded history of New Zealand so there are historic sites and wineries as well as beaches and coastline to explore, making the lodge an ideal base for sightseeing.
The main building is large, with several reception areas and dining rooms, all leading from a wide central hallway. This cuts through the heart of the lodge, from the front door directly through to the back verandah and the breathtaking view of the ocean.
Designer Virginia Fisher worked closely with Josie Robertson to furnish the well detailed interior, creating an intimate feeling that is relaxing and comfortable under the high, cream-painted wooden ceilings.
The Robertsons specified flooring throughout the lodge that combines wide, natural, split white totara logs infilled with cement plaster. This has been treated to provide a unique and rustic look. Specially woven rugs soften the rooms. Colours are soft and muted, changing subtly from room to room to give each its own identity. Fireplaces are dotted throughout and every corner harbours inviting chairs and couches that demand relaxation and comfort.
Original artwork is reminiscent of the countryside that surrounds the property, with numerous small decorative pieces and collections everywhere and plenty of fresh flowers and potted plants. It is a 'home away from home' for the Robertsons, which is what they hope guests will feel about Kauri Cliffs too.
The cottages are pure indulgence. A super king bed is super comfortable. Two large comfy armchairs sit aside the fireplace, while other furnishings and lighting have been tastefully selected. There's plenty of bright natural light, and a private wide verandah for each suite overlooks the golf course. Apart from a spacious walk-in wardrobe/dressing area and a superbly stocked minibar, finishing touches such as herbal teas in a silver canister and stylish glassware and crockery complete the effect.
It's hard to find another way to describe the bathrooms other than amazing. Polished concrete is a feature, giving a rather rustic feel to the space. It surrounds the shower and forms part of the specially designed large vanity benches (two in each bathroom). The deep porcelain bath is of such immense proportions that I could have swum in it.
With such attention to detail throughout, to complete the experience, it is essential that the food and service are also of the highest standard. Chef Paul Jobin, previously at Paramount in Auckland and Huka Lodge, is in charge of the kitchen. Here, he creatively puts together dishes that use locally sourced produce and the very best from around New Zealand. In a major departure from the dining experience at other luxury lodges around New Zealand, Kauri Cliffs offers ¨¢ la carte dining. Dinner, which is included in the rate, begins with delicious hors d'oeuvres which are served wherever guests wish. They then move into the dining room to choose from a selection of impressive entrees, main courses and desserts.
The menu will change seasonally. Sample entrees include a dish that plays on the classic prawn cocktail -simply steamed tiger prawns with avocado and cocktail sauce. Another entree that stood out was the seared scallops with a coriander and coconut salad and Malay lemon grass sauce and a clever and delicious crispy eggplant with thyme gnocchi, asparagus and Indian relish.
The main courses equally displayed Paul Jobin's mastery of fresh ingredients with the touch of subtle spicing and garnishing. He is well aware of the dietary restraints of some travellers and plans to always offer a simple dish that is reminiscent of good old-fashioned plain home cooking. So there it was, a grilled steak with steamed cauliflower, broccoli and potatoes, as simple as anyone could ever wish for.
Desserts were gorgeous, very eye-catching and original, especially the fresh cherry frangipane tart with star anise gelato and caramel cherry syrup; that had me scraping my plate. The kitchen is in good hands.
Breakfast is included and the arrangement of chunks of fresh fruit was as appealing as I have seen, sitting along- side simple bowls of cereal and local Mahoe Greek yogurt. The cooked menu offered a Tee Off breakfast of eggs any style and hash browns, sausage, bacon, mushrooms and toast, eggs Matauri (a variation on Benedict) and wafI1es or buttermilk pancakes. A great way to start the day.
The whole experience is one of luxury. The high season tariff is $850 a night plus GST per person, which includes accommodation, pre-dinner drinks, dinner and breakfast. The rate changes seasonally. From 1 May to 30 September it is $495 a night plus GST per person. Wine, chosen from a small hand-picked list, is extra and so is golf, which costs $225 per person for affiliated members of New Zealand golf clubs. Dinner only, strictly by reservation, is $150 per person.