“Jay and the family were here just this Christmas,” Adrian Levy says cheerfully, opening the front door of the Owner’s Cottage to let us in. As we walk into the villa’s Virginia Fisher-styled lounge room, he explains: “They come to Kauri Cliffs every year and stay right here. I mean, just look at that scene in front of you.”
Adrian is the general manager of Kauri Cliffs, a 6,000-acre luxury property in New Zealand’s North Island. Jay, as in Jay Robertson, is his US-based boss. Wandering through large glass doors onto the cliff top deck, we admire the unyielding view of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. I spy a slow moving yacht on the horizon, then bypass the infinity pool to dip a toe in the bubbling jacuzzi.
Soon it will be summer in New Zealand and the swimming pool will be the star attraction. For now, with daily temperatures hovering around 63 degrees, I’m enjoying the ever-present roaring fires (inside and out), soft wool throws (one can place over one’s knees when dining outdoors or curled up on the couch) and comforting, yet delicious snacks such as homemade chocolate chip cookies and piping hot kawakawa (herbal) tea. Oh, and having my toes momentarily submerged in hot water.
Right now, I’m on a brief tour of the property that takes in the Robertson family’s favorite villa, as well as the newer, larger family villas, The Residences, as part of a two-night stay in my own deluxe suite. Over the next 48 hours, I’ll relax at the spa, sample some of the country’s best food and wine (guided by talented sommelier Valeria Weihmuller), play golf, take a sunset stroll at Pink Beach and generally breathe in the atmosphere of one of New Zealand’s premier accommodations.
The Robertson Lodges: Empire of luxury accommodation…
This year marks 20 years since the Robertson family—led by Jay’s dad, Julian, and late mum, Josie—started welcoming guests at Kauri Cliffs in the Bay of Islands. At the time, the lodge had been transformed from an historic, coastal sheep farm into a world-class golf course and 16-suite lodge, inspired by the couple’s passion for the sport and Josie’s soft spot for American architectural design and classic Ralph Lauren interiors.
Today, it is home to several new, family villas (and, yes, a working farm remains on the property). It is one of four (soon to be five) luxury retreats in the Robertson’s ever-expanding New Zealand portfolio. The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, a 6,000-acre lodge further south, is located in the coastal wine region of the Hawke’s Bay. Matakauri Lodge, named Best Resort Hotel in Australia and New Zealand by Travel + Leisure editors this year, is located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu not far from the mountain resort town of Queenstown.
Kauri Cove, a six-bedroom, beachfront villa located on the remote, private island of Moturua, also in the Bay of Islands, is a 50-minute helicopter ride from the main city of Auckland (or a 10-minute ride from Kauri Cliffs). A fifth luxury retreat on Waiheke Island, closer still to Auckland, is in the pipeline.
The Robertson Lodges: Beginnings of a family legacy…
But the Robertson’s passion for New Zealand’s prime real estate didn’t start in 2001 with the opening of Kauri Cliffs. According to Jay, who oversees the Robertson properties as chief executive, it began with a family trip to New Zealand in 1978 when his eldest brother Spencer was four and Jay was just a year old. (Jay’s younger brother, Alex, was born after the family’s overseas sabbatical.)
“New Zealand was far from the normal travel destination for Americans at the time,” Jay explains by email. And that, he says, was a big part of the appeal for his father, Julian Robertson Jr, a New York-based financier and philanthropist.
Julian wanted to spend a year writing the great American novel with his young family in a geologically interesting part of the world before returning to New York to embark on the next major chapter in his business life (setting up hedge fund firm Tiger Management). The tiny South Pacific island country of New Zealand with its more than 700 offshore islands, live volcanoes, bubbling geysers and glacial fjords fit the bill perfectly. Bay of Islands, in Northland, in particular, won them over. So, when a friend got in touch years later to let Julian know a coastal farm in Northland was on the market, the Robertson’s decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
The Robertson Lodges: The appeal of natural beauty…
“Mum and dad maintained an affection for New Zealand from the outset,” says Jay, whose wife Claire is a Kiwi (New Zealander). “New Zealand is full of natural beauty from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island and everywhere in between. The fact there are now so many incredible lodges to visit and enjoy located throughout the entire country make it a luxury adventure.”
It’s likely the Robertson family played a major hand putting New Zealand on the map as a luxury travel destination. When the family launched the Lodge at Kauri Cliffs, the hotel was the first to open its doors since 1924, the year Irish fly-fisherman Alan Pye opened Huka Lodge, near Lake Taupō in the central North Island.
Today, New Zealand’s high-end accommodation market features dozens of luxury hotels and lodges, including New Zealand-owned Blanket Bay in the South Island alpine region of Glenorchy and Texas businessman Bill Foley’s Wharekauhau Lodge, located on a rugged North Island sheep station in Palliser Bay.
