Update: NZ luxury tour company

Update: NZ luxury tour company

*Wayne’s Waiatoto River Safari, a private river outing

Under normal circumstances our articles are based exclusively on the experiences and photography of our contributors at a destination and voyage. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have halted travel. For those ready to travel now we are offering limited updates about destinations, properties and tours we featured in the past and whose representatives have responded to our questions and requests for updates. This series of updates began in 2021.

In 2019, following a trip to New Zealand and private tour, we profiled Aroha New Zealand Tours Intrepid, South Island. Three of the properties in that itinerary have failed to reply to our emails, two others have closed and one of the attractions is no longer in business. Lakestone Lodge and Cabot Lodge shared updates and responded to questions, see Update: NZ lodge near Fiordland National Park and Update: NZ lodge welcoming international guests.

We recently contacted Veronika Vermeulen, director, Aroha New Zealand Tours Ltd. to ask about the bespoke luxury tour company and current travel conditions in New Zealand. Below are our questions and her answers.
Veronika Vermeulen, director, Aroha New Zealand Tours Ltd.

Veronika Vermeulen, director, Aroha New Zealand Tours Ltd.

LTR: Are you welcoming international travelers?

VV: Yes we are open to all travellers. Tours started back with neighbouring countries in July, and September in general.

LTR: A number of travel business across the globe have shut down post pandemic. Some travelers have been stranded as a result. What is the situation in this regard in New Zealand and with your company?

VV: Everybody was able to leave New Zealand with the help of our company and our government in the following month after the borders were closed. However, some people decided to stay for a month (some have yet to leave) to sit out the world crisis in New Zealand.

LTR: What, if any, policies and safeguards do you have in response to Covid-19?

VV: We have applied government Covid regulation and still provide today a Covid-19 Safety Plan. We are committed to keeping you safe.

On the other hand we are not taking long pre pays and only request a small down payment, to cover our original service cost. Main payment is only required 40 days before arrival (conditions apply with some premium luxury stays).

LTR: Is there flooding, a water shortage/drought or other condition(s) affecting facilities, guests amenities, safe and comfortable travel in New Zealand?

VV: No, none of this is affecting New Zealand for now.

LTR: Are there any updates to your services and tours you care to share. Do you offer private accommodations like rental homes or small lodges for extended stays (a week or longer) and for guest that want a private or isolated stay?

VV: We decided to stay even more unique and boutique with a concentration on customer services rather than the high turnover. We can offer private stays (boutique properties) for privacy and extended stays. However, we still concentrate on private guided tours as our primary sector.

LTR: Would you share details of any extended stay packages such as weekly or monthly rates.

VV: We 100 percent customised and have no standard rates!

See example pricing attached for 2 people.

LTR: New Zealand news of youth gangs, future earthquake risks and other severe weather events have been in the news this year. Would you comment on the likelihood that a visitor might be affected by one or more of those issues?

VV: No gangs are effecting any traveller!

Earthquakes are likely but no danger. Common we are called the shaky ales!

Floods like most other countries around the world.

LTR: Are Amisfield Bistro & Cellar Door, Wayne’s Waiatoto River Safari, Tasman Helicopter, Underworld Rafting all operating normally?

VV: Yes all these are running normal again

*Photos were taken during a pre-pandemic trip, except for the photo of Veronika Vermeulen provided by Aroha New Zealand Tours Ltd.

Update: NZ lodge near Fiordland National Park

Update: NZ lodge near Fiordland National Park

*The two story property had four guestrooms, including a two-bedroom suite.

Under normal circumstances our articles are based exclusively on the experiences and photography of our contributors at a destination and voyage. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have halted travel. For those ready to travel now we are offering limited updates about destinations, properties and services featured in our pages in the past and whose representatives have responded to our questions and requests for updates. This series of updates began in 2021. We paused during the omicron surge and published our first 2022 update in May.

