Hard hit by the pandemic, some of New Zealand's luxury lodges have turned to letting guests set their own rates, hoping to entice Kiwis who might not have visited otherwise.
It's a brave move. In a nation of bargain hunters who often bemoan the cost of travel in their backyard, who knows just how low they might go.
As a self-described born hostess, Samantha Winn, co-owner of Quail Lodge in Auckland's semi-rural Drury, felt that having some guests was better than none, even if they paid well below the usual $NZ599-a-night rate ($A566).
She has, she said, been presented with "very fair offers" since deciding in May to let would-be-guests name their price "after reading hundreds of comments on social media about people not being able to afford to travel in New Zealand".
"The lowest offer I had was $80, which honestly was just an insult and one of only two I didn't accept as that would've cost me money."
While the new pricing model won't cover all her costs, Samantha reasoned that "some money is better than none" and she wanted "to do something nice" for her fellow Kiwis during what has been a difficult time for many.
So what's it like to stay in a luxury lodge as a pay-what-you-want punter more accustomed to baches, backpackers and low to moderately-priced Airbnbs? This was my experience.
Just 34 kilometres from central Auckland, the two-bedroom apartment set high in the rolling foothills of Drury is a good choice for city dwellers who want to get away for the weekend but don't have the time or inclination to drive too far.
Set out after work on Friday and you'll be there with plenty of time to enjoy your complimentary bottle of bubbles in the well-heated, stylish-yet-understated lounge. Or, in warmer weather, in the infinity pool or on your private terrace, both of which look out to the ocean across fields which, with all this rain we've been getting, can accurately be described as emerald.
The lodge is also a good option for out-of-towners who think they've seen all they want to of the big smoke. With the wilds of the Āwhitu Peninsula and Karioitahi Beach to the west and the pretty bays and popular farmers' markets of the Pohutukawa Coast to the east, it offers a different kind of Auckland holiday. One that combines the best of both town and country living: It got me thinking about spending some of my hopefully imminent Lotto winnings on a lifestyle block.
Pulling up on the sprawling property in my now-deceased oldsmobile, I felt slightly out of place, but Samantha – a gracious hostess with a knack for putting people at ease – quickly made me feel at home. Don't be surprised if you receive an invite to her place for a drink or even dinner.
Arriving after an unexpectedly long run along the reflective black sands of Karioitahi Beach (the end never seemed to get any nearer), I made the most of the divine-smelling, Nelson-made toiletries in the high-pressure shower before popping over to the Winns' place next door for a drink.
Seated beside a flickering open fire, glass of Moet in hand as we chatted about life in the time of Coronavirus (as you tend to do these days), I felt a bit like I'd been taken in by long-lost relatives. If you're an America's Cup fan, you're in luck. A world-renowned expert on Cup law, Samantha's husband Hamish is full of fascinating inside info.
After dinner back at the apartment (more on that later), I turned up the heating and bluetooth speaker and stretched out on the cushioned leather couch with a stack of magazines and glass of potent Little Giant Barossa Shiraz courtesy of the Winns. And that was pretty much me for the evening.
If you need to cook, there's a very well-equipped kitchenette (complete with a full-size fridge, induction ring and Nespresso machine) and if you're in need of a Netflix binge, just turn on the 43-inch telly. But I was perfectly content blob out before the time came to re-collapse on one of the two enormous – and exceedingly comfy – king-size beds.
I'd planned to cook myself a very ungourmet dinner of polenta and tomato sauce, but Samantha wouldn't hear of it: She was preparing Moroccan-style chicken with parsnip puff. I didn't need much (okay any) convincing and consequently found myself tucking into a lightly spiced taste sensation ideal for such a frigid evening. Dinner is usually provided at an additional cost so I was lucky, but I can vouch for the fact it is well worth it.
Breakfast is included, and as much of a gourmet affair as dinner, with options including whitebait fritters, a cooked breakfast with local bacon and sausages, and coddled eggs. I went for the fresh, seasonal fruit for starters and was presented with a big bowl of strawberries, blueberries, passionfruit and pineapple, plus mandarin juice sourced from the two-acre garden (you're welcome to help yourself to the fruit there which, depending on the season, includes apples, feijoas, plums, avocados and citrus).
As full as I was after the fruit, I still managed to shovel down my whitebait omelette in what I reckon must be record timing. Golden and just the right amount of gooey on the inside with a very generous portion of the treat of a wee fish, it is, in my experience, a strong contender for Auckland's best breakfast.
Worth stepping out for
The inexplicably under-explored Āwhitu Peninsula – with its dramatic topography, turquoise bays, beautifully restored lighthouse and hidden gem of a winery – is an easy drive away along the winding country road past Waiuku. There on a semi-sunny Autumn weekend, I had the golden beaches and farm walks of the regional park almost to myself.
If you're there on a Saturday, hit up the Clevedon Farmers' Market, where you can stock up on locally sourced meat, dairy and produce and pick up a whitebait fritter, sticky pastry, "superfood" smoothie or something equally delicious to sustain you through a workout at nearby Duder Regional Park with a panoramic view of the Hauraki Gulf.
A perfect choice for stressed-out city slickers looking for peace, quiet and pampering close to home. Being able to pay what you want for the experience feels almost criminal (the offer is a definite steal). Samantha, who opened the lodge last September, clearly goes all out to offer guests a memorable stay. You'll want to repay her in one way or another.
The whitebait omelette. You don't get portions like that at posh restaurants.
Not being able to drag myself out of bed early enough to drive to the Nikau glowworm cave in Waikaretu (my fault – and perhaps the super-comfy bed's – not theirs).
A night at Quail Lodge usually costs $599 a night, but you can set your own rate until October 30. Samantha asks would-be guests to offer "what you think is fair". See luxurylodge.nz.
The writer was hosted by Quail Lodge.