Whenever I told friends I was headed to New Zealand “for work,” they invariably looked wistful. “New Zealand’s always been on my bucket list,” sighed one friend, making the country sound like an exotic, faraway land that is only visited once in a lifetime. True, maps of New Zealand show it seemingly marooned in the Pacific Ocean, miles from anywhere. But from the United States, it’s three hours closer by plane than Australia. A direct flight from Los Angeles to Auckland is 13 hours long — about the same flying time from New York to Dubai — and when I made that trip in June as part of a fam program sponsored by Tourism New Zealand, the hours whizzed by as I dozed on one of the flat beds in Air New Zealand’s business class.
Our group arrived at Auckland Airport just before dawn. After we breezed through customs and immigration, a van took us through the sleeping city to The Langham, Auckland, our base for the next two days. With 411 rooms and 17 suites, The Langham is the city’s largest hotel, and we would learn that there’s a constant buzz in its lobby.
Thanks to the International Date Line, it was actually two days after we had left California — but it was a brand-new day in New Zealand. After a brief refresh, we boarded a fleet of historic cars — including a 1958 Rolls-Royce that had once driven Queen Elizabeth — to Auckland’s docks, where we transferred to the 105-foot “superyacht” Pacific Mermaid. The luxurious liner, which has been chartered by heads of state, accommodates parties of up to 80. With 20 or so in our group, we had plenty of room to fan out — but most of us took our coffee to the upper deck to soak in the morning sun as we whizzed over Hauraki Gulf toward Waiheke Island. (Waiheke means “cascading waters” in Maori.) An hour later, Ananda Tours was driving us over the hilly island — dotted with picturesque villages and wineries — and soon dropped us at the grounds of Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant in Oneroa. We drank in even more stunning gulf views during an exquisite lunch in Mudbrick’s rustic dining rooms (and featuring our first taste of New Zealand’s most famous dish, lamb, seared and served with harissa).
We downed crab legs and gazpacho shooters in a dramatically lit space where some attendees danced till midnight.
During afternoon visits to Stonyridge Vineyard and Delamore Lodge — an intimate retreat nestled into a hillside — Waiheke continued to enchant. But more Auckland goings-on awaited — so by late afternoon, we joined the throngs for a 30-minute ferry ride back to Auckland.
THE MEETINGS MEETING
An hour or so later, our bleary crew suited up for the opening gala dinner of MEETINGS, a trade show put on by Conventions & Incentives New Zealand (CINZ) that attracts hosted buyers from around the world. Befitting an organization that plans for planners, CINZ hosted the dinner at the iconic, hilltop Auckland War Museum — in the venue’s top-floor Events Centre, with views of Auckland. After a Maori welcome of percussion and rhythmic songs, we glided past the museum’s exhibits to dinner. I encountered the first of many unfamiliar New Zealand fish: guernard, a white fish that my Kiwi tablemates described as “a cross between salmon and flounder.” They weren’t far off the mark.
The next day, it was time to get down to business for MEETINGS 2015 at the ASB Showgrounds. While my fam-trip buddies — mostly incentive planners — met with tour operators and destination reps, I interviewed a few exhibitors and learned about two new convention centers that will soon open, one in Auckland and the other in Christchurch, which has been rebuilding vigorously after the 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people and did some $40 billion in damage. And Wellington also has a new convention center on deck.
At yet another evening gala — this time at Shed 10, a refurbished cargo warehouse on an Auckland wharf — we downed crab legs and gazpacho shooters in a dramatically lit space where some attendees danced till midnight.
ADVENTURES ON THE SOUTH ISLAND
With the “business” portion of the trip behind us, we did what many Kiwis do weekly: board a plane. Flying can be the fastest (and cheapest) way to get around this many-islanded nation, especially if you’re headed from the top of the North Island (Auckland) to the bottom of the South Island, as we were.
Ringed by mountain ranges, Queenstown is New Zealand’s skiing and adventure-sports capital — but it’s such a tricky place to land a plane that pilots are specially trained for the job. After we were back on the ground, we visited the Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa, an elegantly cozy compound of apartments and suites, and one of the most unique properties in the hotel chain’s portfolio, with both indoor and outdoor meeting spaces. After cocktails and tea around the Hilton’s firepit, we made our way to the Sofitel Queenstown Hotel and Spa, smack in the center of “downtown” Queenstown.
If any of us had doubts about more than half of our visit taking place in tiny Queenstown, they were wiped away by the next two action- and food-packed days. This gold-rush-era city may be tiny, but it’s also dense with charm, from the gracefully refurbished spaces inside turn-of-the-century Eichardt’s Private Hotel to the firelit Botswana Butchery, where we feasted on Bluff oysters and every conceivable type of meat.
The town was abuzz with skiers arriving for the start of the season, but skiing wasn’t part of our plan. Instead, we rode gondolas to the top of the Skyline complex — a mountaintop restaurant and event venue — and then took luges part of the way back down. Some of us leapt over the turquoise waters of Kawarau Gorge at AJ Hackett Bungy, the first commercial bungee-jumping center in the world, before barrel-tasting wines (after lunch, of course) at Gibbston Valley Wines. Day four’s wakeup sequence consisted of a hair-raising Kjet boat ride on Lake Wakatipu, and we splashed through rivers aboard Land Rovers with Nomad Safaris before panning for gold.
And if we hadn’t been clobbered by Kiwi hospitality by the last day of the fam, we were given another generous dose during a private concert and wine/food tasting inside a Queenstown villa, courtesy of Touch of Spice, a company that curates “experiences.” “I feel like I’ve been here for a month,” one incentive professional sighed during our last, luxurious night (and meal) at the five-star Millbrook Resort Hotel in Arrowtown. “And I don’t want to leave.”
We had been seduced into a Kiwi time warp of vistas, feasts, wine, and friendliness. In Maori, there is a parting phrase, kia pai te haere, which means “bon voyage,” but also implies “When are you coming back?” Soon, I hope.