The west coast of New Zealand reminds me of California. Big Sur to be exact. The Great Coast Road hugs the shoreline along bluffs that plunge dramatically to the sea. And the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes are a geological mystery worth a look if you have the time (and you shouldn’t be here if you don’t).
But California and the land of the long white cloud, as the Maori call this country, part ways when it comes to topographical diversity. Here a person can surf in the morning and climb a glacier in the afternoon. And then there’s the best bonus of all: it’s remote and sparsely populated. Beaches aren’t crawling with Speedos, Baywatch wannabes, and howling toddlers. Just pristine stretches of white sand bordered by nikau palms, podocarp forests, and the only nesting place of the kotuku. If you listen closely, you can hear the fur seals bark.
After a relaxing evening in Punakaiki we cut across the island to Split Apple Retreat, a splurge we’d been eagerly anticipating to round out our South Island stay. We were ready to make good on its promise of “quiet luxury and modern indulgence” — if only we could find it.
Why are you going this way? The GPS says to turn here,” I said, pointing at the road as we passed it.
“Because that’s not the right Split Apple.”
“What do you mean ‘not the right Split Apple’?”
“There’s like five Split Apples listed on there and the one we want isn’t listed.”
“Of course it is. What’s the address?” I turned the Garmin screen toward me and waited for Chris to tell me what numbers to punch in.
“There isn’t an address.”
“There has to be. How are we supposed to find a place that doesn’t have a freakin’ address?” I cleared the screen to start over and the map vanished.
“What are you doing now?” Chris moved my hand from the screen. “Where’s the map? I can’t see where we are!”
And back and forth we went on a road with more twists and turns than a bowl of rotini. After six hours of asphalt, I was sick of the car and wanted nothing more than a chaise, a view, and a glass of wine. I could tell Chris felt the same way, times two. Finally I saw a sign.
“Turn here, turn here!” I said.
“That’s not it.”
“Yes it is.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is. Just turn!”
We followed a narrow blacktop drive that meandered around a hillside and dead-ended at a ranch house with a hobbit hole out back. Not what I was expecting, but I didn’t care anymore. I was sure I could find a chair and a bottle. We knocked on the front door and waited as a white cat sunbathed on his porch swing perch. He mustn’t have gotten the memo about the hole in the ozone layer, I thought. I’d just read about how Kiwis are more likely than anyone else on earth to contract melanoma. Surely a white cat would be as much at risk as the pasty ex-pats I’ve seen around here. Wouldn’t he? I asked Chris. Chris tapped his foot and looked through a window. Finally a couple opened the door — pasty ex-pats, wouldn’t you know it — and looked at us with curiosity.
“Is this the Split Apple Retreat?” Chris asked, even though he already knew the answer.
The small white-haired lady in a rainbow housedress shook her head. “No, we are the Split Apple Homestay.” Then she gave us complicated directions on how to find the retreat and we apologized for bothering them. “Not to worry,” she said. “It happens all the time. They keep the place fairly unmarked.”
“I don’t think they want to be found,” said her husband.
“Apparently,” Chris agreed.
We wound our way back down the hillside and up another one, then down a few more wrong turns, until finally we reached another residential dead-end. This one was at the cap of a bluff that jutted into Tasman Bay, leaving us surrounded by islands and seawater on three sides. Even though there wasn’t another vehicle in sight, the gates, extra-tall fence, and signs marked “Private” and “Keep Out” made us think we’d found our place and we decided to give it a go, again.
Chris collected our luggage from the back of the SUV while I buried my head in the backseat, trying to organize the junk we’d accumulated: spilled nuts, runaway water bottles, shells, flip flops, maps, brochures, and little sacks of souvenirs.
“Good afternoon.” The words wafted through the air on honeyed wings. And Chris and I swung around to find a tall man dressed in a white suit, his dark hair silvered at the temples. He smiled serenely as he slowly extended his hand. “I’m Dr. Nelson, your host. Welcome to Split Apple Retreat.”
Suddenly the air felt effervescent, like we’d stepped into another realm. I looked at Chris and wondered if he was thinking what I was thinking … that Tattoo might at any moment materialize and announce the arrival of “de plane, de plane!”