I was beyond excited to visit two of my favorite South Pacific destinations, and now that the trip is over, I can confidently say it lived up to all expectations. I spent time hiking and wine tasting in the Marlborough region of New Zealand followed by some rest and relaxation at The Brando, an exclusive resort on the island of Tetiaroa in French Polynesia. I had been wanting to personally visit and share my review of The Brando for quite some time, so this was truly a dream bucket list-type trip and it just continued my love affair with each of these destinations.
The first leg of the trip started off with the long journey to Auckland. I chose to fly the direct route from Los Angeles on American Airlines, as I used my system wide upgrades to jump from Premium Economy to Business Class. The route is flown in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, so the jet is new and extremely comfortable. After a long day of traveling to Los Angeles, an 11pm departure, copious amounts of champagne at the club, and lay flat seats, I very easily got a solid 8-9 hours of sleep on the flight. So, when we arrived in Auckland, I was well rested and ready to go. Of course, that ready to go attitude was put to the test when we found out our flight to Blenheim was delayed by four hours. Thankfully, we were able to wait out our delay in the domestic Air New Zealand lounge.
Upon arrival into Blenheim, we were supposed to have met up with Coast to Coast Helicopter for our transfer to Elevation Lodge. However, the delay in arrival along with deteriorating weather caused us to keep on the ground for the 30 minute drive to the Lodge. Sarah and Alister, the owners of Elevation Lodge, also own Coast to Coast, so arranging helicopter transfers or tours during a stay at Elevation is easy! If you are unable to fit in a helicopter ride, the views at Elevation will give you an aerial view that is a close second. Elevation is a B&B type accommodation, so you are essentially personal guests of Sarah and Alister. They are fantastic hosts, ensuring that your personal preferences are met throughout your stay. They prefer to have guests in their home who want to interact with them so they can share their love of the area with you. So, when staying at Elevation, you must love cats (they have one very spoiled baby!) and good conversation over a bottle or two of local wine. We only had one night at Elevation, but on our way to our next stop, Sarah took us to Karaka Point, which requires a short hike to a stunning look out over the Marlborough Sounds. We were thankful to get a glimpse of the views to come later in the trip!
After enjoying the views at Karaka, we were dropped off at Escape to Picton for a tour of the property and lunch at their top rated restaurant. Escape to Picton is a boutique property overlooking the Picton marina. The location is one of the best when needing a place to stay prior to heading out to Marlborough Sounds. The property, which was once a bank, only has three suites, each with a different vibe. Chose from a simple sea room with tasteful coastal decor, or an expansive modern suite with a chic lounge, gas fireplace, and two person shower. The owner of the property is also the head chef of the property’s restaurant. The restaurant focuses on using only fresh South Island ingredients, so it’s a truly local experience. In between meals, the hotel also offers various wine tour activities, all through their own tour company, Escape to Marlborough.
Following our afternoon in Picton, we were transferred to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim for a private tour of the museum. As an avid early aviation enthusiast, the museum was my husband’s one and only “must do” on this trip. I am mostly interested in modern aviation, so I was more intrigued by the collaboration between Sir Peter Jackson, Weta Workshop and WigNut Films. Omaka is home to one of the most extensive early aviation collections in the world, but what makes this collection so unique is how it is presented. The collection is arranged to tell a story, and in some cases, re-create actual historical events. Weta Workshop, located in Wellington, is known for their extraordinarily life like mannequins and props. The display at Omaka is an excellent showcase of their talent.
Following our visit to Omaka, we were transferred to our next hotel by Duncan of Blenheim Shuttles. Duncan is the owner of this small local business as well as the primary driver. As such, as you receive exceptional personal service on each transfer. Our short and prompt shuttle service took us to Chateau Marlborough, which is a larger boutique property located in the heart of downtown Blenheim. The property has 80 rooms ranging from a studio to a penthouse suite, as well as a day spa, pool, conference rooms, and a well reviewed restaurant. This property is an excellent base to explore the entire area and presents a great overall value.
