Michael Donaldson grabs his irons and explores a selection of New Zealand's best unspoiled walks

New Zealand is blessed with some magical and unique golf courses – but there are some experiences that fill the senses and defy the adage that golf is a good walk spoiled.

Think of it as the difference between fast food, pub bistros, upmarket restaurants and high-end fine dining – there's a range of golf courses for everyone's taste and budget. Just as with food, what constitutes luxury is up for discussion – is it the food, the service, or the architecture and decor?

For many, golf luxury is defined by the accommodation, clubhouse and service but what about the core element – the meat of the matter, the heart of the experience: the unspoiled walk. Here's nine of the best walks you can take while hitting a ball.

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Kauri Cliffs

Kauri Cliffs was the catalyst for the New Zealand golf tourism boom. Relatively secluded and unprepossessing – not many of New Zealand's best courses are show-offs when it comes to the front gate – you will need GPS to make sure you get the right turn-off. The understated and discreet theme continues with low-key and friendly service.

The golf course at Kauri Cliffs. Photo / Supplied
The golf course at Kauri Cliffs. Photo / Supplied

The show-off element is entirely in the spectacular setting above Matauri Bay. The grandeur is captured in the expansive views, the dramatic elevation changes and wide fairways as welcoming as the staff in the clubhouse. Kauri Cliffs is slightly more playable than its sister course at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke's Bay without being as architecturally intriguing but it smokes Kidnappers for the views – you get them on nearly every hole, and a third of the course is directly over the cliffs.

If you decide to walk, be warned there are some steep climbs. If you choose to stay and play, opulent accommodation caters for couples, families and groups and the food is outstanding.

Tara Iti

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Yes, you can play Tara Iti. Yes, it will cost you a week's wages or more if you stay and play. And yes, it's worth every penny. New Zealand's best golf course is beyond words – it's a feeling that sinks into your bones and stays with you.

Everything is perfect, understated and uber-elegant. To apply to play you submit a website form. It will help to have a letter of support from your club. Tara Iti is private but not snobby – they want people to enjoy this Pacific gem and once there, you're welcomed like a friend and treated like royalty.

To play a round at Tara Iti is expensive, but worth every penny. Photo / Michael Donaldson
To play a round at Tara Iti is expensive, but worth every penny. Photo / Michael Donaldson

Getting there is a bit of magical mystery tour and you literally stumble upon the gate after driving down a sandy lane. Part of the Tara Iti experience is hiring a caddy and you'll need one. Ask advice, and listen, because it's the only way you'll figure out how to negotiate this natural wonder where the eye is constantly deceived and intrigued by Tom Doak's design.

The secret to Tara Iti is playfulness of the design and the silky fescue grass that typifies British and Irish links courses. Fescue doesn't grow happily in New Zealand (it's too warm) and there's been considerable effort to make it work here but it's like a special ingredient that makes all the difference when you're searching for that truly natural golf experience. The clubhouse is modest but perfect for the setting. The accommodation is discreet and divine.

Titirangi

Laced (and bisected) by the suburban streets of New Lynn and Green Bay, Titirangi is a diamond in the rough (with no offence to all the Westies reading this*). It's one of those courses that golf nerds love and it attracts visitors from all around the world. And that's all to do with the fact it was designed by Alister MacKenzie, the legendary golf architect who created Augusta National (home of The Masters) and other gems such as Royal Melbourne, Cypress Point in California and Royal St George's in Kent.

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Titirangi golf course is a diamond in the rough. Photo / Michael Donaldson
Titirangi golf course is a diamond in the rough. Photo / Michael Donaldson

As New Zealand's only MacKenzie-designed course, Titirangi wears an elite crown comfortably. It might not be the longest course, nor the most difficult. The clubhouse and facilities are modest. But the layout – notably the devilishly tricky greens – is eye-candy for the soul.

Wairākei International

The original 1970s New Zealand resort course remains a treat to play – especially since they've redone their greens after they were wrecked by someone applying weed-killer to them by mistake last year.

Set inside a wildlife sanctuary, this Taupō treat is immaculate presentation on a grand scale, with expansive fairways, large greens and tall trees that create a natural amphitheatre on many holes. There's accommodation at the next-door nine-hole course – the perfect warm-up circuit before you take on the demanding 18-hole championship course. The accommodation also features hot pools.

Wairākei might be a veteran of the New Zealand resort scene but the recent upgrade to the greens makes it magical place to play – especially in the cooler months when you can soak in those hot tubs after a long unspoiled walk.

Kinloch

Perched on the hills above the thriving township of Kinloch, on the northern tip of Lake Taupō with amazing views back to the lake and mountains, this is one of the most unique courses in New Zealand.

