I still can’t believe I was in New Zealand! And, thinking how and when I will return???

If you have not been to this beautiful country, start planning now.  New Zealand is a small country in size but, encompasses a vastness usually seen in a much larger land mass. Honestly, I cannot think of what it is lacking.

My sojourn began on Air New Zealand, non-stop, to Auckland from Chicago O’Hare International on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in business class.  Business Premier service was very good with excellent service beginning with the flight attendants. They were friendly, professional and had a good sense of humor. The food and beverage service were equally good with a variety of options for all dietary considerations. Including many New Zealand products such as wine, chocolates, and lamb. After a light dinner, I asked to have my seat made up into my bed, then snuggled in and watched a movie. Sleep would come.

Air New Zealand offers Premium Economy with a separate cabin from economy.  The seats recline more than in economy and the food and beverage service is upgraded as well. Air New Zealand also has “Economy Sky couch” in the economy cabin. There is an up-charge that allows you to have an entire row to yourself. This is nice for a couple or a family with small children.

The Virtuoso Study Tour format consisted of 4 tour operators with 4 travel advisers and two industry reps for a total of 6 people per group.  For the first 8 nights, the 4 groups went their own way. Each itinerary was different with a little overlap between groups. All accommodations were at one of the Luxury Lodge Collection throughout the North and South islands. The Luxury Lodges range in size (from 3 to 20 accommodations) but, all meet the same criteria of luxury, amenities, food and beverage presentations and high standards.

I was paired with Southern Crossings, which was my first choice during the application process. Southern Crossings treated us the same as they treat our clients, like royalty!

When I arrived in Auckland, two days after departing Chicago, I was escorted through immigration and customs clearance by a representative of Air Center One, a local ground operator. Once in the arrival all, I was welcomed to New Zealand by Sarah Farag (Dir. Of Southern Crossings), Kia Ora!  Kia Ora, a Maori language greeting meaning “be well”, “be healthy” and used as an informal “hi” or “hello”.  From there I was transferred in a private vehicle to the Domestic Airport prior to our onward flight to Queenstown. It was at this time that all 16 travel advisers would meet and then break up into our 4 respective groups. The last two nights of the trip, all 4 groups will reconnect in Auckland.

My group flew directly to Queenstown to begin our adventure. We were greeted by Patrick Bourke (Dir. of Southern Crossings), another friendly face. Patrick would be our host for the next four nights. The first of which was at Eichardt’s Private Hotel, in the center of Queenstown on the lake. Eichardt’s has a total of 13 accommodations from luxurious lake view suites, lakefront apartments, a Residence and a Penthouse. My room was a king suite with a full view of Lake Wakatipu.  The fireplace was lit, and the room was welcoming. Remember, the seasons in New Zealand are opposite of North America so, having a fireplace warms a room with not only heat but, a beautiful glow.

Due to the weather forecast, we decided to switch our tours for the two days in Queenstown. I learned very early on that it is of utmost important to travel with the best of the best tour companies in New Zealand.  The weather plays a huge part in what tours/experiences will or will not take place and you must be flexible. The top tour company will always have a plan B or C and provide clients with the best possible options without skipping a beat.

After a quick check in to freshen up, we walked a few blocks to the pier for a private boat tour on Eichardt’s luxury yacht of Lake Wakatipu. The lake is vast, and the scenery was beautiful. The temperature was a bit cool but, the yacht was luxurious, and the crew catered a light lunch including some bubbly to toast our arrival.

Next, because the skies were clear we decided to take a private helicopter tour of Milford Sound and the glaciers. Over the Top provides private helicopter tours through out Queenstown. This was my very first experience in a helicopter and I’m hooked! I can’t imagine going to NZ and not seeing the country via a helicopter. Breathtaking…Milford Sound is everything I imagined and not to be missed – unless of course, the weather makes it impossible. We were not able to land on a glacier because the winds were too strong but, we did land a tiny patch of meadow on a mountain for beautiful views of the sound.

