New Zealand: Strangers in a Strange Land

There are as many different points of view regarding slow travel as there are slow travelers. Our friends Monica and Chris Graff are simply excellent examples of people who enjoy slow travel as much as we do, but their interests and approach are very different from ours. We learn something from them with every conversation. So we feel most fortunate that Monica has agreed to work with us to share on MagoGuide some of their travel adventures based on her very entertaining blog Postcards from Polebridge.

This first collaboration begins with an excerpt from one of Monica’s posts about their adventures on New Zealand and a visit to Fantasy Island. You’ll see that Monica has a wicked sense of humor. This is followed by an interview we conducted (over a few glasses of wine) where we quizzed Chris and Monica on the particulars of their trip such as how in the world they found this place, how did they make their travel plans, what was the food really like, would they recommend it to others, etc. The normal questions that Team Mago has for our fellow travelers. We think that you’ll be surprised by the answers.

A Trip to Fantasy Island

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 to my husband, Chris, 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.

Beautiful coast“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.

Split Apple Retreat

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!”

We left the world we knew and followed our host down a steep drive lined with hot-pink tropical flowers and towering palm trees. Like many of the homes on the South Island, the retreat’s modern Japanese exterior was unassuming. The best experience was to be had from the inside looking out, not the other way around — a style suited to the down-to-earth Kiwis, which Dr. Nelson claimed to be even though he was born in the United States. During his introduction he said that he had moved from the mainland to Hawaii and then to New Zealand, and that he had practiced medicine. What kind I don’t know. It was all very vague and he didn’t seem interested in talking about his past, only the past of everything else.

A niggling feeling that had started at the back of my mind had now wormed its way to the front: It would be a while before I met privately with a glass of pinot and a chaise lounge. After regaling us with the astounding tale of how he’d come upon the retreat’s impressive front gate — a relic he’d rescued from an elderly gentleman in Kyoto who was “just throwing it away” — Dr. Nelson ushered us through the gardens to the threshold of the entrance, where he asked us to remove our shoes. We wadded up our socks and stuffed them into our hiking boots.

Satisfied, our host led us from treasure to treasure through his priceless collection: faded watercolor scrolls on the verge of disintegrating into dust; a 2,000-year-old buddha bust; a knee-high Japanese dining table lacquered one hundred times; and dozens of Chinese snuff bottles (inherited from his mother) safely stowed behind plate-glass windows as if on display at the British Museum. Surrounded by so many inconceivably ancient artifacts, I was afraid to move. But Dr. Nelson was eager to share.

“Look at this, isn’t this cool?” said our curator as he caressed a Buddha, this one from Cambodia. The purple metal frames of his glasses gleamed in the track lighting, and I wondered if he was referring to the temperature of the stone sculpture or its inherent peachy-keenness. I touched the Buddha’s pockmarked head and agreed that it was indeed cool.

“How old is this?” I asked.

He erupted in a sound I couldn’t identify at first, a hair-raising cachinnation of two parts nerd, one part madman. “Thousands of years. No one knows for sure,” he answered. I tried to steal a glance at Chris’s neck hairs, to see if they were standing on end like mine, but he was already wandering toward the other end of the hallway.

“This way,” said Dr. Nelson, and we followed him to a living area that opened onto an infinity pool and a sparkling bay where tractors pulled boats across the sand to the water’s edge. “There must be quite a tide here,” I said.

“Yes, the tractors are like taxis,” said a small voice. I turned to find a young woman with a shiny black ponytail standing beside Dr. Nelson.

“This is Pen. She will be preparing all of your meals, which have been customized to your needs and tastes.”

Pen perked up at the mention of her name and excitedly dove into a description of the evening menu. Her English was good but her accent heavy, and I listened intently. I was eager to hear what foods she had thought to prepare, seeing as we had never communicated any gastronomic needs or tastes. She described the first and second courses, both heavy on the bell pepper, and Chris and I exchanged looks. It’s the one vegetable we both detest, and we started to tell her so when Dr. Nelson interrupted.

“OK, thank you.” Dr. Nelson smiled at us politely then discreetly poked his index finger into the right side of Pen’s rib cage. Without another word she disappeared into the kitchen as quietly as she’d arrived.