The next day was what I was most excited about – the full day wine tour! We had a private luxury wine tour arranged through Marlborough Tour Company. The Marlborough Tour Company offers a variety of wine tours as well as cruises around the gorgeous Marlborough Sounds and even options to Nelson and Kaikoura. Our guide, Allan, picked us up in a Mercedes Sedan and chauffeured us around to several wineries – Saint Clair, Brancott, and Cloudy Bay. A typical tour would offer you the opportunity to explore the wineries of your choice, however, a very special day was planned for me (note- I can plan the same day for you, too!). Not only did we get to do several amazing wine tastings, we also had an exceptional lunch at Brancott Estate, a unique personal experience with Fern the Falcon from the Marlborough Falcon Trust, and a private tour of the Cloudy Bay Estate. It was truly a remarkable day.
Just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better, we had the opportunity to spend an evening at The Marlborough Lodge. The Marlborough Lodge is a part of the Luxury Lodges of New Zealand collection and was originally a convent before being relocated and restored. The building now offers 10 suites that are impeccably decorated. The lodge sits among acres of picturesque gardens and a vineyard, which produces some of Marlborough’s world famous sauvignon blanc. Our time at The Marlborough Lodge was short, but we were able to enjoy pre-dinner drinks and canapes followed by a gourmet dinner made with local ingredients at Harvest Restaurant. Everything about the lodge was on point and its the perfect place to enjoy the Marlborough Region in style.
After enjoying the more relaxing side of the region, it was time switch gears and enjoy the adventurous side. We had a 3 day hike of the Queen Charlotte track arranged through Wilderness Guides New Zealand Marlborough Sounds, a small, Picton based business owned and operated by a husband and wife team. As such, you get personalized service and assistance from a local who knows the area inside and out. Wilderness Guides offers guided and independent hiking and mountain biking tours of the Queen Charlotte track, as well as sea kayaking tours along the scenic Sounds. What drew me to the Queen Charlotte Track was two fold- one, my personal interest in the Hanoverian period of British royal history, and a more practical side of being able to hike between hotels. I love to hike, but I also love to get a good night’s sleep in a climate controlled room with a comfortable bed. So, being able to hike between hotels and having my luggage transferred between hotels was almost too good to be true! However, in New Zealand it is true and Wilderness Guides can make that happen!
On our first day of our hiking adventure, we boarded a boat to head out to the track with our guide for the trip, Alex. Our first stop was to Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary for a quick scenic warm up hike. Motuara is home to many endangered species, but the highlight is the blue penguins. We were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a few of these adorable penguins! Once our short visit to Motuara was complete, we boarded the boat toward the head of the trail at Ship Cove. Ship Cove is best known for being a favorite landing of Captain Cook during his world explorations, so it’s the perfect place to start your own adventure.
The first day of hiking along the track is about 14km, but it seems a lot longer as your body starts to adjust to hiking. Typically, a first day hike would be completed with a stay at Furneaux Lodge, which is located right along the track. However, I was treated to an amazing stay at Bay of Many Coves. Only accessible by boat, helicopter, or hike, Bay of Many Coves is a boutique property that proudly carries the Luxury Lodges of New Zealand stamp of approval. The managers, Kim and Graeme, happily greeted us upon arrival and made us feel like family from the moment we step foot on the dock. The property sits up on the hillside and all of the rooms have the most stunning view overlooking the Sound. The food is exceptional as well and the chef put together a fantastic menu based on my dietary needs. While our stay at Bay of Many Coves was slightly out of the way from our hike path, it was worth the diversion and I hope to return there soon!
