2008 - FCA (Online)

Foreign Correspondents' Association (Online), Sonja Goernitz, July 2008

Luxury holiday in New Zealand

Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism invited FCA members to join a 12-day-trip to New Zealand. It led us to some of the most luxurious hotels of the South Island. And while natural beauty and loneliness surrounded us, I found myself discussing with fellow journalists which of these luxury hotels was the best.

All Photographs Copyright: Sonja Goernitz, 2008

Stopover 1: We spent one night at Otahuna Lodge, 20 minutes from Christchurch. Miles Refo and Hall Cannon - our reception committee waiting for us in front of Otahuna Lodge - have owned the exclusive hotel (built 1895) only since mid-2006. The two Americans have intensively renovated the historic house and fulfilled a life's dream doing so. But more of that later.

We enter the hotel lobby, with its dark, polished wood and staircase leading upstairs with a 180-degree turn. A painting of a Maori (it is Rewi Maniapoto, legendary war hero and former chief of the Ngati Maniapoto) hangs above the reception desk. But the reception here is rather a warm handshake, eye contact and friendly words.

In this house there are two master suites. I sleep in the Polo Suite, in which carefully-placed riding gear and framed black and white photos of tournaments of old times remind me of a club museum. And a white bath tub stands in the middle of the bathroom, which is as big as a whole room in other hotels. The quietness relaxes, but soon there are already pre-dinner-drinks waiting in the lounge by the fire place.

At dinner, we all sit at a massive wooden table on comfortable chairs and enjoy carrot soup (with vegetables from the garden), salmon ravioli with safran sauce, Canterbury lamb with salad, Otahuna fruit cake and assorted cheeses. Along with this, Gewürztraminer, Waipara Chardonnay, Central Otago Pinot Noir and Weipara Chardonnay, and then port, coffee and tea are served.

During the feast, Miles and I talk about the sun, the moon and the stars, also about the idea of the luxury hotel. Miles and Hall are from the United States, worked for seven years in New York in publishing and real estate until they decided to live their dream and create a hotel overseas. They travelled around, found the house and bought it. Next they renovated it in four busy months for more than NZ$9 million. It is important for them to include the locals in their project.

Miles says: "First we see whether we can find people in Otahuna who can do the work, then in Christchurch, then on the South Island, then in all of New Zealand and so on." Now they have their amazing house, advertise and wait for visitors.

Stopover 2: Or maybe we prefer Grassmere Lodge. It has views over the fresh meadows and clear mountains in the background. The lodge itself lies in the lap of a mountain group. There are a lot of deer which roar at night. It's even possible to touch the deer, as well as the sheep and horses, of course. Horseback riding up the hill is like in the Wild West. Heather Harrington, with her long grey ponytail, takes care of the animals by applying Natural Horsemanship, which means they were not brought to discipline by pain. Also, she explains the soul of a horse to us, which makes riding easier. Again, the quietness is relaxing, as well as the free port that waits in our rooms.

We stroll across the grounds and see that there is a bar in the historic main building. Many old empty bottles (mainly whisky) line up high on the walls, there is a large fire place and we enjoy fine dining and wines from the packed wine cellar, which lies next to the heated pool.

One of our group drinks champagne in the bath. She was delighted when she was given the master suite at the end of the hallway of the single storey building. There are flowers on the table that divides the sleeping area from the lounge and fireplace in her suite. Refreshed, she joins us a bit later for the pre-dinner-drinks, telling us about her bubbly bath.

In the dining room a little later, we once again find menus written in fine font on our decorated table. By now we are used to the exquisite five-star-meals and appreciate the small portions. Just for the taste. Oh, yes, delicious, thank you. The wines come with it and quite often two or three glasses stand before us each with different drops. If someone sees us from the outside through the large windows, we could appear like actors in a "nest egg" commercial.

The next day we hike along the narrow paths leading up to Helicopter Hill (1256m), through the forest full of birch trees, moss and mushrooms. The whole trip takes about two hours. On top we enjoy the views across the valleys, mountains and clouds all around us.

Stopover 3: Or perhaps this is the best hotel yet - Holmes Station, where we cook for ourselves. Here we feel at home, after the manager gives us the keys for the whole building with ten bedrooms.

Due to other appointments, one male journalist has left us and our remaining male colleague is now sitting at the dinner table with all females, quietly enjoying it. Our group has learned from previous delightful dinners how to create our own beautiful ambience: 24 candles in two holders are standing on one of the two dining room tables that hold space for ten guests each. Wines line up in a row, appetisers, main courses, dessert. Lovely. The next day another male journalist arrives and takes over, telling ghost stories.

Photos in the upper hallway show us that the original Holmes Station had burnt down some 100 years before. There are mounted heads of deer on the walls, a pool table, a large TV (in the other two hotels there are none on purpose, but guests can ask for them); there are three living rooms and two dining rooms, a winter garden and many, many large bathrooms with showers so big that four people could easily fit into each. One journalist notices that there are no blinds or curtains on the bathroom windows and feels a bit uncomfortable about it. But there are only trees around anyway, or so it seems. The rooms have a bed each and a couple of chairs and bedside table. Minimal furnishings, but it has a certain relaxing beauty - space, no clutter. And the view from the window over the garden is just good for the soul. Sleeping here you wonder what might happen. Such a big house, away from the metropolis, cities, towns. Two families own the house and they live in Singapore and Auckland. Mostly they rent out the house for seminars or weddings.

Looking back, at Otahuna Lodge I thought: "This is how presidents sleep", when I lay down on my bed of fine linen. At Grassmere, I appreciated the little soft beige lamb skin, which someone laid beside my bed while I was at dinner. And at Holmes Station, I enjoy wandering through the garden and counting the 18 fireplaces in the house. Life can be so beautiful in any of these places, it seems. And which was the best stopover? Ah, well, you just have to try them all - if the travel budget allows it.