“I think you will find that when you leave here you will feel not only healthier but lighter. It is impossible to gain weight with our specially designed recipes,” said our host. If they were going to put peppers in every dish, then I certainly couldn’t disagree, I thought. Dr. Nelson caught my eye, and I wondered if somehow he’d read my mind. But he just motioned toward the door and said, “If you will follow me, please, I will show you to your room.”

The view from our room at Split Apple Retreat

At last the magic words had been spoken, and we shuffled behind the good doctor in our white terrycloth slippers. If this were Fantasy Island, then tomorrow our fantasy would begin.


“How are you supposed to wear this thing?” Chris looked in the bathroom mirror as he jabbed his hand through a sleeve and met with a dead-end. “There’s a card here that tells you how to do it.” I held up the instructions I’d found lying on top of the robes, but Chris dismissed them and kept poking away, determined to free his hand.

“Wait, wait, you’re going to rip it!” I said. “Let me see what’s going on here.” I unfolded my yukata and saw the issue. Long flaps came off the arms in a T-shape — a clever design that lets a person stow plenty of personal items while wearing nothing but a bathrobe.

Dr. Nelson said we didn’t have to put them on, but he highly suggested that we do so if we wanted to experience the full relaxing effect of the retreat. He also suggested that we sit in the Detox Box for thirty minutes before a half-hour morning meditation. So far we were running late.

I took my bundle into the other room and read the directions carefully:

  • Put on the yukata and pull the right side around the body.
  • Place the left side of yukata over the right one.
  • Put the middle of the obi on your waist.
  • Wrap the obi around the body crossing once at the back of your body.

Chris and Monica in their yukataAfter a few misfires with the obi I finally figured it out. But what was one to do with all the extra length? And how was it that Japanese women were so much taller than me? I pulled billows of fabric through the belt and tried to pat it all down neatly. Then I checked myself in the mirror. I looked like I’d had a fight with a flying possum, but there was no time to worry about it.

We scrambled out the door and found our sensei waiting for us at the top of the stairs. He greeted us with a slight bend at the waist, his hands folded in front. “How did you sleep?” he asked.

“Oh, the usual,” Chris said. “Woke up a few times and had a hard time getting back to sleep.”

“After today, you will sleep the night through,” said Dr. Nelson. “I always have a perfect night’s rest. Always. That is what a wellness program can do for you.”

After another outfit change, we stepped inside a playhouse-sized wooden sauna and Dr. Nelson shut the glass door behind us. “Are you comfortable?” he asked from the other side of our cell. We nodded and he pushed a button that flooded the box in red light. “Enjoy!” Then came that laugh again and he left us to our fate.

We sat in silence, listening to the click, click, click of the infrared heater as it approached 149 degrees.

“I wonder if anyone has ever died in one of these things,” I said as I wiped sweat from my eyes. We were side by side with hardly an inch to spare, wrapped in little white towels dotted with green apples. Electronic music thumped from the low ceiling, making my heart feel like it might pound right out of my ribcage. I looked for a way to change the CD while Chris opened his book to read.

“Have you seen any other guests since we’ve been here?” I asked.

“No, I think it’s just us,” he answered. “But there’s two other rooms, so maybe more people will arrive today.”

Usually I would enjoy having a five-star resort to myself. And I was. But something seemed different about Dr. Nelson. He’d been nothing but polite and professional, yet he was mysterious. He was so … Mr. Roarke. Maybe it was just the heat getting to me. The air felt thick, like the oxygen had been burned out of it, and I checked the door to make sure it hadn’t been locked from the outside.

“How many more minutes?”

“Twenty-seven,” said Chris. He wiped his forehead then returned to the world of P. G. Wodehouse while I considered the benefits of roasting in a coffinlike container — one made of hemlock, no less.

Dr. Nelson had explained that the Detox Box would increase circulation, eliminate toxins, relieve pain from inflammation, and perhaps even take off some weight. But it seemed more likely that I was about to succumb to heat stroke. My eyes burned, and I was overcome with agitation. The seat was hot. The walls were hot. And the air, what there was of it, was starting to smell like a wino on a three-day drunk.

“Is that me or you?” I asked.


“It smells like alcohol in here.”

