Written by Sarah Elisabeth Johnson for MonaCorona.com.
Hi, I’m Sarah.
I’m an avid traveller, blogger, and freelance writer turned luxury travel consultant and a luxury New Zealand trip planner. In 2015, I packed up a backpack and flew on a one way ticket to New Zealand for 14 months; I had the time of my life and explored every single inch of the amazing country. While freelance writing to finance my trip, I spent time in every single city, wandered through tons of museums, tried amazing food and wine, and gazed at stunning vistas in remote corners of the land. I also met a few of the luxury hoteliers, as well as others who help turn my clients dreams into reality. I had the chance to meet many more once I officially opened my business and attended Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas.
Luxury in New Zealand
With lush landscapes, jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery around every turn, and award-winning food, wine, beer, and coffee, New Zealand is on everyone’s bucket list. While many go as backpackers, traipsing around the country in hired vans and used cars, hitchhiking to the next hot spot, there are plenty of others who prefer to travel in style. Luckily, luxury and New Zealand go hand in hand and I’m here to tell you why.
New Zealand, a Basic Introduction
Now that you know a little about me, I want to tell you a little about New Zealand. This tiny country – only 1,600 kilometres from top to bottom and 400 kilometres at its widest – is home to four million people and about ten million sheep. It’s located in the Southern Ocean, 4,000 kilometres southeast of the east coast of Australia. There are some small islands south of New Zealand, but for the most part, the next major landmass is Antarctica.
There are, for simplicity’s sake, only a few large cities in New Zealand. I could rank them all by size (like I did in my blog about travelling to New Zealand), but here let’s just stick with the top five. The largest city is Auckland, in the northern half of the North Island, which is one of the few cities in the world to lie between two major bodies of water: the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Wellington, which lies at the southern edge of the North Island, is the capital. A lot of people describe it as “the coolest little capital,” and I assure you, it’s pretty cool. It also boasts a few luxury properties and experiences, so it’s a must do for any luxury traveller.
On the South Island, there’s Nelson, which is at the north edge of the South Island, is the gateway to several national parks and a popular vacation destination for Kiwis (the people, not the bird). Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island, probably most known for the devastating earthquake in 2011. It’s also a significant port city for scientific Antarctic vessels. (Cruise ships, though, go from South America.) Christchurch is located on the eastern side, just north of the Banks Peninsula. And, finally, there’s Dunedin. Dunedin is about five hours south of Christchurch, and is home to New Zealand’s oldest university, University of Otago. Consider taking a South Island road trip to enjoy all it has to offer in a leisurely way.
Related: Queenstown South Island Guide
The People of New Zealand
Native New Zealanders are known as Maori, while the white settlers came to be known as Pakeha. All New Zealanders identify as “Kiwis” though. The Maori are Polynesian descendants; New Zealand was among the last places these seafarers settled (Fiji, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Samoa, and Hawaii are other places they went.) The British arrived in the 18th century and set about colonising. They weren’t the first white explorers, though – that distinction belongs to the Dutchman Abel Tasman – but they were the first to settle. You might have heard of Captain Cook? He “discovered” a lot of New Zealand for the British. The South Island regions known as Otago and Central Otago were settled mainly by gold rush settlers and Scottish immigrants, so the southern half of the South Island feels very Scottish as opposed to British English or Maori.
Landscape Across New Zealand: North or South Island?
The landscape of New Zealand varies dramatically from north to south, and for a luxury traveller it does mean that you need to spend some time moving around to view it all. Luckily, there are 13 luxury lodges in New Zealand and all of them are in some of the most pristine and exciting landscapes. With a great domestic air network and helicopter access to most of the lodges, it’s really easy to get around.
Best Things to do in New Zealand North Island
The Far North is often called the “winterless north” for its lush tropical-like beaches and relatively mild winters. The Bay of Islands is a popular vacation destination and a great place to spend a few days sailing. Auckland, of course, is the gateway to the country and boasts the moniker the City of Sails; sailing on the Waitemata Harbour or out in the Hauraki Gulf is a must do. South of Auckland is Rotorua and Taupo, which together make up the geothermal part of the country. There are still active volcanoes here, along with the world’s best one-day hike, which traverses the volcanic field at Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe (known in pop culture as Mount Doom).
The volcanic central plateau gives way to the gently rolling hills and rugged cliffs of the Wairarapa region, which is one of New Zealand’s many wine regions. This is a great day trip from Wellington, although there is a spectacular luxury lodge situated near Cape Palliser.
Across from Wellington – across the Cook Strait – is the Nelson-Tasman region, known for its lush landscapes similar to the Bay of Islands. While it’s chillier down here in the winter, it’s a great place to spend some time in the summer. Some lodges are accessible only by boat, making them the perfect secluded hideaway. To the west of Nelson is the fabulous Abel Tasman National Park and the rugged, remote Kahurangi National Park. For avid hikers, Kahurangi is a great trail with far fewer people than some of the others. Southeast of Nelson and Picton is the Marlborough wine region, famous worldwide for Sauvignon Blanc, and south of that are the Canterbury Plains. Christchurch lies on the plains, while the Banks Peninsula is a rugged extinct supervolcano (most of it, actually, is caldera). The Canterbury Plains rise into the Southern Alps, which are the backbone of the South Island. They run on a 45 degree angle from the top of the South Island to the very bottom, where they literally end in the sea. To experience all of the beauty of the North Island, consider taking a road trip.
