Here’s a post from a great trip to New Zealand a few years back. Awesome golf, great food and unforgettable scenery…
NORTH ISLAND, NEW ZEALAND—You drive down a dirt road a half hour outside Kerikeri, a town of maybe 6,000 permanent residents. Suddenly there’s a plain, wooden gate that looks for all the world as if it’s meant to keep sheep off the road, which it probably is.
It’s a level of modesty that befits this country that one local described to me as “second-gear.” But the golf resort that lies behind the plain fence is sheer glory. Kauri Cliffs made a name for itself 10 years ago when it opened with a splash. And it’s still drawing awesome reviews, most notably for its playability and gob-smacking views from a bluff high above Matauri Bay.
Thankfully, designer David Harman treated the natural earth here with respect, folding his course over hills and through valleys instead of ramrodding a few acres of earth like some “I know best” design types might feel obliged to do.
The views are stupendous, with a vista that takes in a wide bay and the striking Cavalli Islands, as well as distant, chalky cliffs and ash-blonde beaches. You might spot a blue-and-white pin flag rising over a deep green putting surface, backed by deep blue and aquamarine patches of Pacific Ocean water sliced by dazzling white sailboats. On the inland side, white/grey sheep graze on emerald hills topped by deeply-etched evergreens.
The greens were slow when I played in February, but it’s a reasonably challenging, playable resort course without hidden gimmicks. The fourth hole is billed on the yardage guide as one of the great par-5’s of the world. It’s got nice switchbacks and solid views but falls short of being a world chart-topper. The hype is a shame, because the course doesn’t need that kind of overselling.
Golfers turn right around on number five and hit back into the prevailing wind, punching the ball over a deep canyon with views all the way to South America. Or something like that. The start of the back nine isn’t terribly special, but number 14 is a short par-3 that takes you — seemingly — right to the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.
The 15th is named after Captain Cook; a biting dogleg left with great views down to the water and plenty of chances to drop your ball well past the green. (I swear I read a book once that said the famous English captain had a killer slice, but we’ll let it go.)
A finishing hole on the water would be nice, but it’s a great course that any golfer would have trouble forgetting. As I walked off, I felt I had played a course that was on one hand as comfortable as a set of flannel pajamas but at the same time as thrilling as a Victoria’s Secret lingerie show.
“We love it,” a group of Aussie players in front of me said. “The other beauty, Cape Kidnappers, has these amazing fingers of land and is just as beautiful. But you best be a single handicapper.”
I tested Kidnappers (both courses were built by American businessman Julian Robertson) a few days after Kauri, teeing it up on a perfect, 30-degree summer day. The wind was quiet, which was good for my ego but didn’t give me a real feel for what kind of a test the course can be under “normal” conditions.
The course, located perhaps 20 minutes from the Art Deco city of Napier on the North Island, is a rolling affair with ridges and deep valleys and plenty of shots that require an extra club or two or maybe three, depending on conditions and pin placement. The grass-covered hills are dotted with gum trees and soft-scented pines. Magpies — they only sound like they’re laughing at your follow-through — flutter in the bushes, and there’s a constant purring of cicadas. And, oh, yeah, that endless blue Pacific and the huge, crescent-shaped Hawkes Bay, home to some of the luscious wines you can sample over dinner.
It reminds a North American of Santa Barbara or La Jolla, Calif., but far less crowded; this being a nation about two-thirds the size of Japan but with only 4.5 million residents. The kid who drove me from the hotel reception area to the golf course told me the most golfers they send through in a day is 100 and that it’s usually only 60 or 70. Kauri Cliffs has similar numbers, he said, or even fewer, as it’s farther away from any population centres.
The fairways are mostly generous but there are plenty of bunkers surrounded by gnarly fescue and thick grasses on a course that shoots golfers back and forth along various fingers of land. The fifth hole features fairway bunkers right down the chute on a 420-yard, par-4 hole. It’s not long but if the pin is tucked at the back left and the wind is up, say your prayers. The green slopes left to right and there’s almost no room for a miss. It’s one of those where you might miss a seven-footer for par and smile and curse at the same time; the sign of a great golf hole.
A fair bit of the course is inland, but the par-four 12th — called “Infinity” — takes golfers down to a green perched on a narrow ridge towering above enormous Hawkes Bay, with glorious, crumbly cliffs lining the shore. Take a camera and spend a few minutes composing your shots; it’s definitely worth it.
The 15th, another Nikon-worthy hole, is called Pirate’s Plank and features an enormous cliff left of the green and more trearchery behind. Oh, it’s also 650 yards from the tips.
Just to further the damage, designer Tom Doak follows with a 500-yard par-5, which might be a little too much punishment.
Another risk-reward hole would be nice at Kidnappers, and I never did see a cart person offering drinks on a hot day. There wasn’t a cooler for ice with the free water they provided, but the guy at the bar gave me a couple of cups of big cubes at the turn.
It doesn’t have quite as many scenic holes as Kauri Cliffs, but it’s a better test of golf. It might even play like St. Andrews if you got a sou’wester rolling in.
Golf Digest a few years back named Cape Kidnappers the 10th-best course outside the U.S. Kauri was 30th. Both rankings are well-deserved.
Just The Facts
Kauri Cliffs is about a half hour drive north of Kerikeri, which can be reached by plane from Auckland in about an hour. It’s in the middle of a glorious bit of coastline, with everything from whale-watching to sailing and wine-tasting.
Kauri Cliffs has spectacular food, with views out over the Pacific that are to die for.
Try the venison starter if it’s on the menu, and load up on fresh, local seafood.
The spa has rooms that look out onto a garden that resembles a tropical rainforest, and one of the specialties is a Vichy water treatment that’s sprayed over you as you lie on a giant table. As he showed a visitor around, resort manager Kerry Molloy issued a warning. “It’s also an autopsy table,” he said with a laugh. “Be sure to ask for the right treatment.”
They also have nature programs and several private beaches, with nary a soul in sight most days.
Cape Kidnappers is decked out in high-end farming décor, with rooms that feature giant doors that resemble the gate in a huge barn and plenty of natural woods. Of course, there’s also a huge, flat screen TV that’s hidden behind a lovely, black and white photo. The food also is remarkable. You might get an “amuse bouche” to tempt your taste buds that features sliced duck with bananas, caramelized onion and mint, or perhaps a starter of tempura quail with chili oil and avocado.
They’ll also pair your wines perfectly with stunning New Zealand wines; everything from Chardonnay and famous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Cape Kidnappers has all the amenities, including a lovely infinity pool. Because it’s a working farm, you can take a tour to see how things work. Or just find an empty spot on the big, wooden bench that sits out front of the restaurant and watch the sun go down over the hills; or maybe a cruise ship at sea.