When my Cruising World editor called to see whether I would be interested in representing the magazine on a promotional tour sponsored by Tourism New Zealand, which included stays in Auckland’s grandest hotel, dining out in haute-cuisine restaurants, touring award-winning wineries, respites in luxury seaside resorts, and sailing on a large and lush charter yacht in the famed Marlborough Sounds, I, of course, had to deliberate.
“After all,” I said, “I’m neck deep right now in a refit of Roger Henry.” Roger Henry is our well-traveled 36-foot steel sloop.
“It would mean time away from home,” I continued.
The editor cut in. “It includes a tour of the Emirates Team New Zealand America’s Cup base and a very good chance of a ride on the AC72 catamaran.”
“When do I leave?”
The answer was soon. My next problem was convincing my wife, Diana, that this constituted actual work. The “sure it’s hell, but somebody’s gotta do it” routine didn’t wash once she saw the itinerary, which would make a hardened hedonist blush. My guilt at leaving her behind and alone could have ruined the experience — well, almost. Fortunately, the good people at Tourism New Zealand agreed that Diana should come along as my photographer and minder, especially in regard to those winery tours.
For the sake of full disclosure, I must confess that I have a thing for Kiwi girls, one in particular. Having kept Diana at sea for several decades, at least subconsciously I must have known that one day she would have to return to her native hearth and home of New Zealand. Thus I have lived in and cruised out of the lovely little island nation for many years now. Nevertheless, I was determined to be as objective as possible and bring my Yankee judgment to bear in reporting on the attractions and attributes of “The Land of the Long White Cloud” as a cruising and chartering destination.
If you caught Chicago on a calm day, you might wonder why it is called “The Windy City,” but there is hardly a day in the year when Auckland’s moniker, “The City of Sails,” would come into question. As we entered the city on the arching North Harbour Bridge, Waitemata Harbour was awash in white canvas set off with bold splashes of colorful spinnakers — a keel boat regatta here, a youth dinghy-training fleet there and a classic schooner ghosting in between. Beneath Auckland’s signature Sky Tower lies Westhaven Marina. With nearly 2,000 slips and moorings, Westhaven is the largest marina in the Southern Hemisphere. It does not just dominate the city’s waterfront, it defines it, for with one boat for every three households, Auckland easily boasts the highest number of sailboats per capita in the world.
One reason for this is that New Zealanders suffer from two consuming obsessions: rugby and sailing. I say suffer because they are very proud to, as they say, punch above their weight. This nation of a mere 4 million people has dominated both sports to such an extent that victory is their default expectation, and even a single defeat is crushing. When New Zealand loses a major international sporting event, the value of its dollar can drop, and the nation plunges into a period of morose despair. When it wins the big game or race, well, you need to set aside a week for the victory party.
But for all their reputation as racers, most Kiwi sailors are avid cruisers also. Perched right on Auckland’s doorstep is the stunning 1,600-square-mile Hauraki Gulf. A busy boat owner can drop the lines from any one of a multitude of city marinas in the morning, and, with a moderate breeze, be tied up to a chic art café on Waiheke Island in time for lunch. If time allows, an intrepid cruiser can venture out to Great Barrier Island, which rivals even Bora Bora for the title of the world’s most beautiful island. To the east lies the mountainous Coromandel Peninsula. To the north rests Kawau Island. The gulf, dotted with 47 islands, is fringed with white sand beaches and verdant native bush. Because the region is semi-tropical, the sailing season runs throughout the year, but the highlight is, of course, those sunny summers, which last from November to April.
We were invited to lunch with Steve Burrett, commodore of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, the country’s oldest and most prestigious yacht club.Coincidentally, the club can trace its origins back to 1851, the very year that a vessel named_ America_ won an invitational challenge around the Isle of Wight. And so the America’s Cup began. The RNZYS has not taken its eyes off the Cup since, twice displaying the Auld Mug in the club’s overflowing trophy case.
However plush and prestigious the club may be, stuffy it is not. When the commodore heard that lunch with him conflicted with my chance to get that ride on the AC72, he said, “Get down there right now. Crikey, I’d leave you standing here with sandwich in hand if I had that chance.”
