Stephanie Holmes lives a life of luxury in the Coromandel ... if only for a weekend.
As the crow flies, Whitianga is only 40 minutes from Auckland. But to drive there on a Friday after work could take you three times as long just to get over the Bombay hills. You'll likely arrive at your destination late, frazzled, and hungry; you and your partner might be snippy with each other and the perfect start to your romantic weekend away isn't so perfect after all.
If you were Beyonce, however, it might go more like this...
Turn up at North Shore Airfield. Jump in your private plane. Heading out over the Hauraki Gulf as the sun sinks low in the sky, casting a soft golden light over the islands that seem to float like bath toys in the glassy ocean below. Less than 40 minutes later, touch down at Whitianga airfield where the manager of your luxury lodge is waiting to pick you up.
I'm not Beyonce, but on this beautiful early spring weekend, I am getting to live a little bit like her. And I really think I could get used to it.
FlyStark, a private airline based in Whitianga, is helping us avoid the after-work Auckland exodus. We arrive at the airfield just before 5pm and are met by Mark and Dave, our pilots who have just hopped over the Coromandel Range in their new eight-seater AirVan plane to pick us up.
Our flight couldn't be more perfect. We cruise up to 3000ft and fly gently across the Hauraki Gulf — getting a birds' eye view of Rangitoto, Waiheke, and Great Barrier in the distance.
I'm astounded how quickly we reach our destination and with a super smooth landing, it's not long before we're walking through the front door of 970 Lonely Bay.
This secluded boutique lodge is like stepping into the home of a character from a Nancy Meyers movie. I can imagine Diane Keaton wandering the spacious hallway in a white roll neck sweater and linen pants, while Jack Nicholson sips brandy by the fire.
Beautifully furnished and comfortably appointed, there's enough space that you could find solitude, even if the lodge was full with strangers. Lucky for us, we're the only guests for the first night of our stay, so it's easy to pretend this is our home for the weekend.
The Estuary Suite — two-bedrooms, huge private veranda complete with outdoor gas fireplace and loungers, a bathroom with claw-foot tub, and views out to sea — is fit for a king... or a Hollywood A-lister at the very least; apparently Michael Fassbender stayed in this room with Alicia Vikander after their stint in the South Island filming upcoming release The Light Between Oceans.
We have time for a glass of wine and some stargazing on the veranda before taking our seats at the large wooden dining table, a candelabra and vibrant pink orchid setting the scene for a romantic, and delicious, meal ahead.
The Coromandel area is renowned for its seafood, and lodge chef Jo Mannington of Hahei Catering has prepared a feast for us — a delicate tuna tartare entree with local lime; avocado and smoked kahawai fritters with local chilli; a fennel risotto with cockles, mussels and panfried snapper; and an orange, parsley and fennel salad. It's all fresh, filling and incredible, and we quickly unwind from the stresses of everyday life.
After serving up dessert — what Jo modestly calls bread and butter pudding, but is actually a heavenly combination of sliced pears and croissant, tamarillo jam and Chantilly cream — we're left alone for the rest of the night and we retire to the couch in front of the log fire, sipping port and wondering just how we can find a way to stay here forever.
We sleep soundly in the crisp linen of our king-sized bed, waking to the sound of tuis and the light hum of honeybees in the Dutch tulip tree in the garden below.
After breakfast, Kym, 970 Lonely Bay's manager, drives us to nearby Hahei beach, a vast stretch of powdery white sand and crystal clear water. The sun is shining on this early spring morning and I feel a fizz of anticipation for summer, now not too far away.
We're heading out with Hahei Explorer for an hour-long whizz over the water, exploring the bays, caves and sheer cliff faces that make up this stunning coastline.
Our skipper Shane expertly navigates the inflatable boat around the rocks formed millions of years ago by volcanic activity, sharing geological insights along the way. He finds a spot where three fur seals are basking in the sun, then takes us to Cathedral Cove where we get a picture-postcard view of this now world famous panorama.
We're out for just an hour, but it's enough to blow away the cobwebs of last night's wine and we arrive back on the beach refreshed and exhilarated. We take a moment to dip our toes in the chilly water and vow to return in the height of summer.
The luxury and comfort of the lodge mean we're reluctant to step outside its gates for too long. But dinner is at local Cook's Beach restaurant Go Vino, and on reflection we're glad we made the effort.
Go Vino is a "kaizen" restaurant — a term owner Ryan Laird uses to describe the restaurant's alternative take on tapas. The Japanese word kaizen means "change for the better"; Go Vino's menu changes seasonally and head chef Gabriel Moraes Souza and the team work to continually develop and improve their food, applying the Kaizen principle to everything they do.
The dishes we sample are creative, full of flavour and surprising — including gurnard with a walnut farce, orange sauce and zucchini ribbons; pork hock with mustard ice cream, tomato salsa and crispy pigs ears; and the "duck pond" — duck breast with potato mash, crispy shallots, wild mushrooms and honey jus.
We have no room for dessert but Ryan convinces us to have a "chocolate cake" — a shot of grand marnier, lime and pepper that magically combines to give a rich, chocolatey after-taste and perfectly rounds out what has been a memorable evening.
The problem with only masquerading as an A-lister is that eventually, all good things must come to an end. All too soon we're saying goodbye to the suite we shared with Michael Fassbender, and we're back at Whitianga Airfield for the short flight home.
Mark is there waiting, this time in a four-seater Cessna. I take the passenger seat up front, watching wistfully from the window as the Coromandel Ranges fade into the distance and the North Shore greets us up ahead.
I think of the people who'll be stuck in traffic on the Southern Motorway later that evening, getting home tired and already stressed about the upcoming week at work.
We're home by lunchtime — and I listen to some Beyonce as I unpack.
IF YOU GO
970 Lonely Bay is at 970 Purangi Rd, Whitianga.