Tee Time at the Edge of the World
On the North Island of New Zealand, Kauri Cliffs is a golf course unlike any other: remote, demanding, and utterly astonishing.
When I asked for directions to The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs, I was told, "Go to the end of the world . . . and it's two stops after that." Perched high above a jagged coastline of cornices and coves on the tip of the North Island of New Zealand, past sheep ranches and through groves of mandarin orange, kiwi, persimmon and lemon, this extraordinary resort is certainly remote—but maybe that's the point. After all, everything at Kauri Cliffs is done on a grand scale, from its championship 18-hole golf course and world-class lodge to the unspoiled, mountainous 5,000-acre property. And while getting there requires exceptional effort, you are repaid with an experience like no other.
Like so many of the world's great works, this is the result of one man's lifelong obsession. Wall Street legend Julian Robertson built Kauri Cliffs because, as he declares, "every man should have one folly."
The seeds of Kauri Cliffs were planted some 20 years ago, when Robertson took a year-long sabbatical from his career as a New York financier to live in New Zealand with his wife, Josie, and two young sons and write "the great American novel." By his own reckoning, he wasn't a very good writer, but he became fascinated with the rugged country. "New Zealand is like small-town America was 75 years ago," says Robertson. "It's an agrarian country with gorgeous landscape and nice people."
In 1980, Robertson headed back to New York and founded Tiger Management, a hedge fund which grew from a modest $8 million in equity at its inception to $21 billion by 1998—at one point the largest hedge fund in the world. Although he closed Tiger in 1999 after suffering heavy losses during the dot-com mania, Roberston, never one to sit still, immediately began to look for a way to develop a 5,000-acre cattle ranch he had recently bought on New Zealand's North Island. To Robertson, a passionate golfer (and 20 handicapper), it seemed just the place for an exclusive golf course.
"I bought the property on the spot, before even Josie had seen it," he says. "Even though I didn't begin to develop it until two years later, I had a hunch that it could be one of the best golf courses in the world. But it was Josie who insisted on building the lodge and making it a full-fledged resort."
Kauri Cliffs is in the Bay of Islands, a half-hour drive from the town of Kerikeri, a short flight from Auckland. Its entrance, which sits at the end of an unpaved road, is so understated you wonder if Robertson wants to keep the place a secret. Once inside, the landscape is dramatic, overwhelming. Emerald hills are clustered with ink-dark ancient trees. A 50,000-year-old kauri stump exhumed from a methane swamp stands as a ghostly vestige of the forests that once blanketed the North Island. Streams and waterfalls ribbon down the ravines to a panorama of the South Pacific and two miles of private beach. There is something truly Jurassic about this earth and ocean—one expects sea dragons with mile-long tails to rise up from the surface, velociraptors to appear amidst the stands of pohutakawa, totara, and kauris. Even the sky seems bigger here.
The lodge itself—a stylish but ever-so-traditional mix of a Greek Revival South Carolina plantation house and an East Hampton summer cottage—is very much the creation of Josie Robertson. A wide, white-columned veranda with rocking chairs wraps around the pale-gray clapboard facade, which has floor-to-ceiling French doors and bay windows.
The dominant blues and blonds of the interior are anchored by dark oak English, Spanish, and Italian antiques. Could this color scheme, I wondered, have been inspired by the Richard Diebenkorn painting that hangs above the fireplace 9,000 miles away, in the Robertsons' penthouse on Central Park South? That's how personal the whole place seems. Even the floor is wide-plank pickled totara wood alternated with narrow deckle-edged strips, a detail borrowed from the Robertson's Sun Valley ski lodge.
The lodge's public rooms are enormous and airy with huge fireplaces, some rough-hewn from kauri-wood railroad sleepers. A central clerestoried atrium opens onto a great room with hearths on either flank, and the veranda beyond a wall of French doors. The presence of the sea and sky is everywhere, whether you're playing golf, sitting on the porch, or roaming the beach.
The Tiger Room (named for its Iranian tiger carpet that previously adorned Robertson's New York office) and the Green Room are cozy dens with sofas, easy chairs, regional art and books everywhere—perfect for a private dinner. Again, more like a home than a hotel.
Eight exquisite board-and-batten cottages, tucked into a subtropical glade created by landscape designer Geoff Pickles, sit just beyond the main house. Their windows face east across the manicured golf course to the sea. Josie collaborated with New Zealand interior designer Virginia Fisher, and the results are impeccable, down to the orchids in every room. King-size beds are covered with quilts, and framed linocuts of fish, tuatara, and bellbirds adorn the walls. Every cottage has its own verandah with rattan shades. Their entries are flanked by his-and-her dressing rooms on one side; on the other are huge bathrooms with porcelain tubs, chrome fixtures, and wooden floors.
The staff at Kauri Cliffs, most in their early to mid-thirties,were handpicked by the Robertsons, including Dwight Segall, whom Julian plucked straight from his home course at Deepdale on Long Island to run the golf program here.General manager Hendrik Wassenaar and Kiwi chef Paul Jobin both hail from the legendary Huka Lodge, a fly-fishing resort on the North Island.