I took his advice and his leave. Diana and I were ushered through the tight security of the Emirates Team New Zealand entrance, and other than being asked not to photograph certain mysterious appendages on the 72-foot catamaran, were given access to the entire base. No child in a Willie Wonka chocolate factory could have been as awe-struck as I, for this sailboat race, with all its acrimonious history, litigious sideshows and overblown personalities, still presents to the winner the oldest trophy in sporting history, the America’s Cup.
The AC72’s translucent wing mast is larger than the wing of an Airbus. The catamaran itself is a sprawling complexity of space-age materials and exotic curves. The design room was abuzz with dozens of engineers manipulating 3-D images on massive computer screens, crunching infinite numbers looking for that final nth of an nth of a degree of efficiency.
I was here for one reason, but alas, the forces of nature conspired against me. There was zero wind on the day I was scheduled to go out on the 72. The next day held sufficient breeze, but a generous corporate sponsor was awarded the seat that was mine or so I thought, and I was relegated to the chase boat. I thought I might die on the docks of disappointment, but I need not have despaired, for it was an exhilarating day nonetheless. The chase boat is equipped with 1,200 horsepower, and afforded a ringside seat for the stunning performance of the catamaran when up on its foils.
I also had the pleasure of lengthy interviews with ex-Whitbread/Volvo racer and team director Grant Dalton, and the Emirates Team New Zealand skipper, Dean Barker. In spite of their international accomplishments and fame, I found them both to be open, honest, humble and generous with their time. I am over the fact that Diana took exactly one photograph of me and 35 of Dapper Dean.
We stayed in the Auckland Hilton, which in keeping with the national fascination with anything afloat, is shaped to look like a steam liner, smokestacks and all. That night, looking out over the sparkling harbor lights, I thought that perhaps only Sydney and San Francisco could compete with Auckland as premier harbor cities.
In the morning we made our way to the airport and hopped a plane for the South Island, or as the southerners like to call it, “the Mainland.” Jo May, of Destination Marlborough, met us at the airport. She is a dynamo, and wanted to optimize our short stay in her beloved neck of the woods. She kept us hopping with tours of an interesting World War I aviation museum, two wildlife recovery centers and a list of fine wineries long enough that I will have to consult my diary to accurately recall them.
From tip to tail, New Zealand is as beautiful as a national park, but the Marlborough region is unarguably a star attraction. Along with world-class sailing in the extensive Sounds, the inland areas boast the nation’s finest vineyards, accompanied by five-star restaurants and luxury accommodations to match. Although rural, in terms of food, music and the fine arts, the area is sophisticated in a way reminiscent of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties in California — but with better anchorages.
We started with a two-night stay in the Bay of Many Coves Resort. We were met at the dock by proprietors Nick and Pip Goodhew, both sailors whose travels eventually landed them on these shores. They escorted us to our private luxury cabin overlooking the sea and confirmed our reservations for dinner.
I have too often proclaimed to Diana that “Our cruising should be an adventure, not a vacation.” I would raise my finger into the air for effect. “We are not here to sip gin and tonics on the aft deck at sundown. We are here to test the mettle of our endurance and bravery.”
Diana would not actually call me an idiot, for she did not need to. She can speak with her eyes.
It was after my complimentary therapeutic massage and halfway through a five-course epicurean meal that I experienced my epiphany. In my case it was not a burning bush but a burning candle, which lit up the smiling face of my lovely wife across the starched white linen tablecloth. With almost three decades of hard cruising behind her while putting up with my rather peculiar outlook on life, it struck me that she deserved this pampering, and plenty more. And there was plenty more to come.
The following morning, stepping onboard the brand new Beneteau 54, Voila, in no way diminished the standard of our experience. With owners Dave and Yo McGill, and old salt Capt. Bill Hannah, we cruised Queen Charlotte Sound for the next two wonderful days. Of particular interest to me, we visited Ship Cove, where Capt. James Cook twice careened his vessels during his epic world voyages. We ducked into the innumerable bays, secret coves and long arms fringed with pungent native bush. Had we the time, we could have sailed west through the 1,600 square miles of fractured coastline, through the Pelorus and Kenepuru sounds, toward the cutest little sea town south of the equator, Nelson, ultimately home to many of the world’s most accomplished cruising sailors.