Our first dinner was hosted by James Cavanagh, General Manager at Eichardt’s, in the Penthouse. We had our own bartender, wait staff and chef to introduce us to NZ cuisine. We were not disappointed!

The next day, after breakfast we checked out of Eichardt’s and had some light adventure and touring on the docket. Our first stop Jet Boating on the Shotover River. The jet boats are very shallow and glide over the water. The speed, sharp, quick turns and hugging the side of the canyons was exhilarating. A great way to get your blood flowing, even with one’s eyes closed!

From there we made our way to Blanket Bay, an Alpine Lodge in Glenorchy, Queenstown, for lunch. Tom Butler was our host and his pride in the lodge was immediately apparent. The property is 45 mins. From Queenstown and sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. There is plethora of activities close by and at the lodge including, fly-fishing, heli-skiing, hiking, jet boating, kayaking, horse riding, vineyards and more.  OR, just relax and enjoy the beauty and bountiful food and drink. After leaving Blanket Bay, we toured the countryside and the charming, tiny village of Glenorchy.

We then checked into Matakauri Lodge – situated between Blanket Bay and Queenstown, on Lake Wakatipu. Are you getting the feel for the vastness of Lake Wakatipu???

Matakauri Lodge is part of the Robertson Lodge and the Relais & Chateau collections.  The level of attention to detail at the lodge is matched to the level of food & wine. Emanuel Grosch, the Lodge Manager, was our host for the evening.  All the accommodations have a wood burning fireplace (as did all the lodges on both the south and north islands). Matakuri sits directly on the banks of the lake. If you want, you can grab a ride to a spot to about 10 mins. From the lodge to a path and walk along the lake into the center of Queenstown.

Dinner was amazing, I had the chef’s tasting menu and it was a real treat.  A nice feature is that everyone at the table could order from the menu or have the tasting menu. They are very accommodating to each individual.

The next morning after the best egg-white omelet on either side of the International Date Line, we toured Arrowtown, a quaint gold rush town with shops, cafés, restaurants to explore. Then we drove a short distance in the country to board another helicopter for our flight to Minaret Station.

Minaret Station is an alpine luxury lodge located near Lake Wanaka.  Station is a ranch and Minaret Station consists of 4 luxury chalets and accessible by helicopter exclusively. The approach to the lodge from the air is breathtaking, you see a valley in the distance and as you get closer the chalets come into view with a backdrop of a mountain range. Our host for lunch was David Hiatt, the General Manager, a Kiwi from the Christchurch area.

The activities on property and in the region will keep you busy for days. And the delicious, beautiful food and drinks will provide the fuel. None of us wanted to leave but, since we were traveling by helicopter, we jumped aboard and were treated to more outstanding landscape.


We returned to Queenstown and boarded a commercial plane to Christchurch and looked forward to having a two-night stay at Otahuna Lodge. Otahuna Lodge is a former Victorian mansion, that was lovingly restored with all the comfort and luxury of the 21st century. Not one detail is overlooked.

Up to this point, all the other Luxury Lodges were contemporary in design. Otahuna Lodge is a member of the Luxury Lodges of NZ and Relais & Chateaux.  The owners, Hall Cannon and Miles Refo are delightful, warm, genteel hosts’ and truly make Otahuna a must see/stay stop on any itinerary to NZ.  Oh, did I mention the food – it was more than delicious, if that is possible. Otahuna has a lovely pool, beautiful gardens and one spa/treatment suite.

Two nights at Otahuna is exactly what we need to re-charge our batteries. On our full day in Christchurch, we were picked up on the front lawn of Otahuna by two helicopters! Christchurch Helicopters has a very famous owner/pilot, Sir Richie McCaw – the former All Black Rugby star. And yes, he was knighted by the Queen of England! His partner, Terry Murdoch was the other pilot and they are equally delightful and informative.

