We turned to Jean-Michel Jefferson to plan our February 2016 trip to New Zealand. We wanted to focus on scenery, nature, hiking, culture, and, of course, food and wine, and were guided by his recommendations on areas to visit, accommodations, activities and experiences. Jean-Michel’s knowledge of New Zealand really showed in every aspect of the trip, as the places we went each provided wonderful experiences tailored directly to our interests, as well as our fitness levels. (Since New Zealand is known for some very difficult terrain and extreme sports, making sure we could handle the treks was very important.) It was also clear that he had nurtured personal relationships with the owners of the lodges and the guides he hand-picked for us – all of whom shared their own experiences and thoughts about New Zealand and treated us so graciously. It was a fabulous trip.
Located near the bottom of the Southern hemisphere, with Australia as its nearest neighbor to the west and South America – over 7600 miles away – its closest to the east, New Zealand really feels a world away. Indeed, as compared to New York (where we live), everything seemed backwards or upside down: today is yesterday, morning is night, winter is summer, south means colder, the driver’s side is the passenger’s side, the North Star gives way to the Southern Cross and even the English spoken is sometimes unrecognizable. But most striking, New Zealand has managed to preserve a way of life that seems largely lost in the rest of the modern world. The pace of life is slower, population (outside of Auckland) is sparse (with sheep outnumbering people), the environment is keenly appreciated and preserved, water in the lakes and rivers is crystal clear and pure, food is locally grown, doors are left unlocked, crime is hardly a concern and the risk of terrorism is so low that you can actually board a plane without going through security. At times, particularly down in the South, you may have no choice but to disconnect and focus totally on the moment – as cell and internet connections may be spotty or non-existent. As I said, it is a very special place.
New Zealand is a spectacularly beautiful country. In the north, we drove for miles through rolling emerald green pastures, which then suddenly transformed into deep brown canyons carved by a gently flowing river meandering through its depths. Not too far away, the landscape morphed into a geothermal environment in which we walked through expanses of boiling springs, mud pots and orange silica plateaus, then witnessed steam flowing from the earth in massive enough quantities to power electricity. From our balcony, we watched as the sun glistened through a mist of low hanging clouds hovering just above beautiful Lake Taupo before it rose out to start the day. The South Island was even more breathtaking. Near Abel Tasman National Park, we cruised through the shimmering turquoise Tasman Sea, bordered by the deep green forests of the surrounding islands and coastline. We hiked up Mount Arthur, passing groves of trees that looked as if they were drawn by Dr. Seuss, to emerge up onto a ridge where we were treated to expansive views of all the neighboring peaks. An amazing place for our picnic lunch. As we traveled farther south, we stopped to take in the magnificent lakes which reflected vivid shades of blues, before arriving at the Southern Alps. There, we helicoptered through the peaks and glaciers, landed in an alpine valley and hiked through lush forest to find a beautiful vista and gently flowing river on the other side. In Otago, we drove through a river valley bounded by starkly beautiful brown hills, once loaded with gold, but now mostly uninhabited. Down toward Akaroa, the road wound around cliffs that dropped dramatically to our isolated coastal hideaway which was ringed by miles of rugged pastureland. And, finally, there was Fiordland, where it had been raining for days, resulting in the most stunning display of waterfalls from every crevice in and around Milford Sound. It is hard to say which was the most beautiful.
Every day was filled with a different experience: sightseeing, hiking, heli-touring, wine tasting, staying on a sheep ranch, and more. All were great, but one of the most fascinating was the day we spent with some very special members of the Maori tribe who introduced us to their culture. We drove out of Taupo to the Maori tribal lands, and as we reached the entrance, we were stopped by two warriors who vetted us in the same way Maoris assessed unknown visitors for centuries – a ceremony known as Powhiri. These warriors confronted my husband to determine whether his intentions were peaceful through a series of dances, chants and intimidating challenges (which thanks to the tutelage of our amazing guide, host and chef Tom Loughlin of Kai Waho) he was able to meet. As the beautiful singing of the Maori tribeswoman who witnessed the event signaled her decision that we could be trusted — a decision that can only be made by women — we were permitted to approach the homestead. The welcoming ceremony then continued as the warriors and my husband each identified themselves and their ancestors, told a story, sang a song and ended with the traditional Maori forehead to forehead and nose to nose greeting. For the next several hours, we ate a delicious “hangi” (a traditional Maori feast) for which the foods – which were similar to our traditional Thanksgiving foods– are cooked together in a large pot for hours underground. The meal took place outside on a veranda overlooking the magnificent wilderness vista, where we spoke with our Maori hosts for hours, learning about their traditions, customs, spirituality, and their roles and relationships with the non-Maori community. One of them, Delani Brown, was also a reknown master woodcarver, who explained the significance of wood carving to the Maori community. When the visited ended, the Maoris marked our departure with a beautiful serenade. An extraordinary day.
