It was reportedly the quality of New Zealand’s wine that first drew Californian billionaire William P Foley II (Bill) to the Wairarapa wine region in 2001. His interest was piqued after tasting New Zealand wine in California.
But once the first drop of Ata Rangi’s pinot noir met his lips, he was convinced. So convinced, in fact, that he’d go on to buy two Wairarapa vineyards, set up the New Zealand-based Foley Family Wines, and purchase the very luxury lodge that hosted him on his first-ever stay.
Wharekauhau Country Estate
Foley’s luxury lodge, Wharekauhau Country Estate, is located on a 3,200 acre coastal farm in New Zealand’s Southern Wairarapa. Originally one of New Zealand’s colonial sheep stations dating back to 1842, Wharekauhau has reputedly hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Prince William and Kate Middleton.
The Saturday afternoon we arrive, the lodge is home to six quite ordinary yet very happy couples. Like us, most have come to Wharekauhau from Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, taking either the winding 90-minute drive across the rugged Rimutaka Hill or, as owner Bill usually does, the helicopter ride from Wellington city’s harbourfront.
It’s a warm, cloudless spring afternoon when we check in. Wharekauhau’s hallways are flooded with light. On our walk through to the dining room for a late lunch, we’re offered gumboots in our size, should the clement weather take a turn, and learn the lodge’s Māori name means ‘place of knowledge’, a reference to a time when tōhunga (wise men) would gather at this very site to talk and share knowledge.
Luxury Lodges of New Zealand
There are 32 lodges that come under the banner, Luxury Lodges of New Zealand, starting with Helena Bay Lodge in the north and finishing with Fiordland Lodge in the World Heritage region of Fiordland in the south.
Wharekauhau easily finds a place in the line up, with its outstanding location (does having Canadian film director James Cameron next door boost your ranking?), world-class cuisine and hospitality, as well as an impressive range of things to do.
Spa Treatments and Activities
There’s pampering of course. Checking out the spa treatment menu, I see there’s everything from a hot stone or warm bamboo massage through to a pure mānuka (tea tree) honey mask-based facial.
And if the views over the magnificent Palliser Bay aren’t enough to keep you occupied, Wharekauhau offers a three-hour farm tour or an all-day seal and lighthouse tour, taking in the historic village of Ngāwi (I’m tempted by this one: you stop at Lake Ferry Hotel for its famous fish and chips – pronounced ‘fush and chups’ in this part of the world).
You can also book a full-day wine tour. It makes perfect sense. We’re in premium wine country, with no fewer than 29 boutique wineries found nearby. That’s a wealth of opportunities to taste some of the world’s best pinot noir.
We opt instead to take the two-minute walk from the lodge to our private cottage and spend the last of the afternoon watching lambs and their mums grazing among tī kōuka (cabbage) trees. We select a bottle of Te Kairanga pinot noir from the Foley collection, settle on the outside porch – and toy with having a second shortbread cookie.
Warm, down-to-earth Kiwi service
If you believe what you read – and what the staff tell you – you’ll imagine Wharekauhau’s Texas-born owner as both a talented businessman and someone who’s distinctly laid back.
If this is the case, Foley’s style permeates the estate. The Kiwi team who look after us are warm, down-to-earth and free flowing with facts and figures about Wharekauhau, as well as the lodge’s extensive wine collection. (Over the course of our stay we’re recommended and sample the Vavasour sauvignon blanc, the Babick black label syrah and the late chardonnay from Martinborough Vineyard).
We’re also updated on Foley’s other passions – poker, for example. There’s a games room in the lodge kitted out for a wild night of no-limit Texan hold’em. And, if that’s your fancy, you may want to embolden your play with a gin cocktail made from Foley’s Lighthouse Gin. The botanical variety, infused with fresh zest from New Zealand oranges and lemons, is made nearby in Martinborough and served at the lodge.
In the evening, we walk back to the lodge for pre-dinner drinks, hors d’oeuvres and the chance to mingle with the other guests. General manager Richard Rooney pops over to chat about what’s on the menu and the lodge’s farm-to-table philosophy. He tells us tonight’s lamb comes straight out of the paddock. Though, if we ordered venison, it too would arrive fresh on the plate, having been shot in the Tararua Ranges in the morning and choppered in by the afternoon.
Everything, explains executive chef Marc Soper later, is sourced locally. “I grab fennel from the coast, herbs come in from the garden, we make the ricotta ourselves and our big old lemon tree is constantly being raided. For me, it’s about cooking from the property where I can or from the neighbours or from what’s available regionally.”
Ocean Beach, South Wairarapa
You could spend your entire stay ensconced in the grounds of Wharekauhau and feel completely spoiled. But, outside the lodge gates, a wild, New Zealand coastline awaits. You can jump on a four-wheel drive motorbike and zoom across the black sands of Ocean Beach to the entrance of Rimutaka Forest Park. Wharekauhau will organise that for you. Or you can don your hiking gear and take a stroll across the rugged, windswept shoreline.
Do that and you’re sure to meet local fishers ankle deep in whitewash, keen to drag a plump snapper out of the Pacific Ocean. You may even have a yarn with a local bach (holiday home) owner like we did.
“Beautiful day for it aye,” one wiry bach owner tells us as we wander past his hut. “I’ve been coming here for years. It’s a great community. We all look out for each other. But I can’t tell you exactly how long my family’s been here? Not quite as long as Wharekauhau – the big house on the hill – that’s been part of this beautiful landscape for years.”