Our destination was Scrubby Bay, part of the Annandale collection of luxury coastal farm escapes & villas. Scrubby Bay is a villa that sleeps up to 14 guest and sits on a private, secluded bay on Banks Peninsula. You can access the villa from land but, landing on the lawn in a helicopter…duh! From there we drove to Seascape, a private and secluded, romantic villa for 2 on another private bay. Both Scrubby Bay and Seascape are modern and minimalistic in design with the finest level of comfort.

Our next stop was The Shepard’s Cottage, a two person cottage in a rural, secluded setting of a sheep and cattle ranch, looking out to the sea. The cottage is rustic chic with a loft bedroom.

Our hostess, Elena Fabian and host, Sebastien Pernot shared with us the many possibilities of activities and experiences their guest can enjoy. The Annandale collection is in Akaroa and part of a working farm with cattle and sheep on the Pacific Ocean.

Then it was onto lunch at the Homestead, the largest accommodation on the farm.   It is a luxurious 5-bedroom villa that is more of a resort with a tennis court, infinity pool and private gardens. Lunch was served in the dining room and again, the food, presentation and surroundings were delightful and delicious. Attention to detail is a running theme throughout all the Luxury Lodges of New Zealand. Each property has a uniqueness that will please any guest.

Guess what, yes, the helicopters were parked on the property of the Homestead and after lunch and a tour, we flew back to Otahuna.  The scenery on the outskirts of Christchurch was lovely with elements of water, hills and varying landscapes.

Back at Otahuna, our pre-dinner activity was a cooking class with the chef, and it was a real treat. He shared some chef secrets and had great patience as a teacher. However, he did not offer any of us a sous chef position ☹.

Afterwards, we freshened up and met in the library/living room for cocktails. Dinner was served in the formal dining room with wine pairing.  Miles, our host for the evening was delightful and shared many wonderful stories about moving to NZ with Hall and renovating Otahuna to meet their standards. You can feel the love and devotion they have for Otahuna and their adopted home of New Zealand.

In the morning, the fog was thick and by the time we arrived at the Christchurch airport we knew getting to our next destination Rotorua, would be a challenge.  Again, we had to be flexible and opt for Plan B.  Air New Zealand was able to reroute us because Rotorua was fogged in. We had to say good-bye to Patrick from Southern Crossings but, would meet up with Sarah once we arrived at our next destination, Taupo.

Luckily, Sarah’s husband, Michael drove her from Auckland to meet us in Taupo, which required two flights for us.  Once we arrived in Taupo, we transferred to yep, another helicopter. But this trip was even more special, our pilot was a young woman, our first Kiwi woman pilot.

Our excursion/transfer included the thrill of flying over Mount Tarawera, a dormant volcano. We were scheduled to land on White Island but, the weather was not cooperating. We also had a beautiful view of the geothermal landscape as a contrast to the domes and craters of Mount Tarawera.

Our first night on the North Island was at Kinloch Manor and Villas in Taupo.  Our host for the evening was Andrew Cullen, lodge manager.  Kinlock Manor sits on the Kinloch Club (golf course) on the shores of Lake Taupo. The name is Scottish, and the design is 21st century.

After breakfast the next morning we met our private driver and vehicle from Tailored Travel in Hawke’s Bay and enjoyed a beautiful ride in comfort to The Farm at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay.  Hawke’s Bay is known for award winning vineyards and agricultural. The transfer was about 3 hours but, we stopped for a wine tasting and charcuterie style lunch at Smith & Sheth Heretaunga Wine Studio. This was a delightful way to break up the drive.

The distances between towns/regions are not always far from each other but, the highways are mostly two lanes and winding roads. If you have limited time in the country, a helicopter transfer proves efficient but, costly. The only really ‘expressways’ are in Auckland.

Our home for the evening, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, is in Te Awanga, just outside of Hawke’s Bay, and is a member of the Robertson Collection and Relais & Chateaux. Our host was Callum Farnell, Lodge Manager. Callum is a seasoned host and has many delightful stories to share.