Another unique experience was the opportunity to get up close and personal with the lively dusky dolphins and fur seals that live in Kaikoura. It was amazing to watch hundreds of small dusky dolphins leaping and jumping as they raced through the sea. It was even more fun to jump in and join them in the water as they whisked all around me. The dolphins share their water with the fur seals, and they, too, welcomed me in for a swim. One came right up to me, stared straight into my eyes, held them there for a moment seemingly acknowledging a connection, and then swam away. And then there were the whales, who treated us to quite a show as they surfaced, then dove away with a wave of their majestic flukes. Dunedin, too, offered unique opportunities to observe rare wildlife: the mighty albatross that soar from the breeding colony there to circumvent the world, but then somehow manage to find their way back to nest; the blue penguins that sit sheltered in tiny hollows wthout moving for weeks as they shed their coats and when they are done return to their habitat which, when they are not in the water, they share with sheep; and the family of seals that lived and played right next to our lodge.
The lodges Jean-Michel recommended were a special experience all on their own. Most were small, generally having three to five rooms. All were in magnificent settings. The lodges, for the most part, were run by their owners who could not have been more welcoming and accommodating. And every one featured a fantastic chef (often one of the owners). Though all of the places we stayed were great, one, Split Apple Retreat, was in a class all its own. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Tasman Sea, this wellness retreat, built in a Japanese style to showcase a lifelong collection of East Asian art, was just exquisite. Remarkably, from the moment we entered, a sense of peace immediately enveloped us. The retreat is owned by Lee Nelson, a former American physician (and world class poker player), and his wife Pen, a fabulous Thai chef. Sitting out on the veranda, watching the sunset over the stunning view, enjoying wines selected by Lee paired with the imaginative, delicious – and healthy – dinners artistically presented by Pen, was truly a delight. I was ready to move-in.
So much of what we saw and did, and how seamlessly we were able to do it, was attributable to the experienced, knowledgeable and personable guides Jean-Michel arranged for us. Coming from different walks of life and various localities, each shared their own stories of life in New Zealand and their own connections to the places they showed us. Each also made sure that along the way we got to taste the New Zealand delicacies unique to the region. It was very hard to leave.
Jean-Michel and Monique at Ahipara did a fabulous job putting together our trip to New Zealand. It was our family’s first ever trip to the country and it was an amazing experience. They made choices for destinations, activities, and travel that fit extremely well with our personal preferences. If and when we go back we plan to give them a call.
We are fully back to reality and our daily lives, but our trip to New Zealand was truly an incredible and memorable experience. We couldn’t have asked for more… except another week or two or three!
I’m a big proponent of honest feedback in order to help improve businesses and services. It is rare that I don’t have something to provide in the way of constructive criticism. In this case, I honestly can’t think of anything that I could complain about or even suggest for improvement. All aspects of our experience with Ahipara were top-notch and all the providers of lodging, guides, and activities that Ahipara partners with were outstanding. I usually can point to pricing or cost as some sort of issue, but I truly felt all prices and costs were reasonable and now after our vacation I feel we truly got our money’s worth and more!
When we were first considering a vacation to New Zealand and being practically on the other side of the globe, I knew we’d need local help. However, we’ve never been the type of people that go with average and never go with generic or crowded “tourist” tours. Finding Ahipara was a stroke of luck and research and gut feeling.
The entire cycle of vacation and trip planning to execution and logistics to providing unique experiences with professional and personal touches was fantastic and high caliber.
I know Ahipara is a team effort and I want to thank Jean-Michel for the initial vacation ideas and overall owning and operating a great firm. Much more though I want to thank Zuzana for all her help and hand-holding, outstanding planning and service, and great personal touches, sense of humor, and attention to detail.
All the activities we jointly planned were awesome, and we loved (yes.. Loved!) The Dairy and Paul and Matt, and Silverpine (Mike and Sue were great, but Roy the dog stole the show!). We didn’t miss a beat in the planning of the trip and a close to last minute adjustments of the itinerary turned out even better than original plans (the Middle Earth helo-hike with Mark and Alpine helo was unbelievable!). Once we landed and began our vacation, it was really nice to be checked in on and when weather impacted you were well ahead of things and coordinated adjustments without missing a beat. Ahipara’s “partnership” and skills and welcoming personality really made our vacation unforgettable and the experiences and memories we now have are priceless.
We hope to someday return to New Zealand and hope to stay for a bit longer! I have no qualms in recommending Ahipara highly and enthusiastically.