Best things to do in New Zealand South Island
Of the most popular destinations on the South Island, Queenstown and Wanaka are surely at the top of the list. These two small towns (I can hardly call them cities, despite the swelling population) are located deep in the Southern Alps and attract thousands of visitors year round. There are at least six luxury properties between the two towns, which lie an hour from each other through the Crown Range. There is also a luxury lodge in Glenorchy, which is just one hour by car from Queenstown around the far end of Lake Wakatipu. This, and two others, are accessible by helicopter as well.
Both Queenstown and Wanaka are in Central Otago, but Fiordland is just across the mountains. The Routeburn Track, a popular Great Walk, begins in Glenorchy and ends along the Milford Road. It is a four hour drive around to the trail end, so you’ll need someone to pick you up, but a private driver can certainly do that for you! Fiordland is home to the famous Milford Sound, which is a must do. While cruising it is the usual way to see it, there is no better way to explore is than by air, either small plane or helicopter.
And, finally, there is Southland and Stewart Island. Southland reminds me a lot of the Far North; it is untouched by tourism and feels like “real New Zealand.” Stewart Island is mostly national park and a great place for people interested in seeing kiwi birds in the wild. There isn’t anything luxurious down here, but your travel advisor can ensure you are comfortable.
Related: Queenstown Travel Guide
How much does a New Zealand Trip Cost and Why You Should Visit
With all of that information above, you’re either planning a trip or you’ve closed this post.. So, why should you – a luxury traveller – visit New Zealand?! I have four reasons. There are exceptional food and wine experiences, outstanding adventures and outdoor activities, unparalleled landscapes and scenery, and compelling culture and history.
Here’s the thing about New Zealand. You can do it on any budget – they still allow freedom camping in places – but the more money you can put toward a New Zealand vacation, the more you will be able to experience. The country’s tourism outlook has shifted over the recent years from adrenaline-based activities and sparse huts in the mountains to unique, one of a kind experiences that you can’t either google or put together yourself. For a lot of what I’m about to tell you, you need a travel advisor to pull it together.
Hotels range from the budget hostel to luxury lodges, so that is to say, $25/night to $2500/night. In peak season, even a hostel could be $75/night or more. Experiences are typically high; a 3-hour horseback ride, for instance, is over $300/person, while skydives are usually $500 or more. Bungy-jumping – a popular activity in Queenstown as its where the thrilling sport was invented – starts at $200/person. A helicopter sightseeing tour – for a mere fifteen minutes – usually starts at $400/person. As you can see, it pays to go to New Zealand with a high trip cost expectation if you’re planning on doing any of the major attractions!
Meals can be a budget-killer. At the grocery store and bottle shop, generic things like milk and bread are anywhere from $1.50 (no name) to $5.00 (brand name, fancy). Wine and beer can be anywhere from $10.00 to $30.00. Obviously, dining out incurs a higher trip cost than always eating in – and believe me you will want to get out and experience the fabulous cuisine of New Zealand. In general, you can expect to spend at least $20 on lunch, per person, at a nice restaurant. Dinners will be higher, I would budget $150 for two people for a good dinner with drinks.
Tourism in New Zealand
The country’s tourism outlook has shifted over the recent years from adrenaline-based activities and sparse huts in the mountains to unique, one of a kind experiences that you can’t either google or put together yourself. For a lot of what I’m about to tell you, you need a travel advisor to pull it together.
All of the luxury lodges in New Zealand are within the Virtuoso network, which is the world’s leading luxury travel consortium. Through my host agency, I’m a member of Virtuoso as well, which means that my clients are automatically VIP’d at all hotels in the network, and some others. What does a VIP client get? $100 credits to use at the hotel’s spa or restaurant, upgrades on arrival or at time of booking, complimentary breakfast, complimentary wifi, and more. The more status I have with a hotel, the more willing they are to go out on a limb for my clients. Hotel brands in the network include the Four Seasons, Ritz Carltons, Shangri-Las, Intercontinentals, and Mandarin Oriental (among others), while there are also hundreds of luxury boutiques you can choose from.
My Favourite Luxury in New Zealand
I already confessed that I backpacked around New Zealand so you’re probably wondering how I have the credentials to talk about luxury experiences in New Zealand. Well, here’s why. I made sure that my budget allowed for these things.
Luxury means different things to different people. My luxury is adventure, while others may be spas and shopping. This is why every single itinerary I create is 100% custom designed for that particular client, not anyone else. Here are just a small few of my favourite luxury experiences and places to stay in New Zealand (from North to South).