Designed by Jack Nicklaus, the greatest major championship winner in history, this difficult track is a consummate test of skill and luck thanks to the ever-undulating, crumpled fairways resembling those you'd find on the best links courses of Britain and Ireland.

The 14th Green at Kinloch. Photo / Supplied
The 14th Green at Kinloch. Photo / Supplied

There will be bounces that go against you but they'll be countered by the ones that play in your favour – it's a great test of patience and your faith in the golf gods. As Nicklaus himself said, it's a great test of your "mental game". You can stay at Kinloch Manor, which offers a variety of rooms and suites to suit varying budgets or you have the option of staying Kinloch's "sister" venue Treetops.

Cape Kidnappers

Before Tara iti, Cape Kidnappers was the definition of New Zealand golf course – and easily our most photographed one. The stunning cliff-top location, perched high above the ocean is perfectly picturesque. From your arrival through an unassuming gate and up a winding road, you know you're somewhere special.

The golf course at Cape Kidnappers. Photo / Supplied
The golf course at Cape Kidnappers. Photo / Supplied

As with Kauri Cliffs, the understated but spot-on hospitality makes you feel like a millionaire. The facilities are magnificent, the staff attentive. The only thing that could make it more ideal is when the wind stays away. Because yes, the cliff-top location can deliver some fierce tests – especially when you're walking "The Plank", the long and demanding 15th hole known as the Pirate's Plank that goes right to the edge of the cliffs, followed by one of the best tee spots in the world on the 16th. The beauty of Cape Kidnappers is the land itself – rugged and isolated with a variety of holes that navigate valleys, clifftops and ravines.

Paraparaumu Beach

New Zealand's premier links course describes itself as "golf at its purest". And there's no denying it is New Zealand's most pure and natural links experience. The rolling landscape, the sand base that makes it playable all year round, the best collection of (diabolical) par-3 holes in the country – it all adds up to a unique experience you cannot get anywhere else in the country.

Paraparaumu Beach is New Zealand's premier links course. Photo / Supplied
Paraparaumu Beach is New Zealand's premier links course. Photo / Supplied

The club has worked on embellishing the open links feel by gradually removing trees as part of a restoration project. The effect is to create wide-open vistas that only up the ante for the Irish and Scottish links vibe. If you don't love Paraparaumu Beach you don't love golf.

If you want high-end accommodation – as in Tiger Woods' style high-end – stay at Greenmantle Estate, where Woods himself stayed when he played the New Zealand Open at Paraparaumu Beach in 2002. It's five minutes from the course and the only luxury lodge on the west coast of the lower North Island.

Millbrook

Queenstown's renowned resort has undergone a substantial makeover in recent years and offers 27-holes of golf (each nine holes – Coronet, Arrow and Remarkables – has its own character) that cater for all levels.

Daniel Pearce during 100th New Zealand Open Day 1 at Millbrook Resort, Arrowtown. Photo / Photosport
Daniel Pearce during 100th New Zealand Open Day 1 at Millbrook Resort, Arrowtown. Photo / Photosport

The Coronet Nine is the pick of the nines – a modern layout that feels well and truly rooted in the landscape thanks to the uplifted schist seams and walls that dot the fairways and occasionally frame the green. The signature sixth hole with its choice of fairways with a creek running vertically is a fantastic test of skill and an aesthetic treat.

The accommodation and facilities at Millbrook are second-to-none, with a variety of options for food and entertainment. It's the ideal spot from which to explore New Zealand's golf mecca.

Jacks Point

A golf course that snuggles comfortably into the landscape in which its rooted goes a long way towards creating an idyllic experience. The beauty of Jack's Point is how it fits into the framework created by the Remarkables above and Lake Wakatipu below.

Jack's Point golf course fits into the framework created by the Remarkables above and Lake Wakatipu below. Photo / Supplied
Jack's Point golf course fits into the framework created by the Remarkables above and Lake Wakatipu below. Photo / Supplied

The joy of the course is captured in the views. The mountains offer a constantly dramatic backdrop, interspersed with explosive splashes of blue when the lake reveals itself – most notably when you walk to the tee of the par-3 seventh hole, where the green seems to lie almost vertically below you, perched on the edge of the lake. It's a visual feast.

There are other sweet touches, like the rock wall embracing the 15th hole. The courses physically runs up and down the hills and offers a series of spine-tingling views that make it one of the most majestic locations for golf in the country.

Michael Donaldson is a West Auckland resident, member of Titirangi and the author of Country Courses of New Zealand
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