If accommodation is defined by its most famous guest, then New Zealand's The Landing is a doozy. Forget the famous rock stars and Hollywood actors who have stayed at this retreat in Northland's Bay of Islands – the name it will forever be associated with trumps them all: Barack Obama.
In March 2018, Obama and his entourage booked out the four private residences on this 404-hectare property during a NZ-US Council speaking engagement, dining with NZ icons Peter Jackson and Sam Neill, and strolling through the vineyards at night searching for endangered kiwi.
The choice of The Landing, in a country renowned for its millionaire-luring lodges, was pertinent; for not only is one of NZ's most luxurious properties, but its isolation on the tip of the verdant Purerua Peninsula makes it one of the most secluded options for a privacy-seeking former president.
The Landing is also unashamedly Kiwi, offering the best of NZ – its beauty and bounty – in one exclusive package. Located on a working vineyard overlooking the exquisite blue waters of the Bay of Islands, the property embraces NZ's unique geography, fauna, people and stories, from its early history to its distinctive architecture.
The passion project of Auckland's Britomart developer Peter Cooper, The Landing began life in 1999 with a program to enrich existing farmland through the creation of wetlands, re-establishing native bush by planting more than a million trees, and ridding the land of introduced pests to create a wildlife sanctuary where the healthiest and largest population of kiwi now makes its home.
The first structure to be built in 2002 was The Boathouse, a breezy wood and stone two-bedroom loft inspired by a colonial woolshed, but given a modern interpretation by prominent NZ architect Pip Cheshire. With an enviable position on the waterfront on Wairoa Bay, and generous outdoor living and entertainment areas, the Boathouse accommodates four and is popular with honeymooners and couples wanting unobstructed views.
Overlooking the vineyards, planted in 2007 and producing fine rosé, syrah and chardonnay, is the three-bedroom Vineyard Villa, a contemporary, low-lying structure with sliding glass walls that open to unrestricted views of the bay. Meanwhile, the Gabriel Residence, boasting 360-degree views of the water, bush, farmland and wetlands, sleeps eight people and has three self-contained living areas, making it ideal for extended families with a penchant for entertaining.
The jewel in The Landing's crown, however, is Peter Cooper's private home, the Cooper Residence, a sprawling, six-bedroom modern masterpiece with several pavilions, a stone tower housing a wine cellar and tasting room, and an industrial interior filled with Cooper's personal collection of art, Maori artefacts, antique photographs and etchings.
Staying at The Landing is a far cry from a standard resort or hotel; it's more a private home experience with an elevated sense of privilege, of being a personal guest of the owners. While the luxury factor is high, the profile is low-key; there's no signage at the entrance to the property, for instance, with most guests choosing to arrive by helicopter or seaplane rather than make the four-hour drive from Auckland.
My daughter and I arrive by car, however; and after travelling along a gravel track to seemingly nowhere, and puzzling over whether imposing stone walls indeed mark our destination, we are met by a staff member and escorted through sliding iron gates to our plush overnight digs at The Boathouse.
It's a mirror-calm day at Bay of Islands, and we're keen to get out on the water to explore. With no other guests on site, we have the services of The Landing's staff to ourselves, as well as all facilities – including Iti Rangi, an 8.8-metre launch available for pleasure cruises, fishing excursions and diving expeditions at a guest's whim.
Skipper Brett Michalick is a passionate and well-versed historian, and pauses in the neighbouring bay before a pretty, deserted beach flanked by rolling green hills. Now part of the Rangihoua Heritage Park, this is where Maori first interacted with European missionaries, who set up camp on the beach in 1814.
This significant site – "the landing", so to speak, of two peoples forging a relationship based on hope but marred by misunderstandings, is marked by the Marsden Cross, a Celtic stone monument commemorating the first Christian service held on Christmas Day, 1814, delivered by Australia's Reverend Samuel Marsden.
"Maori lived on this land for around 700 years prior to the missionaries arriving," Michalick tells us as we bob offshore, taking in the tranquil vista. "Historically, it's one of the most sacred sites in the country; we try to encourage guests to connect to that history, with the story it tells quintessentially NZ."
The good Reverend Marsden (also known as "the flogging parson") was also responsible for starting an industry indelibly associated with NZ, planting the first grapevines in the fertile soil of Purerua Peninsula in 1819.
And to sample the fruit of this legacy, we are being treated to a tasting of The Landing's own sustainably grown wines in the Boathouse kitchen, courtesy of sales manager Keith Barker. Meanwhile, The Landing's personal chef, Jacqueline Smith, also arrives to prepare our dinner, armed with freshly caught kingfish and salad greens plucked straight from the garden.
While fine food and wine may define the classic NZ lodge experience, The Landing has one more activity in store that out-Kiwis them all – searching for the national icon, the endearingly goofy, flightless nocturnal bird, the kiwi.
With a round body and long beak, the ground-dwelling kiwi is an increasingly rare sight in Aotearoa, vulnerable to attacks by domestic dogs, feral cats, stoats and rats. Of the five species, the most common is the Northland brown kiwi – but even their numbers are dwindling, with less than 25,000 left in the wild.
Thanks to a rigid no-pest and pets policy, however, the population living at The Landing is extremely healthy, with a recent survey recording as many as 40 calls an hour.
And all it takes is a torch and a bit of stealth to spot them. During our hour-long kiwi "safari" – conducted as darkness descends by The Landing's "lawn guy" Dane (the staff here, it should be noted, all multi-task) – we spy at least five of the surprisingly large birds, scuttling into bushes on our approach, or rustling through undergrowth.
And their calls – a rather delightful, shrill screech – continue all night long, even just outside The Boathouse's door.
Air NZ has multiple flights daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland, with domestic connections to Kerikeri. See airnewzealand.com.au
Accommodation at The Landing ranges from $NZ3500 a night (in The Boathouse) to $NZ14,500 a night (in the Cooper Residence), inclusive of unlimited wine, sightseeing boat tours, a wine tasting, kiwi tour and complementary use of paddleboards and bicycles. The personal chef is included in Cooper Residence rate, or as part of special packages. See thelandingnz.com
Julie Miller was a guest of Tourism NZ.