Georgie Lane-Godfrey travels to the land of the long white cloud and discovers the natural wonders (and a couple of man-made ones) of New Zealand’s South Island …
‘There’s the money shot!’ booms our guide over the tannoy. He’s not wrong. As the whale’s tail flips up out of the water against a backdrop of the Kaikoura Mountains, there’s a cacophony of clicking. This is one of those moments Kodak dreams of.
I’m on the deck of a Whale Watch Kaikoura boats, during one of their hourly trips in search of New Zealand’s larger, more aquatic visitors. As the leading company in the area, they’re proud of their 98% success rate for spotting whales. In fact, so confident are they that they offer an 80% refund for all trips where none of Moby’s mates show. Not that that was the case on our trip – we saw a grand total of three sperm whales, all located with radar technology that looks as though it’s come straight off the set of a Cold War thriller. The resulting dash to the deck might be a bit of tussle, but it really is the best way to see the local marine life.
And Kaikoura really is all about the marine life. Every corner of the town seems to scream it, from the roadside murals of dolphins to the speed bumps saying ‘Slow down! Sperm whale’. Walk down the street and you’ll see ‘The Green Dolphin’ or ‘The Whaler’ the ‘The Lobster Inn’. Even the name itself is a subliminal message – in Maori ‘Kai’ means food and ‘Koura’ means crayfish. You get the idea…
As a result, it’s impossible to come to this place and not try the crayfish. Kaikoura feels like an old-fashioned British seaside resort in many ways, and fish and chips on the beach is enough to make you feel like you’re back in Blighty. But for more high-end fare, the very best place to eat locally is Hapuku Lodge. Situated just a short drive up the coast from Kaikoura this lodge offers both fine dining and luxurious treetop accommodation. Here, the suites are nestled in the canopy of the resident Manuka grove and are named after native birds – kereru, korimako, tui. What’s more, a tree is planted for every guest that stays, meaning that your feathery neighbours are equally well accommodated.
But even without the eco-friendly incentive, you’d still want to make Hapuku home for the night. Each one of the treetop suites offers break-taking panoramas across the Pacific coastline and the Kaikoura mountains, with huge glass windows designed to bring nature indoors. Inside the rooms have a cool design-led aesthetic to them, filled with bespoke hand-crafted furniture and warming wood burners to keep it feeling cosy. This is the place for total peace and relaxation – take a soak in the indulgent spa bath and watch the deer graze in the hotel’s parklands below.
Meanwhile, rooms in the lodge are as equally luxurious, offering more space and reaching views across the olive grove with its track leading down to the sea. There’s also the added bonus of having easy access to the lounge downstairs – the perfect place to relax with a glass of Hapuku Lodge’s own excellent white wine before moving on to dinner.
In Hapuku’s kitchen is 2011 MasterChef Finalist Fiona Read, who’s mouth-watering menu features the finest local produce, including many vegetables grown in the lodge’s organic kitchen gardens. Indeed, 75% of the ingredients on the menu can be traced back to the surrounding area. Alongside Kaikoura crayfish, expect Canterbury Duck Leg with wilted Cavolo Nero and cider cranberries, followed by white chocolate, almond and raspberry semifreddo served with fresh cherries. All washed down with a selection of excellent New Zealand wines, of course.
To find these wines, you only have to drive about an hour north up the coast to Marlborough, the heart of South Island’s wine country. Filled with row upon row of lush vines, it’s a green maze of gorgeously juicy grapes waiting to be harvested. The best way to navigate this labyrinth is by bike – try a tour with Explore Marlborough, which guides you around four or five estates in a day. The pace is leisurely so that fitness isn’t an issue, and the flat roads through the vines were made for freewheeling in the sunshine.
We started by cycling to the Forrest Estate, a small, family run business where the wines are award-winning and the atmosphere is that of a genteel country club. Particularly tasty was The Doctors’ Riesling, with notes of Granny Smith, lime sherbet and mandarin. Even better, it’s made from low-sugar, early-harvested grapes, making it only 8.5% alcohol, so you can enjoy another glass guilt-free (even if it is only 10am).
Meanwhile the next stop on the tour focuses more on organic produce than health benefits. Glamorous and rustic, the Seresin Estate produces not only biodynamic wines but extra virgin olive oils too. Owned by renowned NZ cinematographer Michael Seresin, it’s hardly surprising that the estate oozes a Californian polish more suited to Hollywood than Blenheim. However, the celebrity touch does have its benefits – look out for the one-off dining opportunities when the estate invites top chefs come and cook. This year it was Anna Hansen of The Modern Pantry in Clerkenwell.
After a lazy lunch in the sunshine at Wairau River Estate, a family-friendly winery where the restaurant is packed with kids, we pottered up to the Brancott Estate. Located on the top of a hill (reached thankfully by shuttle bus), the floor-to-ceiling windows in this contemporary winery offer stunning views across the Brancott Valley. It’s a slick operation here, geared towards touring foreigners, but the wines are reasonably priced and excellently produced, so you forgive the commercialism.
Sipping a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in the sunshine, take in a moment to enjoy the view – it’s the perfect place to raise a toast to New Zealand’s most spectacular natural wonders.
Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses offers a One Bedroom Tree House from NZ $950+ per night based on two people sharing including a three-course dinner and cooked breakfast per person. For more information, visit hapukulodge.com. Whale Watch Kaikoura offers 3.5 hour whale watching tours from NZ $145 per adult; website. Explore Marlborough offers a Biking Wine Tour from NZ $290 per person for a full day visiting Forrest Estate, Seresin Estate, Wairau River Winery, Bladen Winery and includes bikes, transport to and from accommodation, morning tea and a winery restaurant lunch. For more information, visit exploremarlborough.co.nz.
For more information on New Zealand, visit the official website.