This year, all three—Blanket Bay, Wharekauhau and Kauri Cliffs—were profiled in the opening episode of a 10-part TVNZ television series called Lap of Luxury. Aimed at armchair travelers and travelers grounded by COVID, the series provided insight into the range of luxury accommodation available in New Zealand, as well as what makes the country’s take on luxury unique.
The Robertson Lodges: Ultimate elegance and outstanding service…
Kauri Cliffs, described as the “ultimate in elegance”, stood out for its long standing staff dedicated to personal service and creating a comfortable environment where guests truly feel at home.
Poster boy for Kauri Cliffs’ brand of service was guest relations manager John Lewis, a lodge employee for more than 18 years. “It’s a home, it’s the Robertson’s home. It is a luxury lodge but we also treat it like the guests are coming to their home,” he said at the time. “So to me, it’s very important that the guests meet all the staff. You meet them as if they’re coming into your home.”
When I meet John after dinner one night he tells me his customer service career started in Washington DC, where he spent 20 years as personal assistant to the New Zealand ambassador, before working in hotels throughout Australia. And, like others who make up the staff, Valeria, Kauri Cliffs sommelier for a decade, and Michael Venner, guest relations manager for nearly 15 years, there’s nothing he won’t do to ensure his guests have what they want at any given time. “You want to offer a memorable experience that they will never forget,” John says. “It’s about having good standards, wonderful chefs and, of course, giving guests every opportunity to enjoy New Zealand’s extraordinary food and wine.”
New Zealand’s world-class wine is another Robertson family passion. In 2007, the family bought Dry River, a winery in the arid, gravelly, free-draining Martinborough Terrace region of South Wairarapa. During my stay, I sample Dry River’s 2013 Syrah, a Seguinot Chablis from France’s Burgundy region, as well as a Lansdowne Estate Pinot Noir, another standout from New Zealand’s Wairarapa region.
The Robertson Lodges: Giving back…
“We love New Zealand. It’s been a long love affair that grows stronger every day,” Jay tells me. “We have enjoyed the country so much over the years that we definitely felt the need to give back.” Over the past two decades, the family have donated major artworks worth $115 million to the Auckland Art Gallery, invested in university research, education and music scholarships, as well as backed New Zealand’s most recently successful America’s Cup defense campaign.
At Cape Kidnappers, guests can take the Kiwi Discovery Walk to see the rare, endangered kiwi bird (the national bird of New Zealand) in its natural environment thanks to the Robertson’s investment in a world-class kiwi bird sanctuary, which includes a 6.6 mile predator proof fence.
At Kauri Cliffs, I join guest manager Michael Venner on the Heritage Discovery Tour to learn about the property’s extraordinary cultural history and visit an ancient 900-year-old kauri tree, prized by local Māori (the indigenous people of New Zealand), now part of a native forest reserve.
“The Tepene kauri is a very special, protected landmark on the property,” Michael, of Māori heritage, explains as we clean our shoes at a tailor-made cleaning station and make our way along the walking track. This tree is in good health, he says, standing under its enormous canopy. But, like kauri throughout New Zealand, it is under threat from an unwelcome plant disease known as ‘kauri dieback’, caused by a microscopic soil-borne pathogen that can be spread by hikers with infected shoes.
“To protect trees like this one for future generations we bring guests here to experience its spirit firsthand and to understand its importance,” says Michael. “The hope is that the more people around the world who value these special trees, and champion their conservation, the better our chances at keeping them around for another millennia.”
The Robertson Lodges: New Zealand luxury…
Having the ability to connect easily with nature is another thing that makes New Zealand’s take on luxury unique, Jay explains.
“Our guests have always enjoyed the natural experiences that our properties provide, whether that involves seeing a kiwi at Cape Kidnappers, walking to the Tepene kauri or going fishing at one of the three private beaches at Kauri Cliffs. I think this will become even more important for our international guests post-pandemic. The great thing is there is plenty of room for our guests to feel safe, inspired by the beauty around them, while still feeling very much at home.”
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT NEW ZEALAND
New Zealand is about 1,100 miles southeast of Australia, with a population of five million people. Seasons in New Zealand are the opposite of those in the United States. Known as Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud, New Zealand comprises two large islands, the North and South Islands, as well as hundreds of smaller ones.
THE ROBERTSON LODGES: All three Robertson lodges are listed on Relais & Châteaux top 500 hotels of the world, while Kauri Cliffs par 72 championship golf course, designed and built by David Harman, is currently ranked 37 in the world by Golf Digest. “Our family wanted to share the beauty of New Zealand with others and combine that experience with our own brand of genuine and authentic hospitality,” says Robertson lodge chief executive Jay Robertson. “Kauri Cliffs was originally intended to be a golf course only, however, it wasn’t long before mum thought our visitors really needed somewhere lovely to stay—that’s how the lodge came about and our family became accidental hoteliers.”
THE ROBERTSON VILLAS: The first of the Robertson Villas is Kauri Cove. It has four bedrooms and a two-bedroom guest wing. Designed by New Zealand architect, Pet Bossley, the villa accommodation is set on a private island in the Bay of Islands.