Hiwinui Country Estate: The ultimate sanctuary
The long road trip from Auckland to Wellington needn't be such a hardship after all.
While most people tend to fly between Auckland and Wellington, if you do find yourself having to drive, we Kiwis know that it can be an exhausting day out of your life. Compelled to take my mother's advice not to do it all in one go, I was provided the perfect opportunity to pause at the exquisite Hiwinui Country Estate just outside Palmerston North - thus obeying the road transport signs ("Stay Fresh!") while taking in some of the stunning countryside for which New Zealand is world renowned.
Initially opened as a B&B, the Stewart family business has gradually burgeoned to offer various outdoor pursuits, including archery, clay pigeon shooting and a golf driving range, and recently opened a spa treatment retreat. Nowadays Hiwinui is known as an essential destination for international visitors and locals alike, hosting spa days for hen parties, catering to weddings and corporate events, and offering respite to couples getting away for a night or two.
Daughter Julia is our maitresse d' for the weekend, ushering us out of a blustery spring day into the sandalwood scent of the warm, wooden decor. Roaring fires, plush leather armchairs and the family tartan bedecks the living room in this old-world yet utterly up-to-date lodge built by the Stewarts in the early 2000s.
The estate has just two double bedrooms, so your privacy and luxury are absolutely ensured as your hosts inconspicuously tend to your every need. Soft cotton sheets and plush towels are a given, and, if you judge places by their bathroom, as I do, then you will be delighted. Moreover, should you book for a couple's getaway, you get the run of the lodge with the Stewarts' undivided (and unobtrusive) attention - a most welcome component of any weekend away.
Having corresponded with Julia before arrival to assess stress-relief desires and dietary requirements, everything is in hand from the moment we step through the door. The two king bedrooms are tastefully furnished and open out on to a terracotta patio bordered by red geraniums, beyond which a private spa pool bubbles in anticipation of after-dinner relaxation.
As soon as we put down our luggage, some pampering is in order. We don robes and head into the therapy suite for a full body massage - had we arrived earlier in the day, we would have been "body-polished" as well, though my ticklish limbs feel slightly relieved that is off the cards. However, the massage is just the ticket for soothing away a six-hour drive and we float out an hour later, only too willing to be waited on hand and foot.
Later, after we have gorged ourselves at dinner, we venture outdoors in the dark to the private spa and open fire which is crackling in readiness for our post-prandial slump.
The heavy rains of the weekend have not yet arrived (though when they do overnight, nothing is cosier than the cliche of the clattering rain on the roof), so it is absolute bliss to sink into warm water and realise I feel more "on holiday" than you'd imagine possible after six hours' driving. Thanks to the wonderful environment created by the Stewarts, I can't conjure up a care in the world - my next big decision will simply be what to have for breakfast in the morning.
Apparently some guests have worn their robes from the massage table to the dinner table, but I prefer more decorous attire so we freshen up before returning to the crackling fire to nurse a glass of bubbles and nibble canapes before our three-course meal.
The dining room can host 10 to 12 people comfortably at the stately wooden table (and frequently does for corporate events and social occasions), but as we are the only guests, an intimate table a deux has been laid by the fire.
Our conversation is punctuated only by Julia's delivery of the delicious food created on site. The entree of expertly seared scallops is perfectly complemented by the kumara puree, and then our chef brings out rump of lamb. She turns out to be a former contestant on MasterChef New Zealand and the lamb, with sweet baby carrots and succulent green beans, is plated just as you'd expect from such a training. Everything is cooked to perfection.
Greed prevails by the time dessert is offered, and we share an exquisite lemon posset (created by Jan, farmer's wife of more than 40 years who clearly has many culinary strings to her apron) and a chocolate molten pudding, even as our stomachs are starting to protest. I shut mine up and dig deeper to the bottom of the glass.
Next morning, our appetites have miraculously returned to enjoy muesli, a chorizo and potato breakfast hash (poached egg optional) and tea and coffee. Everything is delicious and the outlook on to verdant lawns as far as the eye can see maintains our sense of happy, sated tranquillity.
WORTH STEPPING OUT FOR
The family aspect of Hiwinui Country Estate is evident throughout, from the aforementioned lemon posset to the home-baked muesli at breakfast. The Stewart sons farm the land with their father (one school-aged grandson has already worked out how to maximise the milk production from one cowshed for when he moves into the business).
Dave Stewart, the papa of the family, will happily take you out for a tour of the farm land, or, if you prefer your environment blissfully unexplained, you can settle onto a sun lounger and read one of several hundred books on offer, with only the sound of birds chirping and cows mooing to disturb the peace.
Other options include archery, clay pigeon shooting and craft beer tasting at the specialist brewery run by one of the Stewart sons. The nearby Cross Hill Gardens boast 7 hectares of flowers, or the adventurous might like to do a three to four hour walk through the Manawatu Gorge.
The deep-pocketed can take a scenic helicopter flight; others may prefer a round of golf.
It is the understated luxury and unobtrusive attention provided by the lovely people at Hiwinui Estate that would entice me back in a shot. Suddenly flying Auckland to Wellington doesn't seem like the best option after all.
Hiwinui Country Estate is on Ashurst Rd, a 15-minute drive into lush green countryside just north of Palmerston North.
Choose between the super king suite which overlooks the courtyard and boasts a spa bath, and the king suite with double shower, with views of the rose garden and pond (single rate $350, double $440). The couple's getaway includes a 1 1/2 hour full-body massage and body polish treatment, pre-dinner canapes with aperitif, three-course dinner, cooked breakfast and sole occupancy of the lodge ($860 a couple). Visit hiwinui.co.nz for more information.
The writer was a guest of Hiwinui Country Estate.