As New Zealand recently reopened its international borders for vaccinated travelers (see covid19.govt.nz/) we thought the following update of Cabot Lodge, a South Island family owned property we profiled in 2019 (prior to the pandemic) would interest some of our readers. The family owned lodge near the Fiordland National Park (see Fiordland, New Zealand by helicopter) was one of our contributor’s favorite properties on that trip thanks to the owners’ warm welcome and professional attitude, comfortable room, local sourcing and earth friendly policies, and many amenities, including an ample supply of delicious homemade toffee. Below are updates recently provided by Breidi Alexander, owner operator, Cabot Lodge, who responded to our questions via email.

Breidi and Brad Alexander, owners, Cabot Lodge

LTR: Are you are welcoming international guests?

BA: Yes – with New Zealand’s borders now open, we are thrilled to be welcoming back our wonderful guests from around the world.

LTR: Have you adopted policies and safeguards in response to Covid-19?

BA: Yes, we are Covid-Clean Certified by Qualmark NZ, implementing extensive cleaning and health and safety procedures for Covid-19.

LTR: Do you clean common areas, guestrooms daily?

BA: All common areas are cleaned three times daily. All guest rooms are serviced once daily, with an additional evening turndown service if requested.

Pomona Deluxe Suite, a 41 square meter room

LTR: Is there a water shortage ordrought or other conditions affecting facilities, guests amenities, etc?

BA: No – thankfully water shortage is not an issue for us, with two rivers crossing through our property, and the Lodge sitting on the boundary of Lake Manapouri and the stunning Waiau River. We are operating business as usual.

LTR: Are there updates to the property you care to share such as redecoration, refurbishment?

BA: We are delighted with the addition of our outdoor spa pool nestled among our Beech Trees above the Lodge, with stunning views over the mountains and Lake Manapouri. We now also provide fishing rods for guest use at our private fishing jetty on the Waiau River, which boundaries the Fiordland National Park. We have increased our staff to a team of five, with a new chef preparing our farm to plate cuisine. With the extension of our glass houses, even more of our ingredients are sourced directly from the farm. Our locally sourced ingredients don’t stop with our meals however – we are also providing homemade soaps and bath salts in each of our guest suites. With Fiordland’s move to become a Dark Sky Sanctuary, we have also overhauled our exterior lighting and undertaken an astronomy course, to ensure we are a Dark Sky Friendly Lodge, perfect for star-gazing enthusiasts. We received a number of accolades for the property recently, including two Trip Advisor Travellers Choice Awards, a Qualmark 5 Star Gold Certification for Boutique Luxury Accommodation, we were named as the top luxury escape by Stuff.co.nz, and we appeared on national television in season two of ‘Lap of Luxury’, a show celebrating the top Lodges across New Zealand and Australia.

There were two patios facing Lake Manapouri and a central courtyard.

LTR: Do you offer private accommodations for those guest that want a private or isolated stay?

BA: The Lodge can be booked exclusively, with rates for 1 – 4 guests, or 5 – 10 guests, perfect for couples who want to travel with the safety of complete seclusion. We are more thankful than ever to be operating a remote and small boutique lodge post-pandemic. Surrounded by a working sheep, deer and cattle station on the boundary of the World Heritage Fiordland National Park, Cabot Lodge is a private and luxury escape.

LTR: If you offer extended stay packages such as weekly or monthly rates provide details.

BA: We provide discounted rates for stays four nights or over, please get in touch with our team for rates and further information.

Cabot Lodge borders the Fiordland National Park

*Photos were taken during pre-pandemic trip, except for the photo of Breidi and Brad Alexander provided by Cabot Lodge in 2022

Q&A with Julian Edmunds, chief commercial officer, Federal Airlines

Q&A with Julian Edmunds, chief commercial officer, Federal Airlines


Federal Airlines 2016

At the Federal Airlines terminal in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2016

Under normal circumstances our articles are based exclusively on the experiences and photography of our contributors at a destination and voyage. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have halted all travel. For those ready to travel now we are offering limited updates about destinations, properties and services featured in our pages in the past. To that end we are reaching out to those companies and requesting news and updates. Those who respond are featured in the series.

Our most recent profile of Federal Airlines was in 2016 on a safari trip to South Africa’s well known Sabi Sand Reserve. Our two contributors especially liked the safety and convenience of flights from the city to the bush as well as the relaxed comfort of the airline’s dedicated terminal away from Johannesburg’s congested international airport. The first flight, aboard a 1900D Raytheon aircraft, was from Johannesburg to the Mala Mala Reserve (see our most recent update on MalaMala at After year of closure luxury South Africa property reopening). It was comfortable with a minimal amount of bumpiness. It stopped at Ulusaba, Londolozi and Rattray’s on Mala Mala.