The resort has 22 accommodations that are part of a 6000+ acres of a working sheep farm.  The Farm has the only Kiwi Bird sanctuary in NZ, a golf course, a Spa and pool area.  Other activities include hiking and biking. The accommodations sit on the surrounding hills and with various views of the Pacific Ocean.

One of the highlights of our group’s (and we were the only group to have this experience) was The Kiwi Discovery Walk. We met with a Kiwi Bird specialist, who is a Kiwi herself, not a bird but a human Kiwi. I will digress…the Kiwi’s got their nickname during WWII. They would polish their boots with the shoe polish brand, Kiwi. So, the other servicemen coined the name Kiwi’s when referring to New Zealanders. This is not considered slang and the Kiwi’s call themselves, Kiwi’s.  If you are referring to the fruit or bird, you must say, “Kiwi bird” or “Kiwi fruit”.

Back to our experience. Our Kiwi bird expert was a young woman armed with an antenna and radio transmitter along with gear to weigh and treat the bird if we located one. Right away we picked up a signal, the kiwi chicks are tagged in order to be tracked. We hiked a short distance in the pine forest until the signal was strong and she was confident the chick was within reach.

The Kiwi birds are rare and endangered. Interestingly, NZ has very few predators – no snakes, wolves, coyotes, but they do have rodents such as opossum, ferrets, stoats, rabbits and feral cats.  I don’t recall which rodent was first to the islands but, some settlers brought another rodent to get rid of it and it just got out of hand.  There are traps all over the country to try to eradicate the rodents but, until then, the Kiwi Bird is the target for all because they do not fly and are easy prey.

Once we located the general area of the Kiwi chick, our kiwi expert had to dig out an abandoned rabbit hole that the kiwi chick was using as a home. This was no easy task and she was practically in the hole herself.  Finally, she was able to grab the bird and we could hear it squawking. Kiwi birds are nocturnal, too.

After weighing Sage (the naturalists name the chicks when they tag them) and changing her transmitter, we could pet her. It was a Kiwi safari and we will never forget it.  The naturalist put Sage back in her hole and off we went.

Our accommodations at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers were in a Junior suite with a beautiful terrace, fireplace and plenty of space to sit and relax. I had just enough time to make a ‘flat white’ and nibble a little homemade cookie before meeting the group for dinner.

Cocktails were in the main lodge in front of a wood burning fireplace and dinner was served in a private dining room. More NZ specialties along with award winning wines. Callum was delightful and shared many wonderful stories of his travels.

The next day we flew Air NZ to the Bay of Islands at the top of the North Island on the Pacific Ocean.  Our home for the evening was at The Landing Residences in Kerikeri, Northland.  The Landing property is privately owned and sits on “The Landing” where the first European settlers landed in New Zealand and history was made.

The residences consist of 4 private villas and sleep between 12 and 4 guests. There is a private vineyard and acres upon acres of land to explore as well as many of the islands in the bay. The Landing has a yacht for guests to charter for a day or perhaps an overnight.

We had a tour of the villas and a private wine tasting in the wine cellar. Each villa comes with a staff and chef so, dinner was served in the open dining room looking out onto the Pacific Ocean.

After dinner we went on a Kiwi walk.  Armed with flashlights – two with amber colored bulbs to not startle the Kiwi birds. It was great fun walking thru the vineyards and hills in search of Kiwi birds in the wild. Luckily, we caught glimpses of a few and enjoyed the vast display of stars.

After breakfast we were scheduled to board the yacht for some island hopping in the bay. But the weather forecast was not cooperating. We boarded the yacht and motored a short distance off shore where we anchored in a bay. The wind and the rain were not a deterrent and the crew of 4 pampered us with a beautiful lunch in the main living area of the yacht. It was like dining in a private home on the ocean.

