Life As A Billionaire At Helena Bay
Helena Bay isn’t like New Zealand’s other luxury lodges, those stately, homely places, weathered by time and fortune, that cater to affluent travellers looking to fly-fish, hunt, feast on local produce or simply drink in the country’s stunning landscapes. It’s more contemporary, more reserved, more elusive. So elusive, in fact, that I drive right past the entrance as I wind down narrow Russell Road, a tiny byway that clutches the flanks of steep hills as it tumbles into the remote and impossibly beautiful bays of Northland’s east coast.
Doubling back, I discover subtle gates and manicured lawns that look rather out of place, and I’m vetted by CCTV before making my way through thick forest to the shoreline of one of the region’s isolated slices of paradise, the lodge’s namesake. “I think they like to keep things pretty subtle, otherwise we’d have coachloads of people at the gates and people trying to get in, and we can’t have that,” says a young staff member as I question the calibre of my GPS. “We like things nice and private around here.”
Private’s right. At a cost of US$35 million, the luxury lodge caters to just 10 guests at a time, or one, should they book the whole estate. It’s the New Zealand retreat of a Russian steel billionaire who likes to keep a low profile, Alexander Abramov. He built the lodge simply so he might enjoy this remote corner of the world from time to time in unashamed luxury.
I’m guided by immaculately uniformed (and mostly kiwi) staff through the lodge’s towering doors, intricately carved by local indigenous artisans, to find that I’m the only guest. It’s a unique opportunity to experience Helena Bay as I suspect it was intended. While I’m assured by Scottish general manager Neil McFarLane, a no-nonsense former superyacht captain handpicked by Abramov, that the billionaire allows other guests to stay while he’s visiting (anonymously of course), I’m thinking to myself, rather selfishly, “Why would you?”
I find it remarkably easy to slip into billionaire estate-owning character, replacing the persona of an impoverished travel writer with that of a well-to-do oligarch retreating from busy corporate life. Once I’ve settled into my ocean-facing Junior Suite, with its super king-size bed, Christian Fischbacher robes, Hefel of Austria linens and mosaic-lined bathroom, I strike out to inspect the property, wondering how a typical billionaire spends his days off?
Nestled into three kilometres of private shoreline and backed by its own 215-hectare farm, Helena Bay took eight years to develop. The main lodge wraps around a large infinity-edged swimming pool. A small fitness centre housing a spa, sauna, steam room and icy plunge pool is housed in one wing. Lounges, libraries and snugs with fireplace, plus an extensive art collection, occupy another.
Two dining rooms open onto tiled terraces and expansive lawns that double as a helicopter pad. Beyond, orca are often seen in the tranquil waters of the bay. On one of the estate’s five secluded coves, a beach house is under construction to provide guests with an additional daytime retreat.
I join resident farm manager John and his trusty blue heeler to climb a track up vertiginous slopes, past llama, goats and the estate’s own wagyu cattle, to a peak with face-slappingly beautiful views out to the Poor Knights, home to some of the best diving in the southern hemisphere. The world below is a patchwork of greens and blues, and the lodge looks tiny from this lofty spot.
Outside John’s role at the lodge, the Northland native works with farmers to train their dogs not to attack kiwis, and hopes one day the flightless birds can be reintroduced to Helena Bay. He points out ancient pa, fortifications the local Ngatiwai people once used to protect against marauding tribes of Maori from the south.
Chef Michele Martino
In the estate’s sprawling gardens I meet passionate chef Michele Martino, who has brought to New Zealand the Michelin-starred cuisine of southern Italy’s Don Alfonso 1890, where he was the protégé of chef Ernesto Iaccarino. Martino grows almost everything he needs on site.
“There’s something very satisfying about being able to choose what to cook each day based on what nature has offered,” says the ever-smiling chef as he examines a crop of pomodori di pachino, the luscious tomato of southern Italy. “Everything grows well here. It’s paradise.”
Martino uses the exceptional produce to create spectacular, insightful dishes, from seared slipper lobster with pesto to John Dory with anchovy and star anise cream, which are served in the cosy, book-lined den by waiters in slightly out-of-place tuxedos. If it were my estate, I’d go for something a little more contemporary with the uniform, but the service is crisp and refined and the meal truly magical.
Life of a billionaire
The next morning, I do as the super-rich apparently do and contemplate life in the steam room before having it flash before my eyes as I leap into the pool, bashfully waving at another CCTV camera hidden in a thicket of native bush.
There are plenty of relaxing or energetic activities on offer, from helicopter flights to the famous Hole in the Rock on Motukokako Island and rounds of golf at acclaimed Kauri Cliffs, to hiking and diving excursions. There’s even a tennis court complete with murderous ball machine permanently set to “Anna Kournikova,” and a little pier from which guests can fish for snapper.
After a day and a half of pretending to be a media-shy billionaire, I’m well rested and well fed but a little lonely, so my advice to oligarchs and anyone else planning a few days in this bucolic paradise: pack your jet with the right people, because Helena Bay may be a luxury lodge, but it’s always better when it feels like a home.
All photos taken by Chris McLennan, courtesy of Helena Bay.