“Guess the Detox Box is doing its job then,” Chris said without looking up. “Hm.” I leaned back and stared at the ceiling so the sweat would roll away from my eyes instead of into them. If I could just go to my happy place, maybe some good would come of this thirty-minute visit to hell and I would begin to feel ever-so-slightly purified.

Happy place …

Happy place …

But it didn’t work. When the timer chimed, I busted out of there like a deep-sea diver with no air left in her tank. We rinsed off as fast as we could and then mastered our robes one more time before Dr. Nelson reappeared.

“Now that you have removed the toxins from your body, it is time to synchronize your mind,” he said. “This way.”

We followed our guide up a flight of stairs and into an empty multimedia theater room that seated eight. He motioned toward one of the oversized leather recliners and I climbed into it like a bed.

“This is an express route to meditating,” he said and handed me a set of headphones. “What has taken Eastern practitioners thousands of years to master, you can achieve here in this room in half an hour. Just relax and focus on the sound of the flute. And be sure to breathe. BREATHE!” He circled his hands around his rib cage and looked at me. I took a deep breath and exhaled loudly.

“Good, good. Now shake it all out. There you go.” He took a fleece blanket and covered me from head to toe. A shroud, I thought to myself.

“When you hear the sound of the ocean, then the meditation is over.” Dr. Nelson turned off the lights and closed the door softly behind him. I shut my eyes and tried to watch my thoughts float by without latching onto them. But I couldn’t let go of the image of trophies lining the wall behind me. They were huge and shiny and plentiful. “What are those for,” I’d asked when we’d first entered the dimly lit room. “Oh, just a little hobby,” he’d said with the barest hint of smug. “I like a friendly game.”

A friendly game of what, I wondered.


Googling someone is a conundrum for me. It’s one thing to search for interesting nuggets about celebrities and public figures; they’ve made a deal with the devil. But online investigations of people I know, sort of know, or might one day know feels naughty, like I’m peeking through a keyhole into someone’s dressing room. Nevertheless, the temptation was too much. There was something unusual about Dr. Nelson and I wanted to know what it was.

While our host was upstairs overseeing the preparation of yet another deceptively healthy and delicious dinner designed specifically for our individual well-beings, I was huddled over my laptop looking for clues in his digital profile. Chris was outside watching the tractor taxis collect their evening arrivals, and I lowered the screen just enough to hide its contents from his view. When the search results appeared, my heart did a little disco dance.

I scrolled past the dozens of luxury travel articles about the retreat and drilled deeper. It didn’t take long to find the personal information I was looking for. Voyeur guilt washed over me, but I entered a new combination of search terms anyway. Then bingo. There it was, more astonishing than I’d even expected: Our sangfroid sensei and meditation master had apparently finished off someone named Phil and was now on a mission to kill everyone!

“Look at this,” I said to Chris, who had wandered down to our lower-level seating area to get a closer look at the taxis.

“What is it?”

“I found out what the deal is with you-know-who,” I called out. “Come look.”

“What, did you Google him?” He stole a look upstairs at the indoor/outdoor kitchen area.

“I couldn’t help it.” I clicked on the first article and dove into the story about our mysterious host.

Chris stood in the deck doorway. “You know, he’s right upstairs. What if he knows what you’re doing?” he whispered.

“How’s he going to know that?”

“You never know. It’s his Internet connection.”

“That’s true. If he finds out we’ve looked him up online, he might kill us next!” I looked at him with eyes as big as cucumber slices.

“Excuse me?” Chris grabbed the laptop and read the article slowly. When he finished he plopped into the club chair next to the bed, his eyebrows jacked to the top of his forehead. “Wow. That explains a lot.”

“No kidding. It’s a whole new dimension to the practice of Zen,” I said. I got a glass of water and thought about what I’d read as I paced our room. Those trophies in the meditation/theater room were only part of the story. We were in the midst of a champion poker player who had made the final table at televised tournaments so many times (twenty in four years) that his nickname was just that: Final Table.

One of the most prolific winners in Australian tournament poker history, Dr. Nelson has won more than $2.5 million in his career, nearly triple the amount of any other player from New Zealand. It’s an achievement that has landed him in the Australian Poker Hall of Fame. Which is probably why his books on tournament poker — Kill Phil, Kill Everyone, and Raiser’s Edge — are considered among the best for beginners and intermediate-level players.

