Checking In and Checking Out

A Breathtaking Farm Retreat in New Zealand

by Kristin Tice Studeman
Helena All photos courtesy of Helena Bay Lodge.

Check into a Kiwi gem where the animals outnumber people, the food is estate-to-plate, and the views take your breath away.

NORTH ISLAND, New Zealand - Just as the temperatures were starting to dip at home in NYC, I hopped on a plane to New Zealand in early November to catch the start of the Southern Hemisphere’s spring-summer. After nearly 24 hours of traveling — six hours from NY to LA, then a long layover and a twelve-hour flight from LA to Auckland via Air New Zealand, and, finally, a 45-minute scenic helicopter ride from Auckland to my hotel — I arrived at my destination: Helena Bay Lodge on the North Island.

The North Island draws tourists from all over the globe looking to spend their vacation backpacking, bungee jumping, fishing, diving, and sailing. While I love adventure and sporty activities, I wasn’t visiting the North Island in search of an adrenaline rush. Instead, I was looking for some peace and tranquility, and Helena Bay Lodge offered exactly that.

I stripped off my winter layers from the plane, swapped them for a T-shirt and sunglasses (it was about 72 degrees and sunny outside), and jumped right into the slower pace of lodge life for a few days. Helena Bay Lodge, which opened two years ago, is an uber private, five-room Relais & Châteaux resort situated on 800 acres of farmland. I saw more cows, goats, and alpacas than people during my stay — the nearest town is a 45-minute drive from the hotel — and I loved every second of it.

On my first morning, jet lag woke me around 5:30 a.m. I opened the glass door in my villa overlooking the water and watched the sunrise from my bed while sipping black coffee and listening to the crackle of the wood-burning fireplace in the other room. (The staff seemed to know my coffee order by heart every day after that. To a coffee fanatic, that’s a big deal.) I ventured out for a walk along the beach, then climbed the steep hills covered with cows to see the views from the cliffs. There was nothing but vibrant green landscape, hills, and water for miles.

The walks turned into somewhat of a daily ritual during my time at the hotel. It seemed like there was always a new path to explore: One trail led me through the forest, one led to the chickens, and another led to the beaches. Between the hikes, the fishing trip on the boat, the cooking class, the spa treatments, and the impressive dining experiences, there was plenty to do on property without ever leaving.

I might have left a few pounds heavier, thanks to chef Michele Martino of Michelin-starred Ristorante Don Alfonso on the Amalfi Coast (a Fathom Favorite) and his sensational cooking, but it was definitely worth it. His Italian-inspired fare is one of the biggest draws of Helena Bay Lodge. On my final night at the lodge, he whipped up a vegetable dish with carrots, beets, asparagus, and some fresh herbs and plated it to look like the Miro painting that was hanging on the wall in the other room. It tasted even better than it looked.

The main house.
Persian rugs at reception.
One of the property's private beaches.

Checking In

Location
Tucked along the northeastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island, Helena Bay Lodge is a wonderfully tranquil and remote spot. It’s a three-hour drive from Auckland or a 40-minute helicopter ride. (The hotel has its own private helicopter available to guests for an added cost.) The hotel sits nestled on a sandy beach overlooking Helena Bay, surrounded by its 800 acres of farmland and forest so lush, your friends at home will think you’ve oversaturated your Instagram posts. It's truly just that electric green.

Hotel Style
A unique blend of the kind of laid-back, minimal design you might find at other luxury lodges across New Zealand (think muted, earthy colors) infused with a few bold, oftentimes ornate, accents like crystal chandeliers and Persian-style rugs. The main building, which houses the restaurant, spa, and gym features quite the art collection, including a few large pieces by Miro, and plenty of cozy sitting rooms with wood-burning fireplaces where you’ll want to enjoy a glass of local New Zealand pinot noir in the evenings.

This Place Is Perfect For
Someone who is really looking to unplug and get away from it all. If you want to spend your vacation on scenic walks and hikes, reading by the fire, enjoying fantastic spa treatments, and maybe going on an afternoon fishing trip, this place is for you. It’s perfect for honeymooners, families looking to do a buyout, or couples just looking to spend some quality time together.

But Not So Perfect For
The type of traveler who craves the hustle and bustle of a major city.

What's on Site
There’s a glimmering outdoor swimming pool, a small gym, a spa with a hammam and sauna, and tennis courts on property. The gardens and vast farmland, especially the farm animals &mdasah; alpacas, goats, Wagyu bulls, kunekune pigs, and cows — are a highlight. You can arrange a proper farm and garden tour or just explore on your own by bike or four-wheel-drive buggy (both are available to guests) or on foot. Don’t miss the hotel’s four private beaches while you trek around the property.

Patio dining arranged by the hotel restaurant.
The fire pit (left) and pool.

Food + Drink
Come ready to eat and drink very well during your stay in the capable hands of chef Michele Martino of Italy’s Michelin-starred Ristorante Don Alfonso. His enthusiasm and passion for his craft shine through in each dish, which he dreams up daily depending on the daily garden haul and each guest’s dietary preferences. The Wagyu and lamb are straight from the hotel farm, the fish and shellfish are often freshly caught that day in front of the property, the honey served at breakfast is from their beehives, and Martino even makes his own limoncello from estate-grown lemons.

If the weather is nice, arrange an alfresco lunch one day at the hotel’s new beach pavilion. Sip some local rosé while chef Martino grills up fresh lobster, scampi, and home-grown vegetables.

Rooms
There are three junior suites and two larger villa suites on the property. Both villa sizes feature one (very comfy) king-size bed with handmade European linens and walk-in closets. The larger villas also have separate sitting rooms with log-burning fireplaces, large bathtubs, and waterfront patios — perfect place to sip a morning coffee and watch the sunrise.

Amenities
All rooms have large walk-in showers with an extensive collection of Molton Brown toiletries, Nespresso machines, minibars filled with free water and juices (as well as wine, beer, alcohol, and snacks for purchase), and complimentary WiFi.

Standout Detail
The service is both subtle and impeccable. The team of 50-something staffers is at your beck and call for whatever you may need, whenever you need it.

Good to Know
The hotel has two additional rooms in the main building that are perfect if you have a nanny, an aide, or additional staff traveling with you.

All guest rooms at Helena Bay Lodge are suites.
A villa suite.
Not a bad view.

Checking Out

Take a 45-minute drive to Kerikeri to explore Old Packhouse Market, an open-air local market that’s open every Saturday and Sunday year-round until 1:30 p.m., rain or shine. You’ll find locals picking up Northland cheeses, seafood, fresh bread, and fruit and vegetables, along with artisans selling their jewelry, ceramics, and clothes. Across the street, grab a coffee and freshly made chocolates at Makana Confections, a perfect spot for souvenirs. If you're up for a short drive, The Stone Store (246 Kerikeri Rd.) in the Kerikeri basin is New Zealand’s oldest surviving stone building, dating back 1836, and sells a well-curated selection of local goods, including woven baskets, stationery, and candles.

Checking out a local winery makes for an excellent day trip. The wines of New Zealand’s South Island get most of the international recognition, but North Island has a plethora of stunning wineries that make for a perfect spot to spend a sunny afternoon. Head to the Northland Wine Trail, about an hour’s drive from the hotel, or beautiful Waiheke Island (a perfect stop on the way to the airport in Auckland if you are traveling by helicopter) to do just that. Tantalus Estate on Waiheke Island has a robust culinary program, a brewery on the lower level in addition to the winery, and all-around cozy vibes that make you want to settle into one of the couches for the entire afternoon.

And who says you can’t?

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