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Flying high at Eagles Nest

Exploring the lush beauty of New Zealand's North Island

Sunset is spectacular from The Eyrie villa at Eagles Nest in New Zealand's Bay of Islands.
TODD HARMONSON

We had to share a helipad.

Our destination at seemingly the end of the world offered luxuries we had no idea we desired and a picturesque escape from the crowds we knew we needed to avoid. From handcrafted chocolate eggs – and a frog – that greeted us on our Easter arrival to the nine-member cleaning crew that descended on our villa like a paramilitary strike force determined to eradicate dust, we wanted for nothing.

And when days on pristine, deserted beaches gave way to nights of awestruck gaping at a display of stars and planets never seen from Northern Hemisphere suburbia, my wife and I realized we chose wisely when we bought in a charity auction the opportunity to stay five nights anywhere on the globe that the Small Luxury Hotels of the World consortium had a property.

Eagles Nest in the Bay of Islands on New Zealand’s North Island offered the ideal mix of exclusivity, Kiwi hospitality and access to nature’s wonders, even if four of its five villas had to share a helipad, while the 10,000-square-foot presidential offering had its own.

Not that we ever needed one, but still. No matter how perfect a place seems, when the villa we inhabited is booking at $2,079 per night for March, I’m going to point out its flaw.

Aside from that, Eagles Nest was beyond what we hoped when we decided to travel to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time since our honeymoon cruise through French Polynesia. After five nights, we understood why it has been honored the past six years by the World Travel Awards as New Zealand’s leading resort and the past four as Australasia’s leading villa resort.

Before we reached Eagles Nest, my wife, Michelle, and I explored the North Island for two days until our friends arrived in Auckland. We ventured south to Lake Taupo, the nation’s largest freshwater body – it’s about 25 percent bigger than Lake Tahoe, and locals like to compare it in size to Singapore – and the majestic Huka Falls. Traffic that made the 405 seem tame was due to an exodus from the major cities by the country’s nature lovers for a holiday weekend, but it was worth it when we watched the falls rage toward the lake and discovered the joys of an icy Hawkes Bay Ginger Fusion, a ginger beer already boosted by alcohol.

Our journey the next day back to Auckland took us through Hamilton, one of the nation’s largest cities and our first glimpse at its ethnic diversity. The riverfront overflows with eclectic dining and drinking options befitting a city full of students and with a palpable Asian influence – a Portland of the South Pacific, only with fewer microbreweries.

We had only a short time in Auckland, but that was fine with us. Our true destination was calling. After taking in one of our favorite pastimes – cocktails atop landmark structures (the 1,076-foot Sky Tower in this case) – we were off the next morning to pick up our friends Elisabeth and Ian and their just-shy-of-5 son, Gus. We invited them to join us for our stay at Eagles Nest because they fell in love with New Zealand on their honeymoon, they are charter members of our chosen family and we had plenty of room in our three-bedroom, three-bathroom villa, The Eyrie.

Sans helicopter, we drove north on the wrong side of the winding roads for four hours toward the Bay of Islands. I enthusiastically embraced driving duties based on my vast left-side experience on a 10-day visit to Ireland – if you can make a right turn in Dublin traffic, you can make it anywhere – and the two days of our adventure before our friends’ arrival. Eventually, a ferry delivered us to the former frontier town of Russell, the first European settlement in New Zealand that once was known as the “Hellhole of the Pacific” and now is a haven of waterfront gourmet bistros.

The path from the ferry to Eagles Nest passes Christ Church – the building, not the South Island city that has been hit hard by earthquakes. The country’s oldest surviving Anglican church still has bullet holes from the New Zealand Wars between settlers and the native Maori in the mid-1800s. Russell long ago turned into a peaceful village, though it practically was Manhattan compared to the tranquility of Eagles Nest.

Kelly from the resort’s staff met us at The Eyrie, an 1,800-square-foot villa that pulls off the feat of establishing complete privacy while maintaining unobstructed views of the bay. Everything we had read about Eagles Nest was accurate, from the refrigerator and pantry stocked with breakfast provisions and local treats to the staff’s eagerness to please. Kelly not only made sure we had the extra eggs we requested to dye for Easter but she greeted us with edible artwork from Newport Chocolates in Russell and a bottle of Louis Roederer to make our holiday especially delicious. When Gus inquired about the availability of sand toys for all the beach time we had planned, Kelly said she’d take a look before returning a bit later with a new bucket and shovel.

And when we asked others on staff to spill some names of those who spent $9,000-plus a night for the presidential villa – the four-bedroom Rahimoana, which comes with a private beach and use of a Porsche Cayenne – they politely declined. Discretion should be listed among the amenities alongside designer linens.

Perhaps the only challenge associated with staying at Eagles Nest was choosing. We could go off the grid if we wanted, yet we had all the modern technology to stay in touch with home or the office once we mastered the 21-hour time difference. Relaxation always was an option, and spa services were a call away. So was a private chef, whose services are included for one meal a day with the Rahimoana but come with an extra charge for the other four villas. We were sensible most nights, and I’m certain the rib-eyes I grilled on our deck at sunset were flavored by the setting. But we indulged on our penultimate night.

Our new best friend, Graham, prepared a five-course feast of delectable cheeses, oysters four ways, a mushroom soup that made me forget I despise the fungi, locally grown filets and shrimp on truffle mashed potatoes, and a decadent chocolate mousse cake. Michelle and Ian imbibed Moscow mules, Elisabeth and I polished off two bottles of regional reds and we finished an impeccable night on the deck gazing at the Southern Cross and its celestial neighbors.

We easily could have spent our stay relishing all the resort’s options, but we also wanted to experience New Zealand. Mostly, that meant the coastline and stunning beaches in Russell and further north in Matauri Bay, where even the frigid water – it was Southern Hemisphere fall, after all – didn’t stop Gus from taking a plunge. We headed south to Whangarei for more waterfalls and a bustling marina. And we even took a tour through the Kawiti Caves, maneuvering blindly around stalactites until the ceiling came to life with the blue lights of countless glow worms.

Not that we needed the perspective, but the sand, mud and bugs nature sent our way made us appreciate the niceties of Eagles Nest and The Eyrie even more for the limited time we had left. Elisabeth, Ian and Gus headed out after our stay for a week in a campervan to pursue their “Lord of the Rings” passion, and we took a two-night detour to Sydney with a platinum upgrade to a room looking out on the iconic Opera House.

Our five nights in the extravagance of The Eyrie at Eagles Nest set a new standard we will pursue in our world travels but which we know we will find when we return to New Zealand’s Bay of Islands.

Even without our own helipad. 


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