Jesse Mulligan finds foodie heaven just a 45-minute flight away from Auckland
The first thing you must do is book your chef. Before you start sniffing for accommodation, before, even, you commit to flights, you need to look up Paolo Pancotti, perhaps the finest Italian chef I've ever come across – who doesn't work in a Three-Michelin-star restaurant (anymore) but lives in Hawke's Bay, where he cooks a small number of private dinners annually for anybody quick and smart enough to book him in.
How much does food matter to him? Well, he travels with his own salt and pepper mills because he doesn't trust the peppercorns of strangers. We nibbled on a first course of charcuterie (multiple meats and cuts, all butchered, cured and aged by him) while legendary winemaker Kate Radburnd poured a tasting of the debut Chardonnay vintage produced under her own brand. It went particularly well with chef's take on vitello tonnato, with kingfish in place of the veal.
The wine of Hawke's Bay has always been brilliant but lately a couple of "next level" brands have emerged, joining iconic bottles such as Coleraine and Le Sol at the premium end of the market. Radburnd Cellars is one of them, and if you drink chardonnay, you should seek out this one: a rare clone of the varietal, hand-picked and sorted then coaxed into liquid perfection by one of the most accomplished winemakers of her generation. You won't taste it on an in-house visit, probably, but cellar-door appointments are available by request (she also does a magnificent syrah, which we drank with a bowl of ricotta gnudi in an intense tomato sauce).
Smith and Sheth is another brand causing a stir at the top end of the market. Their "cellar door" is in Havelock North town centre and if you think you might miss out on some atmosphere by not actually being there on the vineyard, well, you need to experience this – New Zealand's only wine tasting I'm aware of where you need to book a ticket (the visual content alone took almost two years to create).
If you're doing proper Hawke's Bay luxury, you'll probably be staying on or near a vineyard. Many of the popular spots are on the Hastings side of the district but we were beautifully accommodated at Kiwiesque, on the Napier-Taupo road, where highlights include stunning rural views, home-baking and a fridge full of vintage wines produced on the property, many more than 10 years old. The hosts offer genuine warmth and local expertise, and one of the buildings has a swimming pool – a rare and welcome bonus in any region hot enough in summer to ripen cabernet sauvignon berries.
If wineries and restaurants aren't enough to keep you occupied during the day time, consider a day-spa and/or round of golf at Cape Kidnappers Lodge, one of the famous Robertson properties, offering executive-level hospitality to well-heeled visitors. The Robertsons take their role as kaitiaki seriously, and have invested in a predator-proof fence and extensive trapping around their property so that native parrots like kaka and kakariki are a regular sight. There are all sorts of offroad adventures available to guests but if you're not staying onsite look up Outfoxed NZ, who offer various hair-raising activities on a nearby coastal farm.
Mangapapa Hotel, the former Wattie's homestead, offers boutique accommodation with plenty of history and though the spa is only open to guests, you can get a taste of the Mangapapa experience by booking in for high tea, a favourite with locals and anybody else brainstorming ways to enjoy more Hawke's Bay food and drink outside of the standard three-meal-a-day system.
But eventually it'll be dinner time again and the region has some international-class restaurants worthy of your time. Craggy Range's Terroir is my favourite and is overseen by Casey MacDonald, the former executive chef of Melbourne faves such as Cumulus and Supernatural, but now enjoying the more relaxed lifestyle of Hawke's Bay (well, he says that, but I've yet to see him doing anything but hard work). Black Barn is a solid bistro just around the corner while Napier offers perennial award winner Pacifica and, a more casual but nonetheless excellent option, James Beck's Bistronomy.
At some point you will return home, hopefully with room for more wine and a square or two of chocolate. Hawke's Bay has a couple of high-end chocolatiers including Silky Oak and Ola Pacifica, whose orange- and coffee- flavoured variants are worth seeking out while you're in the area.
It truly is a luxury to think that all of this is just a 45-minute flight from Auckland – that, door-to-door, you could be sitting next to an open fire, overlooking a vineyard with a glass of red wine in your hand in the time it would take you to drive to the Coromandel. Nonetheless this part of the country can still feel like a secret – off the beaten track, ignored by international flights even before the current lockdown. You will find your own reasons to love Hawke's Bay but until then you're welcome to any of mine.
CHECKLIST: HAWKE'S BAY