At Home on the South Island

Owners of New Zealand's luxurious Paratiho Farms aim to please by sharing their estate with guests

By: David Peterkofsky

For many, the word “lodge” conjures up images of mounted deer amid rustic and possibly rough-hewn accommodations. But the luxury lodges of New Zealand constitute a different breed, many run by monied Americans who come here not only to buy their own piece of paradise, but to share it with other visitors.

On the North Island, there’s Blanket Bay, owned by the former president of Levi Strauss & Co., and Wharekauhau Lodge, owned primarily by American investors. And on a smaller scale is the Lodge at Paratiho Farms, situated on a 2,000-acre working farm in the South Island’s Nelson region, an idyllic area of the country that resembles California’s Sonoma Valley.

Like Blanket Bay and Wharekauhau, Paratiho (a Maori word meaning “paradise”) is the brainchild of Americans. Owners Robert and Sally Hunt moved here in the mid-1990s after the Northridge earthquake destroyed their Los Angeles home. The Hunts, who made their fortune in asphalt and amassed a sizable collection of modern art, searched both the North and South islands for a spot to build their dream home and a place to share their art collection with other well-heeled, world travelers.

“We wanted a project,” Sally Hunt recalled. “We didn’t want to come here, build a house and just stagnate.”

The Hunts’ “project,” which opened in late 1999, adds a decidedly personal spin to the concept of a rural lodge. For starters, the lodge’s modern-style main house is actually the Hunts’ home their well-mannered bichon frise dogs having full run of the common areas.

Breakfast is served in their own kitchen, and the Hunts are host to pre-dinner drinks in their library as well as dinner in one of two dining rooms every night.

Lodge rooms are adorned with the Hunts’ collection of paintings and dramatic sculptures (many by one of their sons), making a stay at Paratiho feel more like a visit to the home of high-society friends than anything remotely rustic.

That’s not to say the property doesn’t take advantage of the natural surroundings. A working farm, Paratiho is home to sheep, deer and cattle many of which you see as you drive up the long, gated road to the property. Green rolling hills, dotted with gently bleating sheep, surround Paratiho, and outdoor kinetic sculptures, including works created by one of the Hunts’ sons, sway in the valley’s breezes.

Guests stay in one of 12 suites, divided among six duplex outbuildings on the perfectly manicured grounds. Each suite consists of a bedroom with four-poster bed, a sitting room with gas fireplace and fully stocked minibar (the contents of which are covered in the nightly room rate). Animal pelts lay on the stone-tile floor, reminding guests that this is a lodge, as do the views of the pastures, a pond and the artwork.

The Hunts spared no expense in outfitting each suite with state-of-the-art gadgetry. A step into the dressing room triggers the automatic lights overhead, and the bathroom is wired for sound with Bose speakers connected to the sitting room’s stereo unit. When I asked about checking my e-mail, a staff member delivered a laptop to my room, giving me dial-up access to the Web.

That emphasis on service also extends to the food at Paratiho. The Hunts never tell their two chefs what to cook they treat the chefs as artists, Sally Hunt explained but the staff does ask guests in advance about any dietary restrictions.

Dinner is about presentation as much as anything else. The Hunts sit with the guests, and a sommelier explains each wine before pouring. Paratiho only serves locally produced wines, and lots of them, making a dinner there like an evening of Nelson wine-tasting minus the driving.

Though one could easily spend several days soaking in the relaxing vibe at Paratiho, the lodge is a great jumping-off point for touring the area’s attractions. At the top of that list is Abel Tasman National Park, a coastal preserve where the hiking and sea kayaking are considered some of the best in the country. Paratiho also arranges fly-fishing excursions for those looking to nab some brown trout, and then there are the region’s 19 wineries and countless art galleries to explore.

With so much to do both on- and off-property, a multi-day stay makes the most sense here, budget permitting (see Hotel Review, opposite page).

“You can’t get the flavor of Nelson in one night,” Robert Hunt said, adding that he “gets annoyed” when travel agents send clients to Paratiho for just one night.

But the Hunts should be careful. After several days of Paratiho-style pampering, some visitors may find themselves the next U.S. expatriates moving down to Nelson for a lodge “project” of their very own.

Hotel Review

Hits: Gourmet food cooked to order, rural scenery straight off a postcard.

Misses: Having two omnipresent bichon frises might not appeal to non-dog lovers.

Clientele: Upscale travelers, even the occasional celebrity or government official.

Be Aware: Paratiho Farms is a 45-minute ride from Nelson Airport, much of it on winding country roads. Make sure clients arrive during daylight hours.

Rates: The nightly rate is approximately $900 per suite, per night, based on double occupancy. Rates include all meals and beverages, unlimited use of swimming, tennis, croquet and exercise facilities. Spa treatments are not included.

Contacts: 011-64-3-528-2100; Paratiho Farms is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, which operates a reservations center at 800-525-4800.