Grand Foley: The magnificent Wharekauhau lodge (2023)

We round the final corner of a narrow, winding road and there it is. Wharekauhau, its five clusters of chimney stacks rising above a windswept, sideways landscape.

Along a gravel driveway, an avenue of dark trees overhead, we sweep around to stop in front of the Wairarapa luxury lodge where Prince William and Princess Kate have stayed.

We’re welcomed and ushered into a high-ceilinged sitting room from where we can see Palliser Bay, its craggy arms gathering ferocious winds and funnelling it up the valley to sculpt trees sideways along the last 20 minutes of the road from Featherston.

In stark contrast to the wild landscape outside, Wharekauhau is warm and comfortable, with fires and candles, chandeliers and flowers, flute music and clinking from the kitchen.

It’s the kind of place where billionaires feel comfortable wearing jeans and boots while playing with the labrador by the front door, and where spotless Red Bands of all sizes line the entry walls ready to help a wealthy foot take on the farm.

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A Defender is the comfortable way to get around the 1,200-hectare estate.

The lodge is owned by billionaire Bill Foley and aimed at the North American market. It’s on 1,200 hectares bordered by the Remutaka Ranges and the Pacific Ocean. Isolation and luxury are the selling points.

At this time of year, a 70 sq m cottage suite is $2,295, which includes breakfast, pre-dinner drinks and canapes, a multi-course dinner and a mini bar with soft drinks and beer.

You can see they’re used to celebrities and royalty here. As we pass them, service staff duck to the side and stand still, looking down. Maybe a bit much for the missus and me.

We’re invited through for lunch, before a quick tour of the orchard, gardens and heated pool.

Our cottage, down a private pathway, is an oasis of creams, whites and beige, long floaty curtains and seagrass armchairs, a bath with a view out over the bay, and a curtained bed.

Our luggage has appeared here, coats hung and bags stowed.

The Audi Q7, courtesy of Sixt, we drove from Wellington Airport has vanished and a Land Rover Defender is waiting, driven by Graham Carson, a former British army bombs and guns expert. He takes us down to the Wharepapa River and sets up clay bird shooting.

The most I would say about the experience is that I am not totally dreadful. Turns out I like shooting stuff. I might take it up as a hobby.

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Between the mountains and the sea: Wharekauhau is dwarfed by nature.

Wharekauhau also offers farm tours, archery, swimming, spa treatments, and the Foley Wine Flight – a $14,000 helicopter trip that reaches down to Marlborough and culminates in lunch at Te Kairanga Winery in Martinborough.

Shooting at fast-moving bits of clay is something that also appealed to Wharekauhau’s French restaurant manager, Nicolas Simonucci, who tells us about his discovery of the joys of pig hunting and becoming so captured by shooting that he’s even won a few competitions.

We meet him before dinner, along with the lodge’s manager, Richard Rooney, who came with the property when Bill Foley and wife Carol fell in love with it 14 years ago and bought it, along with other Kiwi favourites such as Te Kairanga, Martinborough Vineyard, Mt Difficulty, Grove Mill, Vavasour and Lighthouse Gin, which now sources its all-important water from a spring on the lodge estate.

More recently, Bill Foley has bought Nourish Group, giving him vertical integration across Soul Bar, Andiamo, Shed 5, Jervois Steak House, and the just-opened Somm on Auckland’s Princes Wharf.

Grand Foley: The magnificent Wharekauhau lodge (3)Even when the weather won't play ball, the ATV quad bike tour is still fun.

Tonight, we’re the beneficiaries as Simonucci takes us through a Foley and Friends tasting of Te Kairanga pinot noir rosé (which sold out within weeks) and a Vavasour sauvignon blanc (young and crisp, with salty valley tones and hints of gooseberry and tropical fruits).

We also sample the Mt Difficulty pinot (served at room temperature so it thickens and sweetens, imparting balance and freshness), comparing it with the Mt Difficulty syrah (great depth, gentle power, caught between the spiciness of black and white pepper, with purplish violet reflections from the black grapes that go into it).

