By Lesley Deverall
After an easy hour's flight from Auckland, the meandering drive from Napier Airport to Cape Kidnappers gives plenty of time to reflect on the delights ahead and what I'm most looking forward to. Is it the fine Hawke's Bay cuisine, the locally produced wines, the comfort of one of New Zealand's most exclusive lodges or the golf course? I have to confess it's the golf, especially as I am there at the invitation of Mercedes Benz to observe the 30th anniversary of their annual golf competition.
The front gate across the drive is the first indication of the luxurious nature of Cape Kidnappers Lodge. My driver buzzes reception and the electronic gates slowly swing open, allowing us to enter the 2428ha grounds. We wind our way climbing, steadily through tussock and bush before coming to a second electronic gate. This one allows us access through a 10.6km-long predator-proof fence that was built more than10 years ago, allowing native wildlife to flourish. Kiwi and tuatara now inhabit the hills and hollows of this sanctuary and their numbers are growing.
Roughly 15 minutes after entering the first gate, we round a bend at the top of a ridge to arrive at our destination. The greeting could not be warmer or more attentive. The door is opened and my bags whisked away, the overnighter to my lodgings and golf bag to the club. I'm then offered a drink and nibbles before being shown around the lodge's farm-house-style reception and dining areas. There's a cosy snug for intimate dining or pre-dinner drinks and a splendid dining room with stunning 180 degree views over the cliffs to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. The high, pale blue sky and calm, smoky grey of the sea merge far on the horizon, creating a wonderful feeling of space and distance.
My accommodation is a short stroll down a concrete path meandering through flax and native shrubbery, past a bubbling hot spa and infinity pool taking advantage of that stunning vista over the cliffs and ocean. Inside my lodge everything is again perfectly positioned to make the most of that view, including the gigantic bed and enormous bath set under a window that, while affording the view, has complete privacy from outside.
After freshening up I am whisked [in a Mercedes of course] the short distance to Cape Kidnappers Golf Course to watch the "hole in one" competition. The prize for anyone skilful enough to ace the hole is a gleaming new Mercedes-Benz A 250 4MATIC. The hole is a tricky par three requiring a drive over a tussock-coated dip and several bunkers on to a sloping green. Though several players come close, the car remains unclaimed.
There's nothing discreet about Cape Kidnappers' golf course. Its verdant fairways are a bright green splash on the tops of dry ridges that flare back from cliffs towering over the coast. The greenkeeping team work tirelessly, battling the dry Hawke's Bay summers, to ensure the fairways have a thick, velvety surface. A number of fairways follow the cliff edge and the views are quite distracting.
This is the first time the luxury car company has held its annual tournament at Cape Kidnappers. The 16 players, all Mercedes owners, qualified by winning regional competitions and there is a lot at stake this weekend. The prize for winners of A, B and C Divisions is a flight to Stuttgart in Germany in October to compete at the Mercedes Trophy World tournament against luxury car owners from 60 countries.
I spot the players struggling home up the 18th. There are plenty of glum faces and tales of lost balls - the course lives up to its tough reputation. I also have an opportunity to speak with Mercedes Benz MC for the event, Phil Tataurangi, a charming, unpretentious host who must get plenty of would-be golfers tapping him on the shoulder but is happy to spend time with me chatting amiably.
It's then back to the lodge for a soak in the bath before dressing for dinner. The food is divine, the wine matching impeccable and before long there's a crescendo of laughter and chatter round the table. Friendships are cemented over Coromandel oysters, Hauraki Gulf snapper and the finest of new Hawke's Bay lamb, all matched with award-winning local wines.
Breakfast the next morning is just as sumptuous, though I barely need to eat after the evening banquet. I watch as the players tee off for the final round before stepping on to the first tee myself to take on the course. Our foursome have a lot of laughs on the way round and we all find the course living up to its ball-eating reputation.
We arrive back at the clubhouse in time to see the winners receive their tickets to Germany and a fourth magnificent prized handed out, one that makes me extremely jealous. The winner is handed VIP tickets to the Open at the historic Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland and a round of golf at the course the following day. Entitled "Drive to the Major", the prize goes to the golfer with the straightest drive on the horrific 15th hole, known as the Pirate's Plank. The fairway runs along a cliff edge and requires accuracy to keep the ball in play. The winner is Glenda Petre from Manawatu Golf Club. Her drive landed an impressive 1.02m from the centre line. Go Glenda!
On the flight home I reflect on the question I asked myself at the beginning of the weekend – would my highlight be the golf, the surroundings or the food? The answer is none of these. It's the people I met, Tataurangi, the Mercedes Benz team and the Cape Kidnappers staff who looked after me and made me feel so welcome - along with the golfers I met. As one of the contestants remarked, the success of the weekend was not scored by the points on his card, but by the number of laughs shared.