The second and the only nonstop flight was from the Mala Mala Reserve to a nearby reserve, two properties located within the Sabi Sand Reserve. A road transfer between the properties would have required a multi-hour drive. The final flight was from Sabi Sand back to Johannesburg, slightly earlier than originally expected due to heavy rains the previous day. Refer to the detailed profile of Federal Airlines for details.

For this update Julian Edmunds, chief commercial officer, Federal Airlines, responded to questions from his office via email. Below are our questions and his answers.

Julian Edmunds, chief commercial officer, Federal Airlines

Julian Edmunds*, chief commercial officer, Federal Airlines

LTR: Is Federal Airlines flying scheduled and charter flights from a dedicated terminal at JNB to safari properties such as MalaMala, Singita, Sabi Sabi, etc and back?

JE: We fly a hybrid type of flight, which we call a Shuttle flight. Technically they are no scheduled flights, but they differ from Schedules in the fact that they don’t always operate to each runway (ie only on demand) and they differ from charters in the fact that you can buy seats rather than having to rent the whole aircraft.

Most of our flights operate in and out of our Private Terminal at OR Tambo, we offer an complimentary minibus shuttle service between our terminal and the main International and Domestic Terminals

LTR: What title applies for you in relation to Federal Airlines?

JE: I am the Chief Commercial Officer for Federal Airlines and also the same title for fastjet Zimbabwe. Effectively I am the group Chief Commercial Officer, but as many, such as yourself do not naturally relate Federal to fastjet it is easier to have the two separate titles. I have email addresses for both.

LTR: Can travelers book flights through your website?

JE: We place ourselves as a B2B business and thus it is best for Guests to book, either through their chosen lodge or alternatively through a Tour Operator. This allows for seamless coordination.

LTR: What, if any, Covid-19 protocols have you put in place?



Inside a Federal Airlines aircraft, photo from 2016.

JE: We strictly follow all of the state protocols as required by law. From a working basis ONLY essential staff go to the office. We have the mantra that if your job can be done from home, do it from home. I am personally based in Malta and have not bee in either a Federal or fastjet office since 28 February 2020!

From a passenger perspective, we do not require any special testing, unless the passenger is flying with us internationally, in tese [these] cases the rules relating to the country they are visiting are followed.

We practice as much social distancing within our private terminal at OR Tambo, as we can. On board the aircraft, we ensure that all passengers are wearing masks for the duration of the flight, except when drinking water. We do NOT offer any cabin service or food.

From a booking perspective all of our bookings are fully flexible. A guest can change their booking as many times as they like with no charges as long as it is done at least 72 hours before the flight. We have also softened our cancellation terms to make them more sympathetic to people’s needs and we offer free changes within the 72 hour period to any passenger, who becomes COVID Positive, prior to their departure.

LTR: What recommendations would you share with travelers to stay ahead of the uncertainties presented by travel during a worldwide pandemic?

JE: Plan ahead. Take each day as it comes look to book with service providers that offer flexibility.

*Photo courtesy of Julian Edmunds


Spanish wines we sampled via New Mexico

Spanish wines we sampled via New Mexico

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

The non vintage Silverhead Brut our favorite

In celebration of health, life, peace and hope we made time to taste three Spanish wine samples we received from Vara Winery & Distillery in New Mexico (315 Alameda Boulevard NE Albuquerque, New Mexico 87113, +1-805-815-7693, https://varawines.com/). Vara sells 12 types of Spanish and American wines bottled in Albuquerque.

We tasted the Garnacha Rosado 2018, Tempranillo 2018, and non vintage Silverhead Brut on separate occasions. While we liked all three the cava was our favorite.

The Tempranillo consisted of 82 percent tempranillo and 18 percent garnacha grapes.

The Silverhead Brut, made with the Cava Método Tradicional, was refreshing, lightly fruity, well balanced, easy to drink. It had a pleasing pale yellow color and stood on its own with a clean finish. It paired well with fresh Florida stone crabs, fish dip and a green salad. We liked it best chilled although it held up well after a few minutes.