The second day of hiking was a bit shorter- 11km – so we were able to take our time and enjoy the views. We hiked from Furneaux Lodge to Mahana Lodge, which is owned by Wilderness Guides. If you happen to hike the trail on your own, or Mahana is booked up, Punga Cove Resort is right next door. Mahana is a very small property, but it’s big on hospitality. There are only four rooms that share a central lounge area. Dinner is served on the patio of the main house and breakfast is brought to your room the next morning. As I booked a guided all inclusive tour, my meals were included in my package. Dinner was definitely a highlight of the stay, as we got to chit chat with other hikers.
A normal Queen Charlotte Track hike would only be half over at this point, but we decided to only do a 3 day package. I have to admit, I am very glad I did not have another two days!! The third day is a staggering 24 kms, which would wear just about anyone down. However, it poured rain the entire day. I don’t think I ever hiked as fast as I did that day! I was motivated to get a hot shower and curl up in bed. I commend anyone who does the entire track, but I admit I’m not cut out for it. So, when we completed the day, I literally cried tears of joy. I was elated to catch the boat shuttle over to Raetihi Lodge to end our journey.
When we arrived at Raetihi, we were exhausted and, the be honest, barely able to walk. A 24km hike in the pouring rain is no easy feat. So, we did not venture around the property very much. However, we found the lodge to be quaint and clean. There are a few common areas that promote interaction between the guests, all of which were nicely decorated. The grounds looked quite lush, though it was hard to really see much with such poor weather. Our sea view room, the highest available category at the property, was fairly spacious, but the bathroom was in need of a renovation. However, this is a hotel known to host hikers, so anything with a warm shower was a sight for sore eyes.
The next morning, we caught the Picton Water Taxi back to Picton, where we had the chance to meet up with the owner of Wilderness Guides. After a quick cuppa, it was time to have Duncan pick us up one last time to head to the airport. It was time to wrap up our amazing stay in Marlborough, and New Zealand, which was so bittersweet. We truly fell in love with the region, and more importantly, the many people we met during our stay. I feel like we had the opportunity to visit friends rather than colleagues and it’s always hard to say goodbye to friends.
Upon arrival into Auckland, we made our way to the International Terminal and the Air New Zealand lounge to await our flight to Papeete. We booked premium economy seats for extra leg room, free movies, and a meal. Since I was Star Alliance Gold, I also had a nice amenity kit waiting for me in my seat upon boarding. Air New Zealand is a fantastic airline with a variety of seating products to suit your budget.
Once our flight touched down in Papeete, we quickly made our way through immigration and customs. I had pre-arranged transfers through Marama Tours, as I work with them for the majority of my French Polynesia clients. After receiving a lei greeting, we were ushered off to my favorite property on the main island of Tahiti – Intercontinental Tahiti Resort. As I have stayed there a few times, you can read additional information on this property in previous reviews or at the Intercontinental Tahiti link above.
Following two nights in Tahiti, we were finally on our way to the crown jewel of the trip – and one of the very few resorts on my travel bucket list- The Brando. From the very second The Brando opened, I was hoping to have the opportunity to visit. Of course, I wanted to visit for more than just the standard travel agent familiarization one nighter. I wanted to really experience the property and take every advantage of the location and amenities to relax and unwind. So, I was finally able to set aside four nights to immerse myself into one of the most exclusive and highly rated resorts in the world. While it was pricey (and I even got a little bit of a discount), it was definitely worth the experience.
A stay at The Brando begins when you arrive at the Air Tetiaroa terminal at the airport. It is separate from the terminal used for international and domestic flights, so it is climate controlled and has no crowds. The flight to Tetiaroa is only 20 minutes, but as you approach Tetiaroa atoll, the scenery is stunning. You just know you are about to arrive somewhere very special. After deplaning, you are greeted by the staff with a song, a quick picture, and a golf cart led tour of the property eventually leading to your villa. The property only has 35 villas (30 of which are one bedroom), so it’s quiet and private.