Perhaps the defining experience of the Marlborough Sounds is referred to as the “dawn chorus.” Because New Zealand historically knew no mammalian predators, the bird life was and still is unique and prolific. In these unspoiled areas there is a background symphony composed of the calls of the enormous indigenous wood pigeon, the mocking imitations of the tui, the sweet songs of bellbirds and fantails, the crackling protests of the parrotlike kaka and kia, and the lonely thumping of the iconic kiwi.
We reluctantly disembarked in Picton, the terminus for the ferry system connecting Wellington and the South Island. It is hard work having fun, but Jo showed no mercy. She dropped us off at the Herzog Estate near Blenheim. We toured the wine cellars with the world-famous Hans Herzog, a humble man of the soil with a passion for producing distinctively different wines. That passion is matched only by the devotion his wife, Teresa, has for fine dining. She runs the award-winning restaurant and the small guest cottage on the vineyard grounds. This is a sailing magazine, so I shouldn’t go into too much detail regarding the epicurean Everest we climbed that evening. Let me just say that somewhere between the smoked Marlborough salmon and the organic quail au jus, I had to admit that this beat chewing on burnt fruit bat around a jungle campfire.
All this culinary chatter does serve to demonstrate the diverse nature of sailing in New Zealand. Because of its large size and small population, one can cruise from truly pristine wilderness waters into the lap of modern luxury on a single tack.
But my cruising concept that comfort and luxury are not the sole drivers of experience is at least partially correct. Because the geography is diverse and dramatic, this is a country almost frenetic in its ethos of outdoor activity, be it sailing, hiking, skiing, climbing, diving, fishing or bungee jumping. Bring your sporting goods, for it is on the reefs and ridges that you will meet most Kiwis.
Because it is ethnically diverse, New Zealand offers interesting cultural experiences. Auckland is the largest Polynesian city in the world, and the South Auckland Sunday market is an authentic slice of Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga and Niue. Just north, in the city center, you could be excused for thinking you were in Hong Kong. Native Maori traditions are so vibrant and alive that they permeate the entire culture and have come to symbolize New Zealand internationally. But at its heart, New Zealand is an agricultural country, thus the overall experience of visitors can be eclectic yet quirky, ranging from sophisticated art fairs and concerts to sheep-shearing competitions.
In summary, the land is green, the waters blue and the beaches white. The country and its people are warm and welcoming. All personal bias aside, I promise you that, whether you arrive on your own bottom or charter a boat here, your only regret will be that you did not stay longer.
New Zealand Yacht Charter Companies
Location: South Pacific Ocean; 1,300 miles southwest of Tonga, 1,300 miles east of Australia
Flight time to U.S.: 12 hours, direct from Los Angeles or San Francisco
Time zone: GMT + 12 hours
Visa: Three months, extendable in country
Cost of living: Moderate to high
Seasons: To avoid Southern Hemisphere cyclone season, mid-November to mid-April
Temperature: 75-86 degrees F
Major ports of entry: Opua, Whangarei, Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington
Travel tip: Sailing south from Tonga, consider a midway respite in the submerged Minerva Reef.
Cruising Hot Spots
Whangaroa Harbour and Cavalli Islands
Bay of Islands: Visit historic town of Russell.
Hauraki Gulf: Don’t miss Great Barrier Island.
Marlborough Sounds Golden Bay: See Abel Tasman National Park.
Famous New Zealand Foods and Wines
New Zealand lamb
Marlborough sauvignon blanc
Otago pinot noir
Marlborough Falcon Trust
Lochmara Lodge Wildlife Recovery and Art Center
Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre (sponsored by Sir Peter Jackson)
Lord of the Rings tours or www.hobbitontours.com
This article first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Cruising World.