The lightly chilled Garnacha was a success with poultry and vegetable soup, even foie gras mousse. Its medium to light intensity held up to the flavors of the dishes without overpowering them. It had a mild finish. It was made with 100 percent garnacha grapes harvested from Viñedos de Santo Cristo and Campo de Borja in Spain.

We first tasted the Garnacha Rosado 2018.

The Tempranillo, a red wine made from the same vineyards as the Garnacha, consisted of 82 percent tempranillo and 18 percent garnacha grapes. Its deep red with a hint of purple promised a full bodied wine. On its own it was good with a gentle finish. It paired well with grilled German bratwurst and homemade fries. It was stout enough to match with sauerkraut.

“Vara means cane in Spanish, King Philip of Spain gave the Vara, Cane of Sovereignty, to the 19 northern pueblos of New Mexico, a huge honor,” said Doug Diefenthaler, co-founder, Vara Winery & Distillery, by email through his publicist in response to questions about the winery and its products. “Our grapes for our Spanish wines are estate grown, harvested, and made fermentation stable in Campo de Borja, Spain before bringing the wine here to our winery for barreling, blending, finishing, and bottling.”

The slightly chilled Garnacha

Diefenthaler, who is executive vice president of the company, co-founded it with Xavier Zamarripa, an artist. Vara has wine making directorial privileges at a facility in Ainzon, Campo de Borja, Spain in order to process and ferment its wines near the vineyard source.

Tasman helicopter flight trip highlight

Tasman helicopter flight trip highlight

We were the only people at Wharariki Beach – click to expand to full size

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

My off the beaten track Intrepid tour of the South Island (Te Waipounamu) of New Zealand began in Nelson. I was originally supposed to fly from the Nelson airport to the Westhaven Retreat by helicopter following a domestic flight into Nelson. It would have been faster than the multi-hour drive. Most importantly we would soar above the popular Tasman National Park, the smallest national park in New Zealand and one of the most popular.

Pilot Logan Moore standing in front of the Eurocopter EC120 at Westhaven Retreat

When a series of wildfires broke out near Nelson I anticipated my helicopter flight would be cancelled and it was. While I enjoyed the drive with my guide (Veronika Vermeulen, owner, Aroha New Zealand Tours) because it allowed me to get to know her and see a bit of the country, I was disappointed at having missed the helicopter flight. Fortunately, Veronika found a work around.

Our view of Westhaven Retreat as we departed

She scheduled the private Top of the South Tour on our departure. To make it possible on our departure day she left Westhaven Retreat early in the morning in the sports utility vehicle with our luggage. I stayed behind to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and the pretty ocean vistas. A few minutes after breakfast, from the expansive windows of the Westhaven dining room, I spotted a tiny metal bird approaching. In the blink of an eye the other guests and I watched it land on the nearby lawn.

At the Mount Olympus Lord of the Rings film site

Within minutes Logan Moore, chief executive officer and pilot of Tasman Helicopters (Tangmere place, Nelson Airport www.tasmanhelicopters.co.nz, info@tasmanhelicopters.co.nz,  035288075) and I were airborne. From departure to arrival we didn’t see a soul. We flew in a Eurocopter EC120 built in 2008 with just over 2,000 flight hours and capacity for four passengers.

We flew over coastal areas, some isolated and some well populated

The 90-minute flight was one of the highlights of my trip to New Zealand. We stopped twice, at Wharariki Beach and at the Mount Olympus Lord of the Rings film site. I especially loved the dazzling beach stop. For a few minutes I had the impression we were the only humans for miles on the beautiful and unspoiled beach. Minutes later we landed in a rocky and hilly landscape. As soon as Logan identified which Lord of the Rings movie the film site belonged to I recognized it. The video clip on his tablet confirmed it.

During a coffee break at Motueka Airport

Tasman Helicopters, co-owned by Ross Moore and Logan Moore, was established in 2015. According to Logan, who responded to questions by email, the company had no safety incidents.

