New Zealand's natural assets – untouched bays, snow-blanketed mountains and world-class food may seem luxury enough, but there are ways to elevate every experience in the South and North Island.
Encounter extraordinary wildlife
Image credit: Kyle Mulinder
Take to the turquoise waters of Akaroa Harbour, south-east of Christchurch, and you’ll quickly realise that luxury encompasses much more than five-star finishes. On a wildlife cruise with Akaroa Dolphins, an extraordinary immersion in the natural world, the area’s marine life is so prolific it’s hard to know where to look first. Watch New Zealand fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks and witness flocks of terns, petrels and shearwaters soaring overhead. And that’s all before you gaze beneath the surface, where you’ll spy little white-flippered penguins whizzing through the water and playful Hector’s dolphins, the smallest and rarest dolphin species in the world.
Reset at a wellness retreat
You’ll breathe deeper the moment you step inside your suite at Split Apple Retreat in Motueka, about an hour from Nelson at the top of the South Island. Every element of the experience is designed to boost your wellbeing – including tranquil sea and bush views. Itineraries are customised so begin the day with meditation, yoga or perhaps a few languid laps in the infinity pool. If you’re up for it, hike neighbouring Abel Tasman National Park or take a kayak out for a paddle before yielding to total relaxation with a massage. The five-course dinners here are a highlight – co-owner and chef Anne Pen Lee draws on Asian and Mediterranean influences with her plant-focused, low-GI cuisine. But the ultimate extravagance at Split Apple is seclusion, with only three guest suites and discreet personal service.
Sail the Bay of Islands
“We designed the Rua Moana to be the best luxury catamaran in New Zealand,” says Craig Armstrong of Cruise New Zealand, based in Auckland. The 26-metre, four-cabin yacht has a submersible swim platform and all sorts of toys – including underwater scooters, windsurfers, fishing equipment and diving gear. A private charter around the Hauraki Gulf lets you drift the waters and explore the beaches of this unspoiled sub-tropical region near the top of the North Island. Prefer to be still? Soak in the jacuzzi while one of the crew dives for crayfish and scallops that your chef will magic into lunch.
Discover the real Middle-earth
The true star of The Lord of the Rings trilogy wasn’t Elijah Wood as Frodo. Rather, it was the wild scenery of the South Island – lush hillsides, steep river valleys and brooding mountains that looked almost surreal on the big screen. Experience all the cinematic grandeur on a scenic flight with Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters, based in Queenstown. You’ll journey right into the heart of the Southern Alps, taking in landscapes that became the Misty Mountains and the Elvish realm of Lothlórien. Opt for a longer itinerary to add some of New Zealand’s most famous sights to your flight, such as the majestic Dart Valley or the mesmerising Milford Sound.
Indulge at the best restaurants
Move over, New York. Back in 2011, Wellington residents were surprised to learn that The New York Times had declared their city was blessed with more cafés, bars and restaurants per capita than the Big Apple. Exciting new culinary talent has been emerging ever since, including Monique Fiso, whose sophisticated diner, Hiakai in Mount Cook, featured on Time magazine’s 2019 list of Greatest Places. Chef Fiso, who honed her skills in New York, draws on Maori and Samoan heritage to showcase native ingredients, including those she forages around town. Dégustation menus feature titi bird (muttonbird) and mamaku (tree fern); bread is accompanied by kelp butter; and oysters are topped with beach spinach. Fiso’s food is fearlessly creative – savoury ice-cream made with local green-lipped mussels has proven a surprise hit – so you’ll need to book well ahead.
Hit the slopes in style
They measure you for boots, skis and poles, organise your lift passes and transport you to the slopes – they even buckle you in once you’re balanced on the cold stuff. All you have to do is push off, carve fresh tracks and get back in time for lunch. No, this isn’t a dream; it’s the job of the ski concierge engaged by Matakauri Lodge, just outside Queenstown. And with some of the country’s best slopes close by – Coronet Peak is less than 40 minutes away and The Remarkables not much further – you’ll be calling on this hassle-saving service more than once.
Tee off with the chosen few
About 90 minutes north of Auckland, Tara Iti Golf Club is New Zealand’s first members-only private club – but there’s one very exclusive way to get to play. Outsiders are invited to apply in writing for the opportunity to tee off, with successful candidates allowed a single visit in their lifetime. If the strict conditions of entry aren’t alluring enough, the FOMO-inducing golf course is technically a bunker-free zone. Course architect Tom Doak decided that traditional bunkers would be superfluous on this ocean-side site so instead he left existing stretches of sand amid the knolls, dunes and punchbowls, giving Tara Iti a wild, natural feel.
Hide away at a luxury lodge
Peering down from a helicopter – the only way to get to Minaret Station (pictured at sunset top)– it’s easy to see how the remote property near Wanaka, north of Queenstown, could be overlooked. Hidden within a glacial valley fringed by alpine peaks, the handful of buildings (including just four guest chalets) blends so well into its spectacular surrounds that to blink would be to miss your approach to one of the finest retreats in the Southern Hemisphere. On terra firma, the spoils are plenty – gourmet meals starring lamb and beef raised on site, a comprehensive wine cellar and a rainwater-fed outdoor hot tub at each chalet – but whiling away an afternoon watching the light shift in the valley with a glass of local pinot redefines pleasure. Even so, it’s hard to resist taking back to the skies in Minaret’s helicopters. You might like to ski pristine powder runs, traverse unmarked mountain bike routes or soar above secret waterfalls before landing beside a glacial lake in Fiordland.
Fly fish in gin-clear waters
“We have four or five rivers flowing into Lake Taupo that offer world-class fishing for brown and rainbow trout, 365 days a year,” says Brent Pirie of Flyfish Taupo, in the centre of the North Island. With more than four decades’ experience fishing these waters, Pirie knows the secret spots other guides don’t: during winter the best catch is found near the river mouths, while summertime calls for a chopper flight that follows a river’s curves before touching down in a hidden waterside clearing. You’ll feel like the last person on earth – and the fish are yours for the taking. Pirie loves the wild beauty of these untouched places – “It’s like stepping into Jurassic Park, except nothing’s trying to eat you” – as well as their isolation. “To nail the cast just right, to land the trout and then to release it and watch it swim away – that’s one of the most beautiful things,” he says. Complete the experience by checking into nearby Huka Lodge, the Waikato Riverside property that’s hosted Queen Elizabeth. Once you’re settled, have Pirie collect you in a helicopter from the lawn.