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Yachting: Article

Marlborough's Maiden

Yacht charter in New Zealand's wine country


The crew of the lovely Pacific Eagle, the lone luxury charter yacht in the emerging South Island region, takes pride in introducing guests to local specialties.

Acloudy mist envelops the hillsides not like a thick wrap, but like a sheer scarf. Sheep loll contentedly on the green hillsides, far outnumbering the people who live here. It is morning in Marlborough, on New Zealand's South Island, but even better, it is the dawn of a new way of life.

 Dairy farms comprised nearly the entirety of the Marlborough region's economy until about three decades ago, when farmers first began to succumb to the much more profitable grape. Today, the 25-minute drive from Blenheim Airport to the waterfront town of Picton is a winding tour of bustling vineyards in what has become New Zealand's biggest wine-producing region. The avocado-colored vistas still serve as home to the grazing flocks, but the pastures now alternate with row upon row of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc vines. The land remains pristine, with rivers so clean they glisten Caribbean turquoise, but a few fine restaurants and inns have sprouted to cater to Wine Spectator devotees. Tourists with discriminating palates are beginning to make Marlborough a destination of choice.

Peter Stewart can't figure out what took everyone so long to get here. The longtime venison farmer understands the limitations imposed by geography (New Zealand is a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles), but travelers have forever endured whatever trip was required to reach a given paradise. Stewart has loved his native land since he grew up in Canterbury, just outside Christchurch, and he's thrilled the rest of the world is finally thinking "kiwi."

 In fact, he's banking on Marlborough bringing in visitors who seek exclusive experiences. He'll need them to turn the region into as well known a destination for yacht charters as it has become for wine.

Stewart is the owner and captain of the 102ft Alloy Pacific Eagle - the only luxury yacht based in Picton, which connects Marlborough to the reaches of Queen Charlotte Sound. It's more a fledgling charter market than an emerging one; yachts have passed through over the years, but until now, none has made this a home port.

 Pacific Eagle is embracing the virgin territory. Stewart hired two fellow South Islanders as first mate and chef, and he insists that food, drink, and everything else aboard introduce guests to New Zealand in general, and to the Marlborough region in particular.

"It's really important," Stewart says. "What's the point of drinking Australian wine?"

Boating has been Stewart's hobby since he was a boy. His career working with deer kept him on land that was stunning (parts of "The Lord of the Rings" were filmed near his farm), but nevercalled to him like the sea. In 1999, when New Zealand was preparing to defend the America's Cup, Stewart knew he and his 65ft sailing yacht needed to be part of the action. "I said to myself, ?How can I be involved in all of this and afford to do it?'"

Charter was the answer. He got his captain's license and sailed his Don Brooks design into the heart of the scene. He'd had his beloved yacht for about 10 years, but the setting rekindled a lust he'd long harbored for a bigger sailboat by the same designer: the 102ft Fantasea, owned by a German man who wanted to sail around the world.

After the Cup, Stewart put charter on the back burner and set out on his 65-footer to see Tonga. He couldn't believe his luck when he landed in the same anchorage as Fantasea. He approached the owner, who rebuffed him right there in the crystal blue harbor.

"I was sort of relieved the problem had gone away," he recalls.

 A week later, the German changed his mind, Stewart changed the boat's name, and the Pacific Eagle concept was born.

Stewart immediately set about renovating the yacht for charter. She already had good bones, with the three guest cabins aft - well separated from the forward crew areas and galley by a large, comfortable main saloon. She also had great headroom, which is important for charter guests who tower in the companionways like the 6-foot-2 Stewart does.

 What the boat most needed was an updated décor. Stewart turned to his wife, Pieter Stewart, who is well known for her work with L'Oréal New Zealand Fashion Week. She changed the boat's tired fabrics and abundance of mirrors into a more appropriate, casually elegant atmosphere. Navy blues, creamy whites, and teak woodwork now dominate, with lovely touches like newly monogrammed barware. Framed, rare original engravings by Captain Cook hang in the twin and queen staterooms, a nod to the time the explorer spent in these New Zealand waters.

 While Pacific Eagle's interior is lovely, our party of five spent virtually every waking moment aboard on the boat's covered aft deck. Queen Charlotte Sound is reminiscent of the United States' Pacific Northwest, with sometimes chilly temperatures and, at least during our stay, a healthy dose of fog and rain. Even so, we found the untouched scenery spectacular. Still, charter guests who visit, as we did, in the summertime month of January should be prepared to motor frequently (the sound is flat calm, not enough wind to sail) and forgo morning swims (the water is about 70 degrees at the surface).

