Kauri Cliffs a “zone” of its own

World-class golfers and those who write about them sometimes offer cosmic descriptions of playing “in the zone,” that transcendent state where focus seems automatic, technique and strategy blissfully intuitive.  Less well known, but just as magical and elusive, is the zone occasionally enjoyed by golf-destination writers and those who share their fascination for the game’s variety and relationship with the landscape.  In this zone, the quality of your shots is beside the point.  You are – existentially and often literally – a world away, playing in a mesmerizingly unaccustomed atmosphere   And nowhere that this reporter has visited is more likely to induce such a trance than Kauri Cliffs, near the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island.

The most striking visual key to the sensation is the Bay of Islands, a sprawling collection of craggy landforms jutting out of the Pacific, which forms the backdrop for all but three of the course’s 18 holes.  Officially designated a subtropical maritime climate, the terrain has few trees, though some have intriguing, wind-blown shapes.  The vegetation is colorful and exotic, the closest familiar analogy probably being Hawaii, which is, however, closer to the equator and therefore warmer.

Of course, the cynic will point out that Kauri Cliffs feels a world away because it is.  True, it’s a haul – about 14 hours from the West Coast and a one-hour helicopter ride or a four-hour drive from Auckland – but still justifies the commute.  The 5,000-acre property, developed by retired American financier Julian Robertson, has the modestly proportioned Relais & Chateau lodge as its only vestige of civilization.  The 22 cottage accommodations – and even Robertson’s three-bedroom house, with swimming pool, which you can rent when he is not there – are first-rate, as is the restaurant, but the indoor attractions can only be secondary.

There are three private beaches, including one with pink sand, which you will likely have to yourself, not to mention the 90-mile beach and shoreline north of the resort, which you can tour by helicopter.  There is surfcasting, scuba diving, and all manner of watersports, along with boat trips to Bay of Islands, designated a national park.  There are hiking trails with stunning vistas, including two precipitous waterfalls, as well as guided tours for bird-watching and hunting.

You can also very easily spend the entire day playing golf.  During summer months – our winter – this could even mean 54 holes, as there will be nobody to hold you up:  Tee times are spaced a laughable 30 minutes apart and a really busy day might include three dozen golfers.

As a test of golf, Kauri Cliffs is not as severe as its physiognomy may first suggest.  Designed by onetime Nicklaus protégé David Harman, a Florida-based architect whose best-known original work is likely Orange County National, in Orlando, it plays as long as 7,119 yards, par 72 from the back tees.  Wind can be problematic, and the penalty for many errant shots is an unequivocally lost ball; but with five tee boxes and just a few manageable forced carries, it is as playable as the pitching and rolling topography will allow.  The routing makes astute use of 250-foot-high cliffs that form the immediate border for six holes, while nine other holes are set slightly inland and above the seaside fairways.  Even the three inland holes without Pacific views – the 10th through 12th – are scenic in their own way.

A couple of the par 5s, the 4th and the 15th, make great risk-reward holes and picking a “signature” hole may seem silly, but the 7th, a par 3, is an obvious favorite.  It plays as long as 221 yards, and as short as 85, uphill, over a ravine-like indentation in the cliff overlooking Cavalli, the name of both the hole and the large island in the bay to the golfer’s right.

It’s like a backstage pass to the zone, even if you measure your winnings in post-round beers rather than millions of dollars.

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