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The call of the Kiwi coast

A laid-back niche of New Zealand is a newly chic retreat that has something for everyone -- biking among vineyards, fishing for trout, horseback riding on the beach, even the occasional nose rub.

November 06, 2005|Amanda Jones | Special to The Times

Napier, New Zealand — HAWKE'S BAY, once the domain of gentleman farmers, has bloomed into a haven for oenophiles, fishermen and nature lovers. On the southeastern end of New Zealand's North Island, the arc of coast and inland plains encompasses swaths of empty beach; gentle, rolling landscape; abundant orchards; and superb trout fishing in broad, meandering rivers.

The region also boasts one killer aquarium.

I am standing in it now, in an acrylic tunnel staring at the underbelly of several 8-foot sharks. Blair, their keeper, has just explained that the large ones are of the seven-gill variety, a shark that has a reputation for occasionally eating humans. "But these ones," he tells our group, "are pretty tame -- so long as we keep 'em well fed."

Then, out of the blue, Blair turns to me, an innocent bystander, a mother, and says, "So, how about it? Ya gunna come in and feed the sharks?"

A highlight at this aquarium, I learn, is that a few lucky visitors with dive certification can pay to scuba dive in the tanks at feeding time. I am one of those lucky ones.

"No, thank you," I say. These sharks may be tame, but I have no burning desire to descend into a smallish tank and wave hunks of bleeding fish about. Then I see the look of awe on my young daughters' faces. They stare at me as though I, their everyday, Uggs-wearing mother, has just turned into a Charlie's Angel.

It's pathetic what lengths we parents will go to to impress our children.

I wrestle my body into a clammy wetsuit and go in with the potentially man-eating sharks. It's worth it just to watch my youngest, 5-year-old Sofia, waylaying strangers to tell them that the creature in the pink wetsuit is her mommy.

And, actually, the experience was a lot of fun.

The sharks are residents of the impressive National Aquarium of New Zealand in Napier, the largest town in the Hawke's Bay region. To get there, it is either a one-hour flight or a five-hour drive from Auckland. Lake Taupo, better known among foreign visitors, is only 80 miles inland.

A natty destination

NOT only does Hawke's Bay claim one of the finest aquariums in the Southern Hemisphere, but it also has burgeoned into one of the country's chicer holiday destinations, particularly among well-heeled New Zealanders.

Few American tourists have discovered the area, despite the fact that several Americans have invested in wineries here and New York financier Julian Robertson has built a golf course overlooking the sea at Cape Kidnappers, 30 minutes south of Napier. Robertson is owner of Kauri Cliffs, a 4,750-acre North Island "super lodge" for the super rich. The Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers golf courses are consistently ranked among the top courses in the world.

Hawke's Bay is also where my mother, a New Zealander, went to boarding school, and for her the place holds fond memories of first loves, croquet parties and gimlets.

My mother was the reason we were in Hawke's Bay in March. An extravagant cook and a connoisseur of wine and food, she loves life's finer things. I, on the other hand, spend my life either toiling over mac 'n' cheese or, as a travel writer, eating roast goat with remote African tribes. I had to come up with an appropriate way to celebrate her 70th birthday, and knowing I could not possibly provide the kind of experience she might appreciate, I did something I am good at: I organized a weeklong trip to Hawke's Bay.

My research turned up an enterprise there called the Black Barn. It was started by Kim Thorp, an advertising executive turned urban dropout, and Andy Coltart, his farmer-cum-designer business partner. The duo started in 1993 with a boutique winery called the Black Barn Vineyard.

Their wines quickly garnered awards, and so, needing a new challenge, they built a first-rate amphitheater for opera and symphony, right in the heart of their vineyard. Then they added an art gallery, a farmers market and a top-notch restaurant, Black Barn Bistro, which serves local produce such as sea scallops with verjus citrus butter and spring lamb with rosemary vinaigrette.

At the same time, Thorp and Coltart recognized that the region did not have enough stylish accommodations, so they developed 10 "retreats" -- chic private houses rented out for exclusive use -- around Hawke's Bay.

A "retreat" well suited our extended family -- my parents; my husband, Greg; and our two daughters, Sofia and 7-year-old Indigo. A rented house meant we could cook all the macaroni and cheese we liked and not have our children turn up their noses at a $20 plate of pasta. It also meant we could hire a baby-sitter so we could go out and enjoy the $20 plate of pasta ourselves. (If you don't want to spend your vacation cooking or cleaning, the Black Barn can arrange for staff to do that.)

'Not a soul in sight'

WHEN planning the trip, I'd asked my mother which part of Hawke's Bay she'd like to stay at first.

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