Simonucci is knowledgeable and poetic as he describes the offerings with such gusto that we worry whether the wine will stay in his glass or hit the walls.

To pair with our wine, chef Norka Mella Munoz brings us tiny snacks of puffed celeriac and beef smoked for 14 hours, topped with kawakawa chimichurri.

Out the back is a smoker that is one of the biggest I have seen anywhere. Eventually, it’ll be lifted by helicopter into the sheltered central courtyard.

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Chef Norka Mella Munoz meets some of the locals.

Pretty much everything we eat is grown on the estate. Wharekauhau is one of the oldest Romney sheep studs in the country, and also has a herd of Angus cattle. A large vegetable and herb garden and an orchard provide raw ingredients for the kitchen.

The chefs all receive training in foraging for local ingredients.

We retire to a private dining room with an open fire and views out to the darkening bay, where we’re served a three-hour dégustation that starts with fresh bread and local honey before morphing into performance dining.

Our amuse-bouche is presented on a stone capped by a pāua shell, removed with a flourish to reveal delicate slices of the shellfish. We progress through poached crayfish with tomato water, pork belly with almond purée, pan-fried snapper and venison.

Simonucci returns to talk us through the wine matches, many of which we’ve tasted a few hours earlier but now get to experience in a different way as a food match.

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Delicate slices of pāua, one of many courses.

It’s an almost overwhelming layering of talk and taste and texture and smell and shapes and colours. We’re exhausted after our early flight, nearly two hours of driving including country roads, the bracing air and good food and wine. The crackling fire’s peace is the last straw.

We sleep soundly.

Next morning, there’s more food: a hearty breakfast is served in a country kitchen with floor-to-ceiling windows.

Jason Parkinson is waiting for us outside with ATV quad bikes. After a quick lesson, we’re off across the farm, stopping to look at cattle and meet the resident tame eels, including a 40-year-old monster who lives in a dam and pops up for a neck rub.

We splash across the river – which has recently flooded, with bits ripped off the banks – and up through a patch of native forest that is regenerating thanks to solid pest control, demonstrated by a trap containing a hedgehog squished flat. Good riddance.

Parkinson tells us that foreign visitors are amazed at the tranquillity here, the silence far from civilisation.

Wharekauhau is 40km from Featherston. For many guests, this is as isolated as they’ll ever get.

We emerge on a hill with views over Palliser Bay and across the nearby lake before heading down on to the beach. For once, the bay’s waves are tame and limpid. Old baches line the shore, and we find pāua shells. Parkinson points out the home of a staff member we met at breakfast.

We roar home across the paddocks for lunch. I order a burger and fries and am served what is now my official perfect burger. After we finish every single crumb, the Audi appears at the front door, packed with our luggage. Time to get back to reality. (Well, almost. Sixt has given us their VIP service, so we pick up and drop off the car at Wellington Airport's valet desk, which is like one final piece of luxury before rejoining the masses.)

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High brow/low brow: probably the best burger ever made.

What really stands out for us about our stay, apart from the magnificent landscape and lodge, are the people who welcomed us here. They’re encouraged to bring their whole Kiwi or French or Chilean eccentric or practical or enthusiastic personalities to their guests.

They’re the same to all their guests, whether the billionaire or the dairy farmers who’ve saved up $50 a week for a special weekend away.

When my wife hugs the chef goodbye, I can see their approach to hospitality is working.

Lodge and cottage suite pricing starts at $2,295 per couple in winter and $3,990 in summer. Foley Villa rates for 1-6 guests start at $15,495 in winter and $17,250 in summer. All rates include breakfast, pre-dinner drinks and canapes and nightly multi-course dinners. The hotel will shut from July 17 to Aug 24 for its annual closure.

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A cottage suite room, with views to Palliser Bay.

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A friendly face: the eels respond to visitors, and like to be fed.

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