Related: Audley Travel
What does ‘exclusive’ look like in New Zealand? In our book, it’s not about overblown, out-and-out luxury, but the quality of experiences — be it hotel stays or tours. It’s excellent private guiding. It’s trips that enable you to see a side of places that most out-of-towners would never normally see. And, it’s sometimes about once-in-a-lifetime indulgences, such as a private helicopter tour over Milford Sound. Here’s a tried-and-tested list compiled by Audley’s New Zealand specialists, in no particular order…
Whale watching in Kaikoura: a bird’s-eye view
After the earthquake of November 2016, the small seaside town of Kaikoura woke to find its coastline radically altered. Vast swathes of the seabed were uplifted due to co-seismic movement and are now visible. Despite this metamorphosis, Kaikoura’s backdrop remains as eye-catching as ever: green mountains (sometimes with a toupée of snow) falling into a dark cerulean ocean.
Thanks to the deepwater gullies close to the shoreline, Kaikoura is known for attracting whales, including southern right, humpback and minke. Most visitors observe them on a boat trip. But, there’s a more exclusive way to spot these graceful giants — by light aircraft.
Not only does it offer a more comfortable experience (the sea can be very choppy), but you get a much greater sense of these creatures’ immense scale as you can sometimes see their entire body shape in the water. And, if you’re very lucky (as we were), you might even find yourself viewing a blue whale from above — all 28 m (92 ft) of it.
A private helicopter tour to Milford Sound
The towering, waterfall-pelted walls of this world-famous sound (technically a fjord) have become a mainstay of the New Zealand tourist trail but, luckily, other ways of experiencing Milford Sound exist. If you’re looking for a real one-off extravagant treat, take a private helicopter flight there from Queenstown.
You’ll glide over the ranges of the Remarkables and Mount Aspiring National Park, before flying over the sound itself. Then, you’ll touch down in a tiny cove facing the Tasman Sea, just next to the sound.
Here, your guide will help you fish for crayfish, before you hop back in the helicopter and travel to Te Anau with your fresh catch. You’ll take your booty to the town’s Fiordland Lodge, where a delicious lunch is cooked for you. Then, you return home the same way you came, giving you a chance once more to admire scenic highlights of the South Island from the air.
Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat
Set among the burnished-gold grasslands of the Mackenzie Basin, near Twizel, this luxury lodge looks toward the snowy Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mount Cook. The lodge’s prime spot, a private villa, sits right on the shores of Lake Pukaki — a glacial lake par excellence, whose limpid water is sometimes a startling neon blue.
You can drink in the surrounding panoramas from the retreat’s hot tub, take a spa treatment, and dine on gourmet garden-to-plate food. But, the property’s real pièce de résistance is its private observatory-cum-wine cellar experience, born out of the fact that the Mackenzie Basin is a Dark Sky Reserve.
Accompanied by glasses of local wine and snacks, you can take part in intensive private stargazing sessions with your host, Luke. You’ll spend a considerable amount of time looking through the refractor telescope (compared to say, mere minutes, as is the case with many group stargazing experiences). You might see galaxies, planets and — in the right conditions — the Aurora Australis.
The Pouakai Crossing, with a private guide
Montane forest, subalpine scrub, lava formations, fertile swampland, and mossy-limbed ‘Goblin Forest’. Oh, and an ominous-looking, almost perfectly triangular stratovolcano whose crater is often crowned with snow. The North Island’s day-long Pouakai Crossing has scenic splendours a-plenty on its snaking route across the Pouakai Ranges and to the foot of said volcano, Mount Taranaki. It can be hiked independently, but we think you get so much more out of it if you go with a private guide.
Guides will recount you with tales of the area’s Maori cosmology (it’s complicated — it involves a big love triangle) and will help you identify the many unusually bright alpine plants, from mountain foxglove to golden bulbinella. They also know how to time your arrival at certain points of the track so as not to coincide with fellow hikers (not that there are many, yet — this is one of New Zealand’s quieter hiking areas. For now.). And, guides know the best angles for photographs along the trail.
Hapuku Lodge, Kaikoura
This place has a secluded countryside location, views over to mountains, and strong eco credentials. So far, so New Zealand. But, Hapuku Lodge goes several steps further.
It has earthy, woody interiors reminiscent of an alpine lodge. The food is fine dining, making use of ultra-local ingredients, from crayfish to home-grown olive oil. Both breakfast and dinner are included in your stay.
Then there are the homely, welcoming touches (expect a personal greeting from the manager, and a plate of cookies in your room on arrival). Some rooms take the form of stilted treehouses and, from your bathtub, you can look over to a patch of woodland where you’ll see deer from the lodge’s own stud farm flitting between the trees.
These rooms also have a little sitting area with views onto the Kaikoura Seaward Mountain Range. It’s particularly delightful to visit here in New Zealand’s colder months, when you’ll likely see the range dusted with snow. Meanwhile, if you wish to go exploring, a pebbly, driftwood-loaded beach (with a celebrated break — surfers, take note) is only a short drive away.
A luxury yacht cruise of Lake Rotoiti, near Rotorua
East of the lake town of Rotorua lies a smaller (well, not that much smaller) body of water rimmed by forested hillsides. It receives a fraction of the visitors of Rotorua, and the best way to see it — and dig a little deeper into the area’s rich Maori heritage — is through a private trip on a luxury sailing catamaran.
The boat is equipped with see-through rain flaps, so cruises are rarely cancelled due to weather conditions. You’re provided with everything you need to make the trip an easeful one: warm down jackets, blankets, beanbags, a cheeseboard and plentiful wine. If you’re interested, you can help out with the business of sailing, or stop off to go swimming, but you’re also at liberty just to sit and take in the scenery.
Your skipper will divulge tales of Maori folklore and beliefs, pointing out areas of significance only locals would know — such as an off-limits mountain where burial ceremonies are held.
You’ll visit an otherwise-inaccessible, densely bosky islet to examine caves once used by local iwi (Maori tribes) as refrigerators and food storage spaces. You’ll also dock at some low-key natural hot springs and bathe in their waters overlooking the lake.
Bay of Many Coves
If you’re looking for somewhere utterly peaceful to cosy yourself away for a few days in the Marlborough Sounds, this is the place. Situated on a hillside overlooking the sounds, its rooms and villas wind up through the trees, and you can take advantage of the views on your private balcony (complete with hot tub, and champagne and canapés on arrival).
The quiet is instant, virtually only broken by the low clucking and noisy wingbeating of kereru (New Zealand native wood pigeons).
Your host will meet you at the property’s private dock (after a short water taxi ride from Picton) and lead you to your room. We particularly like the waterfront cafe and the five-course tasting menu that’s on offer. For something more energetic, there’s the chance to sea-kayak – plus the Bay of Many Coves Lookout and the Queen Charlotte Track lie on the crest of the hill.
Mostly, though, we’re content to sit in our room and watch the waterscapes. You might even notice a line of spray forming in the middle of one of the sounds, a phenomenon caused by the wind.
Disclosure: Our property, service and product reviews are sponsored by the proprietor or brand being appraised. All opinions remain our own and are in no way influenced by the sponsor.