Fiona Fraser and her husband, Fat Freddy's Drop saxophonist Scott Towers, newly minted Hawke's Bay residents sample the offerings at Cape Kidnappers.
"A difficult opening hole is a prelude of things to come." So warns the course booklet at Cape Kidnappers. Designed by renowned American course architect Tom Doak, Cape Kidnappers sits comfortably in the Top 50 golf courses in the world and — despite the aforementioned warning — is a 'must-do' for anyone who likes to whack a golf ball, based on its setting alone.
Despite being perched 500 metres above sea level, the course is mostly links-styled as it loops first through rolling manuka-clad hillside and then out on to the bluffs of the Cape.
On the day we play, it's hard to focus on the golf to begin with. An early start, coupled with the meandering drive up a gorgeous valley to the course itself, has us in awe as we pull up to the clubhouse. The silence is only occasionally broken by my compadre musing, "Oh look, another pheasant. We could eat that, you know."
The clubhouse sits well in the rural surrounds; it looks like a small woolshed from the outside — albeit a nicely painted one. While we sign in, our buggies are stocked with water and tees, and our clubs strapped on for the ride. The service is just attentive enough — no one wants a golf pro looking over their shoulder when they're dusting off the cobwebs on the practice green.
"It's a bit ... errrr ... fresh today. Take plenty of ammo with you," offers The Pro. He must have seen our warm-up shots, after all.
This is a difficult course that offers a serious test on every hole. Today, it's made even more daunting by a howling northerly. The first two holes don't go well; balls are lost, voices raised, heads bowed. The third is a 194m par 3, into the wind and uphill. We laugh maniacally as we step on to the tee box. But then something magical happens — one of our number manages to plant their tee shot right next to the hole, and then — like some fast-moving virus — we're all infected with 'good golf'. Our scores are actually looking pretty respectable after the first nine holes.
It's the shoulder season so the course is very quiet — we barely see another person all day. It adds to the magic of the place. During the year, staff limit the number of players on any given day. This ensures you are constantly playing — rather than waiting — and you can complete the course in good time. That said, there are moments the location stops you in your tracks.
Hole 15, the Pirates Plank, is one example. This long par 5 juts out over the coast for 600 velvety-green metres, with a wooded gully on the other side. If you hit your ball in either direction, just consider it an extra surcharge for playing such a great stretch of land — don't even think about retrieving it. From the green you can see north to the tip of Mahia Peninsula and, in the opposite direction, the tip of Ruapehu. Then another turn to the left and you can see The Farm. I'm sure I can make out my wife sipping wine — three more holes to go and I'll be there too.
""Diabetes. Dogs. Ceramics. Syrah. These are just some of the topics I've covered so far with my massage therapist Sarah, who's applying some fantastic firm-but-no-squirm pressure to my tired shoulders. I'm in a chatty mood and feeling buoyant, having deposited my son at a mate's house so my man and I can enjoy a day out with friends. Where normally I'd choose silence and whale music, conversation is definitely on the cards today.
First, I've been invited to change into a spa-standard waffle robe for my morning treatment. But the difference between Cape Kidnappers and the other spas I've been in is this — my own bathroom. There's a place for me to hang my jacket, Casa Lavender products with which to freshen up, even an array of deodorising items.
My friend Robyn next door is in the capable hands of Callum who is hot-stoning her.
Meanwhile, I'm being polished using an emollient and beautifully fragrant scrub, before being returned to my bathroom for a 40C steam shower and then shuffling back to continue my massage, this time with lavender oil and an eye mask.
The spa at Cape Kidnappers, Sarah tells me as she pads barefoot around the treatment room, is the pinnacle for beauty therapists — the sublime views out over Hawke's Bay all the way to Napier, the art collection, and the international and celebrity clientele.
"I felt like Nicole Kidman when I arrived," I say.
"Nicole was last week ..." she responds.
But for all its hype (well-deserved in my opinion), the spa is not stuffy. It's breezy, sunlit, loquacious — there's not a hushed tone nor a dimly lit corridor in sight. Sarah commutes the hour each day from Waipukurau to work at Kidnappers, and like everyone on staff, she's keen to see more Kiwis embrace the beauty of this location and treat themselves.
There are excellent locals' rates for most treatments during low and shoulder season, which is a good reason to move to Hawke's Bay.
Another is the up-close-and-personal gander you can take at Kidnappers' prestigious art collection — Mondrians, Frizzells, and their piece de resistance, an original Picasso vase.
Muscles deliciously tender after a thorough rubbing, I leave the spa, join Robyn at the wonderful Cape Kidnappers restaurant, and we settle down with glasses of local chardonnay under one of McCahon's finest to await the return of our very own McIlroy and Mickelson.