We were scheduled to have the yacht sail to Helena Bay but, Plan B was activated when the rains came. Sarah and her staff at Southern Crossings along with the staff at The Landings made all the arrangements flawlessly. From the yacht we were met by a private vehicle and driver to shuttle us to our last Luxury Lodge, Helena Bay Lodge.

Helena Bay Lodge is a relatively new resort that is secluded on a private bay at the very northeast corner of the North Island. Our host for the evening was Neil, a lively Scot with a warm and friendly manner.

The lodge has 5 villas plus two miles of coastline and 4 beaches. Helena Bay Lodge also has a 25 meter pool and a clay bird shooting venue. Oh, and did I mention that it is a working farm that provides much of the meat and produce for the lodge? We were treated to a Farm Safari – pigs, sheep, cattle, goats and alpacas.  The amount of acreage shields the farm animals from view but, if you want to go for a hike, they provide some entertainment along the way.

Helena Bay is also a member of Relais & Chateaux so, once again the food and beverage component were amazing. We enjoyed signature dishes from the chef’s degustation menu of the day that included wine pairing.

The next morning, I had time to swim before breakfast and try the Clay Bird shooting before lunch. Clay Bird shooting was another first for me and I have to say it was challenging and fun.  I hit my target twice! I won’t share with you out of how many tries or ammunition I used. 😉

After lunch we boarded our last helicopter transfer of the trip. Our pilot was a lovely gentleman from South Africa with years of experience and great knowledge of the landscape. The trip to Auckland was 43 mins. In the air and we traveled along the Pacific Ocean coastline. The option in case you are wondering is a 3-hour car transfer.

Seeing Auckland from the low flying helicopter is fabulous. You get a glimpse of how spread out the city is, and it is still growing.  Upon landing in Auckland, the city of Sails, we were met by a private vehicle and driver for a short ride to the first of 2 hotels for the next two nights.

Here we had to bid farewell to Sarah and were placed in the very capable hands of the Florencia Paredi and Fiona Doyle at ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development) and Hayden Fitzpatrick of Tourism New Zealand. Both ATEED and TNZ would be responsible for introducing us to everything Auckland and more about NZ. This is also when all 16 travel advisors came together for the balance of the

We checked in at the Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbor Hotel for the 1st night. We had a couple of hours to explore (shop) the city on our own before meeting up with the group for a round-table discussion, a sight inspection and then dinner.

The Sofitel Auckland is conveniently located and is walking distance to the harbor as well as many shops and restaurants.  The Ferry terminal is also walking distance which comes in handy for exploring the neighboring island. More on that later.

After a little souvenir shopping and walking the neighborhood around the Wynyard Quarter it was time to meet the others and transfer to the SO/Auckland, the newest property in Auckland.  SO/Auckland is the trendiest, artistic and luxury hotel with 130 rooms and suites. This is where we participated in a Learn & Share session to compare the trip/itinerary of each of the 4 groups. We all loved our individual groups which is a true testament to each of the 4 tour companies, Southern Crossings (my group), Southern World, Abercrombie & Kent and Seasonz.

By this time, we were all very hungry, we were not used to going more than 4 hours without a gourmet meal and wine! Dinner was at Cassia, a trendy, Indian restaurant, filled with local Kiwi’s.  We were fortunate they had a private room to accommodate our group of 24. This was our first taste of dining in a local establishment and we were not disappointed. The food was wonderful and Indian cuisine was authentic and a nice change of pace.

The next morning, we had an early breakfast and a brisk, short walk to the ferry terminal where we would board a ferry to Waiheke Island. En-route, we walked past the soon to open Park Hyatt Hotel, scheduled to open in October. Park Hyatt will be the only Virtuoso property in Auckland.

The transfer to Waiheke Island was 45 mins. Against the wind and chilly temperatures. The city of Auckland is quite expensive and many Kiwi’s live on the outlying islands and commute to the city via the ferry service. I believe this is like other coastal cities, like Seattle.

Once on the island, we had 2 private buses, provided by Ananda Tours to take us around the island.

