Helena Bay Lodge: Inside New Zealand lodge owned by a Russian billionaire

I suppose if you wanted to make a proper arrival, you'd flounce down the steps of your private jet at Auckland Airport and straight into an awaiting helicopter for the 30-minute swoop towards the North Island's pointy end.

Half the guests opt for the helicopter flight, apparently. I'm driving, because New Zealand nearly always has lovely landscapes worth slow appraisal, and I'm touring several destinations. Luckily, my rental car is black and polished enough not to entirely embarrass me at Helena Bay Lodge.

Three hours later I plunge down a narrow fern-draped valley, swing around a bay and nearly miss the lodge's entrance gate. Nothing but a discreet bronze plaque bearing the Relais & Chateaux logo indicates the hotel and its gourmet-cuisine credentials.

I'll be well fed, I conclude from the branding as the gate swings open and I nose along a driveway that winds through pohutukawa and strange-looking cabbage trees that eventually dissolve into lawns and psychedelic flowerbeds. I pull up under a porte-cochere – always good to know the name for something you only ever see attached to railway stations and rich people's houses.

Two staff members stand like Easter Island idols at the entrance. I don't make the rookie error of thinking I have to park my own car or haul my suitcase, which reappears later in my suite. I just waft through the front door and settle on a sofa beneath what appears to be a Miro painting. A champagne materialises in my outstretched hand as I'm offered a heli-tour over the Bay of Islands by a coiffed woman in a suit. So far, so very gratifying.

Helena Bay Lodge isn't just designed to feel like a billionaire's bach, as they call beach houses in New Zealand. It actually is one, owned by Russian steel oligarch Alexander Abramov. When he isn't in residence – which I assume is most of the year – you have his 325 hectares, 60 staff, sprawling mansion, 25-metre swimming pool, tennis and volleyball courts and 100-odd cows to yourself. Or almost, since there are just five suites.

The lodge's surrounding hills have been contoured by generations of cattle, and the lodge's cows are here mostly to make the countryside look good, although the Angus-wagyu crossbreeds deliver the odd tasty steak to the restaurant. A must of any stay is a tour with farm manager Jason Hanham. The estate is gloriously beautiful, with beehive-shaped hills, forested valleys, wetlands that are home to endangered pateke, and a wild coastline.

Alpacas, rare-breed goats with floppy ears and three miniature donkeys add a touch of billionaire's whimsy. The donkeys crunch carrots from my hand before tiptoeing off on dainty hoofs.

Stressed people from big cities are Helena Bay Lodge's main customer base, says Jason, who thinks some have never seen donkeys or cows before. The farm tour is popular, and often guests drive themselves around as well, or walk the steep House Track and Fishing Track to the old woolshed on a hilltop overlooking the extravagantly rugged coastline. They fish off the pontoon for snapper, picnic on the private beach, and cast their cares aside.

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It's hard not to relax while watching cows graze, which you can do right from the terrace of the lodge's heated swimming pool. A strut of herons and clip-clip of gardeners' shears adds to the tranquillity, but this is no rustic hideaway of distressed wood and sheep-trough sinks. The lodge has modern artworks, chic sofas, a sauna and gym, and sumptuous rugs that cost as much as small houses. Immaculate lawns are mowed in alternate stripes like those at the MCG.

Staff shimmer about like Jeeves, materialising umbrellas and cocktails and amuse-bouches of deep-fried cod and truffle-sprinkled broccoli mousse. Italian chef Michele Martino provides the posh nosh: bluefin ceviche, wagyu tenderloin, scorpionfish zuppetta style with garlic bruschetta.

The five suites have all you'd expect of a stay in the stratosphere, from Nespresso machine to walk-in shower, sea-gazing terrace to dressing room expansive enough to make the contents of a single suitcase look forlorn.

Only the lack of a bath seems odd, and the 100-percent polyester pillows utterly bizarre. In a place this extravagant, I imagine pillows ought to be filled with angel feathers. Or maybe it's just a deliberate reminder that, although Helena Bay comes close, I'm not in heaven yet.

TRIP NOTES

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FLY

Air New Zealand operates multiple direct flights between Australia and Auckland. Helena Bay is a three-hour drive north. The lodge arranges helicopter transfers. See airnewzealand.com.au

STAY

Helena Bay Lodge sits on private coastline north of Whangarei. Suites from $1700 including meals, farm tour and all facilities. Phone 1300 121 341, see relaischateaux.com

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of New Zealand Tourism and Relais & Chateaux.

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