I'm expecting to be impressed. I've heard all about Kauri Cliffs lodge in New Zealand's Bay of Islands region, and owners Julian and Josie Robertson's genius for home-spun luxury. And here, nestled in the middle of Hawke's Bay wine country, is its spanking-new, million-dollar sister resort, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers.
Once we've successfully identified ourselves and negotiated the electronic gates, the drive up to the lodge is a winding 15km of unfeasibly varied landscape. It's quite disorientating - one minute you're passing through California's Big Sur with a towering redwood forest lining the road, next you're in a Welsh pastoral scene replete with unsteady spring lambs and portly, immovable cattle. Further on, the ground on either side drops away and you're teetering on a narrow road flanked by verdant patches of quasi rainforest, while native sci fi-like flowering cabbage trees pop up everywhere to remind you this is New Zealand in spring.
We must be getting closer; a sign points to the pro golf shop-cum-clubhouse - itself a Sunday-best farm shed (think corrugated iron meets Swarovski crystal) designed by Virginia Fisher of Huka Lodge fame. Now you either love golf or you don't. Either way, I should point out this is regarded as one of the best courses in the world. Designed by fairway aficionado Tom Doak, the course offers an ends-of-the-earth, cliffhanger experience. And even if you have trouble telling your nine iron from a curling iron, it's worth taking the time to traverse the course. A morning spent hammering balls into the Pacific may not be entirely lost. I can't say the same for the balls.
One more bend and The Farm at Cape Kidnappers' homely main lodge rises reassuringly ahead, its ridge and hilltop suites lined up in orderly rows nearby. Until recently this was a working farm, and the Robertsons have been careful to retain an essence of its past.
"Auckland architect Andrew Patterson executed the conceptual design for the lodge and the cottages," says Josie Robertson, "and wanted it all to resemble a cluster of farm buildings that would blend naturally with the landscape and look at home on the ridge above the Cape."
The Lodge reflects the posh-pastures theme of the clubhouse, but on a larger scale. Inspired by the Robertsons' vision, interior designer Linda Bedell has created a place where character and comfort blend together seamlessly. Cowhide rugs soften hardwood floors, antique armchairs snuggle up to fireplaces and an antler chandelier dangles dramatically from a rough-hewn beam.
"We chose Linda, a friend and designer from Aspen, Colorado, as she knows us both well - she built our family vacation home in Sun Valley, Idaho, 20 years ago - and understood our dream. We wanted our guests to feel as if they were in a private home, not a commercial establishment. The rooms needed to be cosy and comfortable, yet stylish," says Josie, who revelled inthe task of helping to create the cosy farmhouse ambience. She frequented shops and auctions from New York to Sydney to Bali and each piece tells a story, whether it's an evocative painting from prominent local artist Colin McCahon, or the pre-loved blue-suede couch that's rumoured to have once graced the sitting room of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis (before the divorce). And yes, that plate decorating the coffee table is a Picasso. But I'm not just here for the luxury (well, maybe a little is okay). I was also promised a safari.
"Good, we've beaten the crowds," says Michael Neilson, previous owner/farmer of these green pastures and now manager of Gannet Safaris. We've been bumping along in his Land Rover across breathtaking, and hair-raising, terrain on the way to do a spot of bird watching. I'm curious about these gannets. Whenever I mentioned Cape Kidnappers to kiwi mates, they all responded with the same stock answer: "You must see the gannets". Well, here I am at what seems to be the very edge of the world (it's not far off; Neilson informs me that the next stop, across the Pacific, is Chile), and perched for dear life on the precipice are thousands of these imperial white birds, canary-yellow crowns atop their heads. They're flapping and fighting for space, blissfully unaware they occupy some of the east coast's priciest real estate. They look like a throng of hippies at a sit-in. And they smell even worse.
I'm just aiming the camera for that perfect Attenborough moment when busloads of Dutch tourists arrive, photographing the nonplussed birds from every angle. Then one of them realises muffins and tea are being served somewhere and they pack off as quickly as they came, chattering loudly. I'm relieved. I was beginning to feel as territorial as the birds, but I notice they don't seem to be too bothered. The fact is they laid claim to this site in about 1870, and I'm sure they've seen off worse. Interestingly the Robertsons had eyed a plot nearby for their new lodge - close to the coast and to the beloved gannets - but an icy reception from locals coupled with strong winds out here led to a rethink.
A safari isn't the only way to get close to nature. In fact, when you've got 2400-odd hectares of wilderness including beaches, Maori pa sites and virgin manuka forest at your disposal, the possibilities are endless. My tip is, if you're planning on doing a bushwalk, ask for Jo Speedy, an effervescent local with a close connection to the farm through its previous owners. But be warned, she lives up to her name, so pack sensible shoes - and book a relaxing treatment in the lodge's spa on your return.
Soaking away the dust and feathers of the day in the deepest bath I've ever had the pleasure to sink into, the sun slipping into the bay and beyond, I can't help but think that the location of The Farm is perfect. As was the meal of Hawke's Bay rack of lamb with confit shoulder hash, eggplant caviar and natural jus I've just enjoyed. The Farm's talented Shropshire-born chef, Dale Gartland, cut his teeth at Gidleigh Park before crossing the Atlantic and Pacific with a mate to become joint head chef at Kauri Cliffs, where he's been for the past four years.
"Up there the emphasis was on Asian flavours, here I'm going back to my classical French and English techniques and using Hawke's Bay produce as much as possible," he says. Gartland, pastry chef Korey Field and food and beverage manager Sean Burns are a formidable team. Their passion for food and the region is infectious and each will happily bend your ear on the finer points of New Zealand's own 42 Below feijoa vodka, or their idea to fatten up some pigs for a bit of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall-style whole-hog eating. From the buttery croissants and perfectly poached eggs at breakfast, to delicately pan-seared salmon with crayfish tortellini and seafood bisque at night, each meal is a revelation.
What makes The Farm so special is the personal, family-run approach. Julian Robertson III (Jay), son of Julian and Josie, has transferred his skills from managing Kauri Cliffs to The Farm, where he is general manager and gracious host of aperitif hour daily. And though dinner is included in the room rate, you're not limited to the dining room. You can enjoy a meal alfresco on the sun-drenched loggia or, like the Swiss couple who celebrated their anniversary with a candlelit dinner in the snug (the comfy, cylindrical room inside the silo), choose your own haven.
I've had so much fun exploring The Farm that I've hardly had time to check out the surrounding area. But that would be a shame as from Napier (a colourful Art Deco town by the sea) to Te Mata Peak, not to mention its world-class wineries, the Bay has a lot to offer. Once known as the fruit bowl of New Zealand, it has remarketed itself as wine country, and wineries such as Craggy Range and Te Awa produce everything from chardonnay to Bordeaux-style red blends. And don't leave without having lunch at Black Barn Vineyards and drinking in some local artwork at the bijoux gallery.
Although I've spent only a couple of days at Cape Kidnappers, probably about the time it took Captain Cook to name this part of the world for the Maoris who stole his Tahitian manservant in 1769, I truly feel disposed to being kidnapped here just a little while longer.