Waiheke Island is quite large with several vineyards and various options for accommodations.  Our first stop and sight inspection was The Boatshed, a charming luxury hotel with suites and private residences. This is the perfect spot for a weekend getaway, which many of the Kiwi’s do because the resort was sold out. Also, for guest visiting Auckland but not wanting to stay in the city and don’t mind taking the ferry. There is plenty to do and see on Waiheke Island, I would include a visit on any itinerary to NZ.

We then drove to Omaru Bay,  a luxury villa situated on a private bay with direct access to a private beach. The villa can sleep up to 20 guests with a generous number of bedrooms, most with private bathrooms and split over 2 expansive levels.

From there it was off to lunch at Poderi Crisci a family owned vineyard and Italian restaurant.  The property is spread out with beautiful gardens, a favorite location for weddings and private parties. The food and wine pairing for a group of 24 was excellent. It was the best Italian food, on an island in the Pacific, I’ve ever had!

We then had time for one more stop, Tantalus Estate vineyards in the Onetangi Valley (still on Waiheke Island). The owners are Americans and boast a craft brewery as well as the vineyard.

From here we transferred back to Matiatia Wharf for our ferry back to Auckland. This was our last evening in NZ and we checked into the Auckland Hilton for the night. The hotel is located 300 meters out to sea on the Princes Wharf. Most rooms have balconies and beautiful views of Auckland Harbour. Unfortunately, the weather was rain and heavy fog so, my view was minimal.

Our farewell dinner was at Clooney, a very innovative and true foodie experience. ATEED and TNZ splurged and the evening was magical. We were joined for dinner by a representative from each of the Luxury Lodges and the Virtuoso on-sites that hosted our groups over the last 2 weeks. The food presentation was extraordinary and creative. One dish was a NZ Green Lip mussel and we ATE the shell!  The chef worked some kind of magic and yes, we ate the shell…it was crispy to say the least 😊.

The next morning, The Hilton hosted a private breakfast and allowed us to have a late check out before our evening departures to the US.

On the docket was an America’s Cup Sailing Race in the Harbour. We were to have two sail boats between the group and race in the Auckand Harbor, just like the America’s Cup. But guess what, yes, the weather did not cooperate and instead we had the morning free to explore, code word for ‘shopping’ or visit a museum. I opted for shopping!

A note about the weather, remember my trip was during the beginning of winter in NZ. If you are planning a trip and it is important to see and do as much as possible and not worry about the weather, then late spring, summer and early autumn would be the best time to plan your holiday.  Also keep in mind, the cost and rates for all aspects of travel during peak season (late spring, summer and early autumn) will be considerably more than during low season.

Our group met for lunch at the Sugar Club, located at level 53 of the 328-meter Sky Tower in downtown Auckland. The Sugar Club is a restaurant that has been developed by chef Peter Gordon, a Kiwi and internationally known chef. The food and dining experience with outstanding views of the city is a great way to splurge for a special occasion (like being in NZ for the 1st time).

After lunch we went back to the Hilton to pack and wait for our transfer to the airport.  Departures are best when ‘uneventful’!

The Auckland airport was super busy but, it was a breeze to navigate.  I picked up a few last-minute items I could not live without and then we boarded our flight home.

I was treated to the non-stop flight to Chicago in business class and once again, a wonderful experience with great flight attendants, food and entertainment. We departed around 8pm and I arrive in Chicago at 6pm the same day, magic! The return flight was an hour or 2 shorter but, who’s counting. Another notable feature, the customs and immigration at ORD was quick because most international flights are departing the US at 6pm and not arriving.

I hope you have enjoyed my report, I’m sorry if it’s a bit long but, NZ is a magical destination and there is more to explore, see and do than what I touched on.

If you have a chance to travel to NZ, do it.  You will not be disappointed and don’t fret about the distance. Even if you don’t travel in the front of the plane, once you arrive the magic begins.

Kia Ora!