Thanks to nice weather the scenery sparkled. The sky was clear and the flight was smooth, making time disappear faster than I anticipated. We landed at Motueka Airport, where my guide awaited me. As we continued on my tour memories of the flight lingered.

From US to NZ on Virgin Australia International Long Haul Premium

From US to NZ on Virgin Australia International Long Haul Premium

Middle seats on the better than economy section

I was thrilled at the prospect of visiting New Zealand, but finding a comfortable flight from the United States to New Zealand that didn’t break my travel spirit because of the length of the flight or my budget was so challenging I almost cancelled my trip. Although flying time on the United States to New Zealand flights was better than the longer flying time required on flights with connections en route to New Zealand the cost of the United States to New Zealand flights was 30 percent or more greater than I wanted to spend, and that was for an economy seat. Given the length of travel (some itineraries I found, alone and with the help of “expert” travel agents, exceeded 50 hours of travel, including sometimes 12 hour and longer layovers) I wanted something better than economy.

After days of searching and talking to 12 or more airline and travel specialists I found a combination of flying time, comfort and price I could live with on Virgin Australia International. Unfortunately the only routing possible was through Los Angeles. That airport, I soon discovered, was undergoing renovations involving extensive construction work.

Despite my best efforts and hours long conversations with the carrier it was impossible to book the flight as a single ticket from my departure airport. With the aid of a supervisor I booked two domestic connections to Los Angeles as a stand alone ticket. From there I flew Virgin Australia International to New Zealand via Australia on its slightly better than economy class fare, International Long Haul Premium.

The Virgin Australia amenity kit

Arriving at LAX while it was under construction was no fun. As there was no universal agreement on the amount of time necessary for me to connect from my domestic to my international flights (three hours minimum was the common advice, more if possible) I booked an extra long layover. Once I was off of my domestic flight I had to collect my luggage from the domestic flight terminal, exit, make my way to another concourse (it was rather challenging to discover the path or distance involved in advance), pass through security, and check in for my Virgin Australia flight.

The lounge at LAX where I waited for my connection looked tired and unimpressive. As boarding time neared I was eager to board the flight to Brisbane although it meant the longest connection in my trip. Once on the aircraft the section set aside for Premium economy passengers looked slightly better than I had dared hope. I was in an aisle seat in row 16. The seat leaned back partway and was comfortable enough although the ambient temperature was uncomfortably chilly for most of the flight. Even my neighbor, a tall man from the Midwest used to cold winters, made use of the small synthetic fabric that passed for a “luxurious” blanket. The return flight to Los Angeles from Australia had the same uncomfortable frigid conditions.

In order to carry fewer items on the trip I left my noise canceling headphones at home and was pleased to find a headset for my use on board.

Amenities included 41 inch seat pitch and nine inch recline, according to the airline’s website (I didn’t measure them); as well as 10.6 inch Seatback In-flight entertainment screen, noise cancelling headset, in-seat electrical power and USB connectivity. My entertainment system was functional as was the headset on both flights. The flights from Australia to New Zealand and back were Economy.

On the International Long Haul Premium flights everything was much better than on the Economy service for the same carrier. Although the printed menu promised delicious meals when they arrived it was the usual overcooked airline food. After the meal service and before the pre-landing snack a few self-serve snacks and beverages were available from a refrigerator. After a while the snacks disappeared. My favorite was the dark chocolate and coconut bar, an Australian flavor of a well known brand. Only one was on offer on my United States bound flight. On the outbound flight I didn’t sample any wines. On the return, they were out of the New Zealand wine of my choice from the wine list.

The staff were friendly and attentive on departure. After that the service waned. The first flight from the United States to Brisbane, Australia offered the best service of the four Virgin Australia International flights. It was far superior than the service on the domestic carrier stateside.

My hours of travel were long and I was exhausted on arrival in New Zealand to a crowded airport with long lines, brusque and impatient staff and strict customs rules. The 30 percent savings in the airfare combined with the shorter flying hours, slight onboard comforts, extra space and intimate section (the Premium seats were in a section of their own between business and economy) made the purchase worthwhile. Overall I was pleased with my selection of flights and ticket price. Based on the two flights from LAX to Australia I would fly Virgin Australia International’s International Long Haul Premium again.