At first Julian thought about importing an American chef, but he gave Jobin the job after auditioning him at the Robertsons' Locust Valley home. His mission is to create a world-class menu with local roots and a global reach. The inspiration is Pacific Rim, artfully combining different ethnic traditions (such as Japanese, Moroccan and Indian) with local produce and native fruits like feijoa, tamarillo, orange, and kiwi. From his grandmothers (one English, the other Kiwi) Jobin mastered the art of jams and preserves.
"We had to convince Paul that in addition to having fine haute cuisine we also had to serve first-rate daily fare," Josie explains. "Every meal could not be a Picasso."
Nor need it be, for despite the comforts of the lodge, most people come here for the golf. Designed by Dave Harman, Kauri Cliffs will inevitably be compared to Pebble Beach, but as one entry in the guest book exclaims, "Pebble is boring!" Still, like Pebble Beach, this is a links-style course, with echoes of Turnberry, Portrush and Mauna Kea. But for beauty of setting and grandeur of play, Kauri Cliffs is unique.
There are water views from 15 of the holes on this par-72 course. Of these, six are oceanside. Four sets of tees vary the play (from 4,940 yards for the yellow ladies' tees to 7,125 yards for the championship Tiger tees) so widely that Harman has created four courses in one. This way everyone from beginner to tour pro is challenged, but not punished. (With a slope rating of 144 from the back tees, Kauri Cliffs is almost as difficult as Pine Valley, the toughest course in America.)
The front nine meanders from the inland side gradually downward toward the sea. It begins, like many great courses, with a confidence-building, relatively straightforward downhill 439-yard par four called Takou. But successive holes increase in richness and complexity, each posing singular challenges. The sheer monumentality of the landscape, for instance, often distorts the distance and scale of the holes. Many of the greens are infinity-edged, heightening the need for balance. Fairways are often flanked by precipitous valleys. The whole course is immaculately groomed on a regular basis by a crew of 20, but Robertson has, on occasion, brought the entire staff down on their knees to hand-pick the dreaded and rampant kikuyu grass. "People ask me if I miss the investment world," Robertson says, "but I can tell you, keeping the course free of kikuyu is just as challenging!"
Greatness at Kauri Cliffs reveals itself with the trio of holes, starting with number four. Cambo is a 558-yard hole that Michael Campbell, the New Zealand pro and ambassador-at-large for Kauri Cliffs, calls his favorite par five in the world. Number five, or Boomerang, is a 200-yard par three that is all carry with no margin for error. Falls, the 405-yard par-four number six, is the first of several holes (numbers nine and 18 among them) that have a long carry directly into the face of a mammoth slope. The blind, uphill second shot is reached by an elegant wooden bridge arched over a waterfall that is cut deep into a ravine lined with flowers. Bliss!
The first oceanfront holes are numbers seven and eight, two of the most difficult par-three and par-five holes you will ever play. And number nine, Giant Steps, is so steep that you almost need to rappel your way back to the lodge for a recharging lunch out on the porch.
Holes ten, 11, 12, and 13 are the inland yin to the windblown, clifftop yang of 14 through 17. The short 364-yard par-four number ten peers straight into the valley, cleft by streams, marsh, and ferns. An elevated tee descends over a forced carry onto a small landing area, with a tidy wedge shot to a small green, ringed by reedy marsh. It and the next two holes are quiet and shadowy, nestled in the lowland bulrushes below curvy hillocks.
Tablelands, a par-four, 426-yard plateau, requires precision shot making to avoid the steep drop-off on the left or the bunkers to the right of the terraced green. Crossing the crest of the ridge to number 14, the glory of Kauri Cliffs is unveiled. Hubris and humility vie with each other on this 230-yard par three, with its 20-knot wind from the right and Waiaua Bay 500 feet below to the left. I played the next three clifftop holes—Cook's Hook, Temptation, and Rainbow—in a state of euphoria and could imagine no better ending for this magnificent course than the enormous 18th hole, Tane Mahuta ("Lord of the Forest" in Maori).
One gets the feeling that Roberston is laying the groundwork for what may become another empire: He's about to buy an additional 5,000-acre estate just south of Kauri Cliffs in the winemaking region of Napier, near Kidnapper's Bay. And he's already talking of an inland 18 at Kauri Cliffs—which would still leave 4,000 acres of untouched terrain. It remains to be seen how his ventures will pay off. But for now, and for those who have the chance to play Kauri Cliffs, just remember: Go to the end of the world and take two more stops after that. You can't miss it.
GETTING THERE Qantas flies to Auckland via Los Angeles. Upper-deck business class is highly recommended. The service is excellent, and so is the food, thanks to Nigel Parry.
ROOM RATES $700 for a cottage in the high season (October 1-April 30). $410 in the low season (May 1-September 30).
GREENS FEES $170 during high season, $130 during low season.
WHEN TO GO Seasons are reversed. The ideal time is New Zealand's summer, October through April.
SPORTING LIFE The lodge has two tennis courts, an infinity swimming pool, spa, fitness center, and three secluded, private beaches with good swimming. I recommend taking the helicopter tours, particularly the one to Tane Mahuta, a 2,000-year-old kauri tree set in one of the oldest-growth semi-tropical rainforests in the world. There's also sailing—to the Hole in the Rock at Cape Brett—and excellent deep-sea fishing for marlin and swordfish, even wild boar hunting.