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New Zealand: become a wine aficionado

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Stylist’s Julia Maile heads to Marlborough for aweinspiring views, top-notch local cuisine and a glass or two of the finest sauvignon blanc.

I blame it on Lord Of The Rings; ever since the first film of the trilogy revealed New Zealand’s craggy ravines and snow-capped peaks in all their picturesque glory, I’m constantly asked why, as a Kiwi, I choose to live in London. “It’s too quiet back home,” is my typical response.

But as I eat a fresh croissant on the deck of Marlborough’s luxury lodge, The Sounds Retreat, with a Rings-worthy view of a pod of dolphins playing in the sea, I realise it’s a pretty special place. It is quiet – I was right about that – but in a blissful way.

And it beats the view of the dry cleaners I usually have each morning. Embracing the scenery is the easy part; getting to NZ is the challenge. Basically it’s as far as you can get from the UK and a mammoth 27-hour flight so it’s worth breaking up the trip with a night or two in LA en route.

From Auckland, it’s a short flight down to the sleepy city of Blenheim at the top of the South Island; keep an eye on the window for a glimpse of Mount Ruapehu, the country’s largest ski field and an active volcano, peeking between the clouds. Sure, you might not have heard of Blenheim, but chances are you’ve tried its produce – the classic Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

Why it’s hot Perched on a hill offering serene views of Queen Charlotte Sound, The Sounds Retreat is part of a growing trend for one-room, high-end B&Bs – another example is the modern, glass-fronted Kokohuia Lodge near the Bay of Islands (kokohuialodge. co.nz; from £148 per room per night).

Owners of The Sounds Retreat Anne and Tony Brooker (British ex-pats who do appreciate New Zealand’s quiet side), live directly above the suite, but they’ve got the hosting thing nailed; on hand when you need them, yet never intrusive.

The lodge’s stylish, modern architecture blends into the landscape and is designed to accentuate views from every point, from lounging on the giant bed or relaxing in the cocoon chair on the deck. The suite offers everything you need from a laundry (essential for long-haul trips) to a fully-equipped gym.

Bikes are available to borrow but, feeling lazy, we opt to take the retreat’s BMW Mini Cooper convertible for a free spin instead. The surrounding area lives up to NZ’s outdoorsy reputation by offering some of the world’s best boating, kayaking and diving but with limited time, we decide to drive to the start of the Queen Charlotte track, one of the country’s top scenic walks.

We venture only a short way into the bush but still get brilliant views of the sea through the dense native foliage. Treat yourself to a hokey pokey ice cream at the caravan shop at the end of the walk; the honeycomb concoction is an NZ institution. On the menu Host Tony moonlights as chef, preparing delicious four-course dinners matched with local wines and served alfresco every night. Highlights include fresh hot salmon with Manuka honey from the retreat’s own smokehouse, and locally caught venison with braised cabbage and juniper berries.

Then it’s into the outdoor hot tub with a glass of Wairau River pinot gris. After pastries for breakfast, we tear ourselves away from the incredible morning view of the sun rising over the Sound for an hour’s drive along the scenic route to Blenheim for our personalised wine and food tour with Explore Marlborough. It’s an absolutely stunning day (30°C) and the sun here is fierce so pack your factor 50.

The first stop on our tour is somewhat of a surprise; at first it just looks like a pretty field but then we spot the beehives. Home to artisan honey company Putake Honey, we put our fears to one side to taste delicious honeycomb straight from the source.

Next, a cheesemaking class with renowned artisan producer Lisa Harper reveals that making ricotta is so straightforward, we vow never to buy the ready-made stuff again. Then it’s on to the vineyards, which, to be honest, is what we’re really here for. With over 65 wineries in the area, you could spend weeks visiting them all but alas, we only have time for four.

Each offers a completely different experience. At Auntsfield Estate, the home of Marlborough’s first colonial vineyard dating back to 1873, we taste some fine 2007 Heritage pinot noir. Lunch is delicious NZ lamb (a compulsory meal at least once on any trip down under) at Brancott Estate Heritage Centre.

Its un-catchy name disguises this chic, glassencased restaurant with excellent wines and the best views of the local vineyards. We visit Herzog Estate, a small but adventurous winery that experiments with cultivating eclectic varieties such as barbera and zweigelt, before finally hitting the big time; Cloudy Bay. Widely regarded as the ultimate Kiwi sauvignon blanc, it’s famous for its vibrant aromatics and fine structure. An idyllic hour spent relaxing under oak trees in a deckchair sampling the wines – New Zealand may be quiet, but that’s fine with us.

Rates at The Sounds Retreat (thesoundsretreat.co.nz) start from £657 per night per couple and include breakfast, dinner with wine and complimentary mini bar. Air New Zealand flies daily from London Heathrow to Auckland and onward to 26 destinations across the North and South Islands. Economy from £1,273 (via LA) plus upgrade to Economy Skycouch from £359 per sector (book at airnewzealand.co.uk). For more information, visit newzealand.com

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