The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs
The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs lies above Matauri Bay, which is north of Kerikeri and the Bay of Islands. It’s remote, and has stunning views across the bay. It boasts a golf course, award-winning spa, and plenty of exciting things to keep you and your family happy. The Lodge is a great place to base for your explorations of the Northland, which include the Bay of Islands, Cape Reinga, the kauri forest on the west coast, and 90 Mile Beach. For a true luxury experience, helicopter over the Bay before turning north and flying to Cape Reinga. Have a driver meet you there, and take you back for a leisurely exploration of the Far North. It’s a long day, but very worth it.
Hike the World’s Best One Day Hike
Lord of the Rings fans will love this hike, as this is the spectacular scenery of Mount Doom. It starts off seemingly easy but the Devils Staircase will change your mind. However, at the end of the day, your driver can meet you at the Ketetahi car park and take you back to Taupo’s Huka Lodge or Rotorua’s Treetops Lodge where you can sink immediately into the healing natural hot pools.
Watch the Sunset from Cape Palliser
Cape Palliser is the southernmost cape of the North Island. By car, it’s about 2 hours from Wellington, however by helicopter it’s only a short flight. Wharekauhau Country Estate is the perfect place to stay out here. From the back lawn, you’ll have a one of a kind view of the sun setting behind the South Island. Wharekauhau is also a short drive from Martinborough and the Wairarapa wine region, which means you can easily spend a few days here tasting award-winning wines that you literally can’t even BUY anywhere else. Do all of the country estate activities here, too – shooting, archery, horseback riding, and four-wheeling. They also have an adorable lodge dog named Merlot and a few pet eels (that, yes, you can pet).
Indulge in Exceptional Food
You might not expect it, but New Zealand has some of the best food in the world. Sure, there’s the usual fish & chips and meat pies – very British food – but there is also award-winning cuisine around the islands. Seafood, especially in the Marlborough, Nelson, and Kaikoura regions, is fresh and delicious. A pile of steamed mussels, or perfectly cooked salmon, from Marlborough goes down very nicely with a local Sauvignon Blanc. Lamb and venison are also incredibly popular, and Fiordland lamb is considered one of the best exports New Zealand can offer (except, maybe, the All Blacks #rugbyfan, sorry, not sorry!). And when paired with a Central Otago Pinot Noir (which, in my opinion, is the best), you really do have an amazing meal on your menu. All of the lodges in New Zealand have exceptional chefs on staff who prepare exquisite meals. Should you wish a private meal in the comfort of your villa or suite, they can arrange that without hesitation. Which brings me to my next luxury experience…
Taste Great Local Wines in Central Otago
Wine tasting is a great option and there are few fun places to do it in Central Otago. My personal favourite is the Wine Shop in Queenstown. This is a great place for someone who wants to try a ton of different wineries but doesn’t want to take a wine tour. It’s ideal on a cold, rainy/snowy day because they have wonderful leather chairs you can literally sink into. I also like it because you can wander the store and pick your tasting or glass from an automatic machine. It’s a good way to experience a lot without moving around. My second favourite, which I haven’t yet had the chance to do (it’s on my bucket list), is a private wine tasting on top of a mountain. Accessible only by helicopter, these tastings are more often a full picnic with cheese tastings, local fruit from the Alexandra and Cromwell orchards, wines, ciders, and more. Of course, there are wine tours by car – either self-drive or with a driver – or bus. The driving and drinking laws in NZ are harsh, so if you’re drinking, don’t drive! Perhaps you’d prefer to pick up a few bottles to take back to your penthouse at Eichardt’s instead.
What is Virtuoso, and Why Should You Book With a Luxury New Zealand Trip Planner?
Virtuoso, which I’ve mentioned earlier in this post, is the world’s leading luxury travel consortium. It’s comprised of advisors like myself, hoteliers, hotel brands, tour operators, cruise lines, and more. As a member, I have access to perks and privileges for my clients that they can’t get anywhere else.
I personally know a lot of the New Zealand luxury lodge general managers and representatives. That personal relationship is helpful when you’ve got a request and I need to make sure that the hotel will honour it. I’ve spent a lot of time in New Zealand and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about it since being home. And I’ve spent a lot of money investing in that knowledge, whether it was my own travels to the country or spending the money to go to Las Vegas and meet with the hoteliers in person at Travel Week. Everything I do is designed to increase my knowledge and my business awareness to help my clients.
So, what can I do? Everything, really. Simply put, I create custom, one of a kind itineraries to destinations around the world. I handle all of the details, from airline bookings and extra pillow requests to private drivers and helicopter transfers. Some of my clients only need airline tickets; others ask for full itineraries in remote corners of the globe. I specialise in New Zealand, Australia, the Arctic and Antarctic, and Scotland, but some of my favourite itineraries for clients have been Southeast Asia and Italy. Adventure travel – like what New Zealand offers – is totally my thing, but I can also get after-hours tickets for the Louvre, or the Vatican, or whatever else a client wants.
If you want to schedule a consultation call, please send me an email! I’m more than happy to discuss your specific trip and talk about how I can make your travel dreams a reality.