What is the best gift you can give any mother? Time is the answer. Forget the flowers and the chocolates; what they crave most is solid blocks of time spent with their offspring. And they want us focused not on work, not on a screen, not on minutiae — on them.
Recently, my mother had her 80th birthday. What do you give someone who doesn't need more material possessions? An experience is the answer. And so I decided to go home to New Zealand, where my mother lives, and take her on the trip of a lifetime
On my list were three "superlodges" owned by an American who is said to have taken New Zealand luxury to new heights and was doing great things to preserve some of my birth country's flora and fauna.
All three lodges were in parts of the country that meant something to my mother. One was in the Bay of Islands in the north of North Island, a sunny, beach-lined area where my parents would sail when my father was alive. The next was in Hawke's Bay, on the central-eastern coast of North Island, a genteel farming and vineyard region where my mother attended boarding school. The third was outside Queenstown on South Island, where my parents took their last trip together.
Although Americans think New Zealand is a long haul, I don't find it so. You get on Air New Zealand (the only airline that flies direct) in the evening, drink a glass of wine, watch a movie, sleep (and for an upcharge, you can do it lying down on its new economy Skycouches), and wake up there. It is a 13-hour flight from LAX to Auckland, and if you go in their summer (December to March), the time difference is only three hours (plus a day), so minimal jet lag.
I flew into Auckland just after sunrise, spent the day relaxing, and then took my mother to dinner at Ostro Brasserie, a new, celebrity-chef restaurant overlooking Auckland's shipping harbor (admittedly not the city's best view). One can never go wrong ordering fish in a country surrounded by ocean and teeming with rivers, and it served the freshest oysters I have ever had.
The following morning we caught a flight to Kerikeri, a small Northland town of apple orchards, kiwifruit vines, sheep and rugged coastline. We were met by a driver in a fancy European car and driven to Kauri Cliffs, an über-luxe lodge perched above some of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand. The lodge is also famous for its world-class, cliff-side golf course, but neither my mother nor I play. "Never mind," the exuberant greeter told us, "You'll just have to go to the spa." My mother, who is a beautiful woman even at 80, lighted up at that suggestion.
We spent considerable time at the spa, swam in the infinity pool and lounged in the hot tub. I hiked some of the 6,000-acre, working farm belonging to the lodge, arriving at a waterfall that was so spectacular I sat and stared at it for an hour.
The lodge is airy and classically sophisticated, with overstuffed sofas, pillars, oil paintings, roaring fires in the evening and hors d'oeuvres at 6 p.m. It is the kind of place you imagine Gatsby would have frequented. Knowing that, I had packed some finery for dinner, because shorts and flip-flops are not OK at cocktail hour. We ate outside on the deck overlooking the golf course and the cobalt ocean beyond.
My mother and I had a two-bedroom cottage a short walk from the lodge. It was a mini-home, with desk, kitchenette and a daily supply of killer brownies. Service was impeccable, as one would expect in a place such as this, and delivered not with obsequiousness, but with true Kiwi exuberance.
I was raised boating, so one day we headed into Russell, had lunch at the Duke of Marlborough — New Zealand's oldest bar (their motto: "Serving rascals and reprobates since 1827") — and spent the afternoon on a chartered 75-foot boat called, appropriately, Bucket List. I had spent many a New Year vacation at "The Duke" and cruising the tranquil waters as a teenager, and so it was a memory lane flashback for me. Although there were a few more expensive houses, to my relief most of the area hadn't changed in 35 years.
After two nights at Kauri Cliffs, we were driven back to Kerikeri's one-room airport and took a flight to Napier (by way of Auckland), hub of Hawke's Bay. The breadbasket of New Zealand, (or one of them, the whole country seems to overflow with organic produce), Hawke's Bay covers an enormous valley flanked by two tumbling rivers, both legendary for fly-fishing. The fertile valley is, since the 1970s, home to a growing number of excellent wineries.
In Hawke's Bay we were staying at the Farm at Cape Kidnappers. The 6,000-acre property, on one of the most staggering private farms in all of New Zealand, straddles a peninsula so there are views on all sides; another challenging golf course; and airy, free-standing rooms. The lodge has an elegant farmhouse feel, more modern and rustic than Kauri Cliffs, but every bit as luxurious. Again, our room was a two-bedroom bungalow with the same supply of deadly brownies. The food at the lodge is so good it is tempting never to leave, but it would be a shame to miss the area.
