Three miles after turning off the main – empty – road to wind along a grey gravel track, flanked as far as the eye can see by rolling lowland and clusters of native New Zealand trees, and thousands of identical, just-shorn sheep, you say WOW. In this case the driver is Tom Canning, the best escort in New Zealand’s North Island. We have arrived at Kauri Cliffs, in 6,000 acres of land, an hour’s drive from Waitangi, Bay of Islands. The owner is Julian Robertson, boss of New York-based The Tiger Fund, and when he bought this bit of the country he and his wife Josie envisaged the best luxury hotel in the world. The first thing the gal sees is its outdoor pool, fan-shaped with an inset hot tub.
I looked over this, to undulating grassland and on down to the 18th hole of the famous golf course, designed by David Harman. I was last here in 2005 and goodness, the greenery has matured since then. Look to your right, instead, and there, 20 yards away, is the main lodge, a three-floor Nantucket-style custom-built headquarters for Kauri Cliffs. The grey structure has white piping, so to speak. You enter at the middle floor, through heavy wood-framed glass doors.
Go inside, to floors of foot-wide planks of wood with darker wood separators, and white walls soaring to cathedral ceilings. There are lots of bowls of purple agapanthus, in season October through February every year. There are also big white lilies.
The interiors were overseen by Josie Robertson, with the help of Virginia Fisher, New Zealand’s legendary interior designer when it comes to lodges (she did Huka Lodge, and she has, since Kauri Cliffs, done the Robertsons’ other two lodges, the Farm at Cape Kidnappers and Matakauri Lodge, Queenstown – she also did Alex van Heeren’s Grand Provence in Franschhoek). The Fisher imprint is obvious. She likes white and beige and taupe, and old-look wood and hints of rustic. She will introduce blue, and soft purple. This is better than anything Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket can produce.
You stay in one of 22 identical semi-detached villas, or in the owner’s cottage (villa one is closest to the main lodge). Each villa has a working gas-fuelled log-look fire, a free minibar (alcohol extra) and a terrace giving amazing views into undergrowth or over the golf. You dine in your villa or up at the lodge, where John Lewis, part of the furniture – bespoke, of course – plays the piano some nights. He tells stories of his time looking after former British ambassadors to the USA, back in DC, and today he brings out the chef, Dale Gartland, another veteran of this marvellous team. Dale Gartland tells stories of his time guest-cheffing on Silversea.
Kauri Cliffs – named for its gigantic centuries-old kauri tree, agathis australis – is special for so many reasons. It allows kids, unlike some other lodges. And, again going against a national trend whereby celebrity-chefs determine exactly what you eat, Dale Gartland offers variety. Every Friday night is an all-inclusive beach buffet five miles away, down at Pink Beach, one of three private beaches on the Kauri Cliffs estate. It has some Norfolk pines down there, named after Norfolk Island, between Queensland and the tip of New Zealand’s North Island. There are also some ‘New Zealand Christmas trees’ (pohutukawa, or Metrosideros excels, which flower every Christmas). And every lunch and dinner is what you want, a tasting menu, a set menu, or design your own. Make up your own salad wish-list, design your sandwich, including your choice of Vogel’s Multi Grain or McKenzie Southern Grain breads. Want a burger? Choose the size 120 or 180 grams of ribeye, and the additives.
Choose if you want to dine in the main floor dining room or its terraces, or inside or out at the lowest-floor’s golf empire. Typical stay here is five nights and you need that long. There is horseback riding, and serious hiking, and mountain biking. You can visit the farm. You can swim in the outdoor pool or in the indoor one that is, with the gym, part of the spa. Ah the spa, this is one of the world’s best, sensual and worthwhile, spas. Get there via a 300-yard winding track through sky-high gum trees. The spa door is set into a hillside. What is within? A gently waving white wall with planters leads you on an interior journey to your treatment room, which has one all-glass wall open to your terrace, a pond and amazing lush greenery. The terrace has big side fire, and overhead heaters… the spa bed makes you fall asleep. Georgia wears pyjamas the same colour as the pale fern lying on your white bed. The Evolu products she skilfully uses are also palm-coloured.
Oh gosh, golf, the reason so many come to Kauri Cliffs (a helicopter lands a mile away as I leave, bringing some enthusiasts for a quick round). Even the locker rooms here are Virginia Fisher masterpieces, with Welsh dressers holding pots of herbs and the same kind of decent books that are in villas, and in the lodge’s library. There is a special offering for the ultra-keen golfer, by the way. Julian Robertson’s latest baby is Tiger Tours, nine-night programmes with three nights’ each at both The Farm (Tom Doak) and here at Kauri Cliffs, separated by three nights at his other luxury hotel, Matakauri, for a variety of activities, shopping and the choice of eating and drinking that you find at all his lodges. Fly by his private jet and do it in style.