 Anyone who enjoys hiking, though, will be in heaven. New Zealand is beloved for its wellmaintained "tracks" that draw "trampers" from around the world. The Queen Charlotte Track, about 44 miles long, runs along the sound and is easily accessible by dinghy. Many hikers traverse the slopes beneath the dense canopy for a few hours a day, stopping to camp or sleep in small lodges along the route.

Pacific Eagle dropped us off at the tip of Ship's Cove, and we tramped all morning down to Resolution Bay. The scenery reminded one of our French guests of Switzerland; I thought I heard a bit of Costa Rica in the way the cicadas chirped in the trees. Still another in our party said she felt like she was trekking around a Caribbean island, thanks to the sea views and thick canopy. "It's the whole world in one country," Fraser Yachts Worldwide broker Kirsten Ringsing offered. Indeed, we each saw pieces of other places we'd been as we navigated the slippery, muddy slopes and rocks.

After the hearty workout, we pushed our tired legs down the dock at Resolution Bay, where Pacific Eagle's dinghy was already in position, waiting to carry us back to the boat. By the time we all showered and returned to the aft deck, bellies rumbling, the talented crew had our next introduction to New Zealand's finest offerings in order.

First mate Sebastian Alexander has only been in the yachting business about a year, but at age 20 possesses a poise that is well beyond his years. He always smiles, he never says "no," and he even irons the bedsheets so they feel crisp and clean at the end of the day. After our morning hike, he had the aft deck table set and was working with chef Chris Fortune to prepare lunch, including the wild mussels Fortune had collected barehanded from the bay while awaiting our return. The rest of our buffet included wild pork tatins, green and yellow heirloom tomatoes, delicious feta served with watermelon slices and fresh basil, wild watercress with red pepper and pumpkin seeds, and zesty homemade spreads made with sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts, and spinach.

"We use everything from New Zealand, and most of it from Marlborough," Fortune says. "The potatoes we're having tonight, they're from my garden."

 The food, so fresh and soothing, went well with the Cloudy Bay pinot noir we had brought aboard from the local winery, and the label was appropriate for the scene just off our stern: a sleepy bay echoing with chirps and whistles from the trees, all beneath a fog that had settled like a security blanket.

Sheep may still dominate the countryside here on the South Island, but Pacific Eagle and Marlborough's fine new way of life are a big step toward an elegant future.

Pacific Eagle is expected to be available in Queen Charlotte Sound during New Zealand?s summer, starting in November.

Her rate for 6 guests is being determined. Contact: Fraser Yachts Worldwide (011) 64 9 302-0178; [email protected]

Good (Tips from) Fortune
About 10 years ago, New Zealanders were just beginning to learn which varieties of olives were best for growing in the region. By 2001, enough high-quality brands were being bottled that the New Zealand Olive Oil Awards were established to promote the industry. Pacific Eagle's chef, Chris Fortune, who works hard to introduce charter guests to local delicacies, treated us to a discussion about choosing among the offerings. He started by giving each of us two different olive oils, separated into plastic cups, and then proceeded as if hosting a wine tasting. He asked us to discuss bouquet and taste.

 Our first swallow tasted normal, like olive oil from back home in the States. The second swallow was amazingly better, like no olive oil we'd ever tried.

Fortune explained that the first oil was what most people keep in their kitchens - a variety from a clear glass bottle that had sat on the shelf forever. Clear bottles, he continued, are inappropriate for olive oil because sunlight breaks it down and turns it rancid. Olive oil that comes in dark glass bottles will taste much better, especially if you use it before it tends to go bad, no more than two years after being bottled.

Be sure to buy extra virgin, he said, because it comes from the first cold press of the olives. A high-quality extra virgin will cost a pretty penny, but he offered this tip: use grape seed oil to cook, then finish off dishes with a drizzle of olive oil.

Your guests will never know the difference. -K.K.

More Stories By Kim Kavin

Kim Kavin is an award-winning writer, editor, and photographer whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Her more than ten years as a professional journalist include three as the executive editor of Yachting. She is currently the charter and cruising editor for Power and Motoryacht. Kim's work takes her around the globe to inspect boats and meet crew, all with an eye toward helping readers understand what they will get for their money when choosing a charter yacht or a cruising destination. Kim is an officer on the board of directors of Boating Writers International, a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the prestigious Dow Jones editing program, and an alumna of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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