We wanted a crash course in local vineyards, so we spent one morning on a private wine tour with Gareth Kelly of Odyssey New Zealand, a wine and gourmet tour company. Kelly loved his wines, and with humor and passion filled us in on the history of the area while my mother and I got progressively tipsy in the tasting rooms. My favorite was Elephant Hill, which had a spectacular Viognier, and where we ate lunch in their outdoor restaurant overlooking the vines with the coast beyond. I also highly recommend Craggy Range wines as well as Black Barn, not only for its wines but also for its fabulous farmers market, cheese shop and gourmet gift store.
The highlight of the trip took place one morning on Cape Kidnappers property. Despite the fact that New Zealanders are nicknamed "Kiwis," the odd, flightless, native bird, I had never seen one in the wild. Flightless, because there were no predators in New Zealand during pre-European times, this endearing bird was decimated once rats, opossums and ferrets were introduced. The owner of Cape Kidnappers, a wealthy New York banker, has spent millions fencing his properties to create a pest-free environment in which kiwis are brought back from near extinction. We took the Kiwi Discovery Walk and followed a scientist into the bush to radio track a young kiwi. Once we located it, we were allowed to hold it and feed it grubs. Because of programs such as this, kiwi numbers are on the rise.
For our final extravagance, we flew to Queenstown, in the southwest of South Island and checked into Matakauri Lodge on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Ten minutes north of Queenstown, the 11-room, tony boutique hotel perches on the edge of the lake overlooking the majestic Remarkables mountains. You are hard-pressed to imagine a more pristine view anywhere in the world than this.
Queenstown is known as the world's "adrenaline capital," a place where you can bungee jump off 300-foot-tall bridges, go canyoneering through river gorges, heli-bike down an insanely steep single track or fling your body through Class 4 whitewater on a boogie board — none of which my mother wanted to do. However, proving that she still had that Kiwi adventure spirit, she agreed to come on the Dart River jet boat, where we dressed up in wet weather gear and rode in a high-speed, specifically designed boat that spun 360 degrees in the shallow glacial river.
On our last day, a helicopter trip — the pièce de résistance. If you are ever going to splurge on a helicopter ride, this is a great place to do it. Paul Mitchell, owner of Heli Tours, flew us over the Remarkables and vast inland sheep stations, then landed beside a glacier and then by an alpine lake where we could take photos. By lunchtime, we ended up with a bottle of wine and a picnic on a remote point overlooking Lake Wakatipu. As I looked at my mother I realized that no one is ever too old for natural beauty. In fact, we need it to stay young. Natural beauty and time, those are the gifts we should care about.
If you go:
THE BEST WAY TO NEW ZEALAND
From LAX, Air New Zealand offers nonstop service to Auckland; Air Tahiti Nui and Air New Zealand offer direct service (stop, no change of plane); and United, Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Fiji, Qantas and Hawaii offering connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $901 to $1,577, including taxes and fees.
I used Springboard Vacations to plan our trip. They are an L.A.-based agency that can book flights, hotels etc. (866) 447-7746, www.springboardvacations.com/
WHERE TO STAY
Kauri Cliffs, http://www.kauricliffs.com. From $1,200 a night, double occupancy. Includes two meals and pre-dinner cocktails.
The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, http://www.capekidnappers.com. From $1,150 a night, double occupancy. Includes two meals and pre-dinner cocktails.
Matakauri Lodge, http://www.matakaurilodge.com. From $900 night, double occupancy. Includes two meals and pre-dinner cocktails.
WHAT TO DO
Bucket List Charters (Bay of Islands), http://www.bucketlistcharters.co.nz. $3,455 per day for up to 15 people.
Odyssey New Zealand Wine and Gourmet Tours, http://www.odysseynz.co.nz. From $130 per person.
Dart River Jet Boat, www.dartriver.co.nz/wilderness-jet. From $170 per person.
Heli Tours, http://www.helitours.co.nz. From $184 per person.