Sure, Dr. Nelson could teach us a lot about wellness and nutrition, but what I really wanted to know was how he had consistently beat a bevy of poker players and won millions in the process. In an interview with Stephen Bartley in 2006, he gave credit to meditation.

“After I make an all-in bet I just meditate – I just blank out, nobody home. I pick a spot on the table and focus on that for as long as I need to,” he said. “If your mind is racing, you miss too much at the table. There are lots of little things that can be picked up, that you can only observe if you have a blank mind. If you’re thinking ‘I’ve got this hand, what’s he going to do?’ you miss it, you just don’t see.”

It was a relief to find out that our host really was a meditation master — and that he was a celebrity of sorts, so that I didn’t feel too guilty about Googling him. Still, I was thankful when we arrived for dinner and learned that he had been called away unexpectedly. Because if there’s one thing I don’t possess, it’s a poker face.

Pen tended to our needs instead and delighted us with all kinds of stories about her travels with Dr. Nelson, who we learned was her husband and not her boss.

After dinner, we lingered over our dessert and drinks while the sun set across the bay. Tomorrow morning we would fly to Hawke’s Bay on the North Island. We were eager to see our friends there. After all, they were the main reason we had traveled so far away from home. But we were also reluctant to leave the South Island and the Split Apple Retreat. Even though it had never been a dream destination for either of us, that’s what it had turned out to be. A real royal flush.

The Interview

Team Mago: How did you find and book the Split Apple?

Monica: In the early stages of planning our trip, we consulted with Jean-Michel Jefferson, owner of Ahipara Travel, which specializes in custom itineraries.

Chris: He recommended the Split Apple Retreat and some other five-star accommodations—

Monica: Like Silver Pine Lodge on the South Island—

Chris: Yeah, that was a really great place too. But when we talked to Jean-Michel about tightening our budget—and we had to tighten it a lot because this guy was used to working with Russian oligarchs—he was adamant that we not miss this really amazing place. We’re glad we listened.

Monica: Yes, but going into it we had no idea what to expect. I don’t think either of us realized that it was a health spa, where I’m sure famous people have gone to “dry out” or re-sort themselves. And then here we were carting in bottles of wine [laughs].

Chris: And it was cheap wine at that.

Team Mago: Tell us some more about the food. What was your favorite dish? Besides bell peppers was there something else that you didn’t like? Were they worth the price of admission?

Monica: The food was utterly amazing. We were prepared to hate it, but there was nothing to hate. Pen is a magician in the kitchen. Everything was just really fresh and well thought out. Pen described at length what the ingredients were and how they were prepared, and then Dr. Nelson followed up with all the health benefits and the nutrients of the different ingredients and how they’d work to ward off illness.

Chris: Yeah, he claimed it would cure just about anything. And Pen even gave me a recipe to cure my gout. It involved like thirty pounds of garlic and some lemon juice.

Monica: Yes, I have the recipe on my phone, but we haven’t tried it yet. We don’t have time for a gout attack if it doesn’t work.

Chris: I’d say my favorite dishes were the fish ceviche and the local fruits. And I really liked eating naked in my kimono. I felt like a Roman god in a toga with servants. The only thing missing was someone feeding me grapes.

Monica: Well, no one fed you grapes, but we did have the view all to ourselves. I think the whole experience was extra special because we had the place to ourselves. It was easy to imagine living there.

The food was utterly amazingTeam Mago: Next time, would you take advantage of other offerings at the retreat such as their cooking lessons or more advanced cosmic meditation Buddha stuff?

Chris: No, I don’t have an urge to participate in any of the other stuff, but I did try to meditate when we got home.

Monica: Me too. We both got a pair of wireless headphones and some flute music. It lasted about two weeks.

Team Mago: Would you return? And, if so, would you do anything different?

Monica: I think it was a fascinating experience, but I probably wouldn’t go back, only because I would want to try something new. I’m definitely drawn to novelty, which is I guess why I like to travel.

Chris: Yeah, I get that, but that place was pretty amazing. I’d go again and stay longer. I probably like being pampered more than you do.

Monica: Well, if you’re going back, then I’m going with you.

Chris: All right.

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