Nothing quite sinks in until you step into your villa and then walk out onto your private patio looking out toward the lagoon. As you see in the very first picture in this review, that view is unreal. The water is clear and calm, the sand is as white as powder, and the villa itself – complete with private plunge pool looking out toward the lagoon – is larger than the average home. A living area, complete with mini bar replenished daily and an ipad, with views straight out to the pool and beach, separates the master suite and a smaller office/TV room. The master suite was quiet impressive, as I love an amazing bathroom. The transition from the bedroom to the bathroom includes plenty of closet space and a spacious vanity area. As you walk into the bathroom area, you can look straight out a large window to nothing but gorgeous, lush tropical landscape. There is a sink on each side of this window with generous counter space. Turn around back toward the bedroom and you’ll see a large walk in shower on one side and a water closet on the other. Perhaps most importantly, you won’t want to miss the outdoor tub, where you can relax with a glass of wine (or whatever you desire!) and gaze up at the stars at night.
Clearly I have a love of bathrooms, but the outdoor space of the villa is really just without words. With a covered dining area, lounge chairs by the pool, and your own slice of beach – again, the pictures above say it all.
We spent a lot of time in our own villa, but had plenty of time to explore the resort grounds and the atoll of Tetiaroa. The daily rate at The Brando includes a lot more than just food and beverage. It also includes use of bicycles, a daily spa treatment and a variety of tours. With four nights, we were able to indulge in these inclusions multiple times. We visited the Varua Te Ora Spa twice. By far our favorite treatment was in the Indian Head massage. Pure heaven. I only regret not doing it every day. When not relaxing at the spa, we chose to do a few of the tours. Our favorite was the Ultimate Tour, which takes you by boat around the atoll to learn more about the island, the people, and the various flora and fauna found throughout the tiny islets. The colors of the water just cannot be captured properly with a camera.
We also spent a lot of time hanging out at Bob’s Bar. It’s the central gathering place for those staying at the resort, as it’s just steps from the beach, pool, and restaurants. It doesn’t hurt that the setting of the bar is just so gorgeous!
I feel like a broken record, but for those that follow this blog, you know I am not a foodie. So, my only complaint is that the restaurants were a little frustrating for me. The Beachcomber Cafe was closed for expansion during our stay, so they had a temporary set up just behind the gourmet restaurant. The setup was fine, but it wasn’t the stunning view you see in the pictures. The Beachcomber has since reopened, and they have also introduced a Teppanyaki option, which I would have been all over. So, with not being enticed by anything at the upscale Les Mutines, and the normal Beachcomber being closed, my options were extremely limited. The staff also struggled a bit with my special requests to keep things plain. I asked multiple times for a cheeseburger with nothing on it but cheese, but English comprehension was low and my French was not passable. I get that French is barely my second language, and I’m in a foreign country, but it was a bit frustrating. Thankfully, I do love a good plate of frites and could live off of freshly baked breads and croissants.
When the day finally came to say goodbye to paradise, it was utter sadness. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to return again, as there are so many other places to visit in this world, but I would definitely rank The Brando as one of my all time favorite properties. As we waited in the departure lounge, sipping champagne and wishing we had another four nights, I was glad I made the journey. To lessen the blow of the departure, I had the concierge arrange for a day tour of Tahiti following our Air Tetiaroa flight back to Papeete. FiFi’s Tours was waiting for us upon arrival to the main island and we enjoyed a visit to some waterfalls and scenic points. Following a view of the sunset, we returned to the InterContinental Tahiti to shower, change, and eat dinner before our late evening flight to Los Angeles. We flew business class on Air Tahiti Nui courtesy of my American Airlines miles. While business class on Air Tahiti Nui is comfortable, I am looking forward to flying on one of their new Dreamliners. If this trip proves anything, it just confirms how truly spoiled I am when I travel. Or perhaps it’s just blessed.
Until next time…
***As a travel agent, I received special considerations on this trip. The flights were arranged as a member of the general public.***