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Pacific Eagle in New Zealand wine country

Pacific Eagle near Picton, New Zealand

Pacific Eagle near Picton, New ZealandPeter Stewart owns this beautiful sailing yacht and acts as her captain, introducing charter guests to his home cruising grounds near the town of Picton, on New Zealand’s South Island.

The lovely sailing yacht Pacific Eagle is the lone charter option in New Zealand’s wine country

By Kim Kavin

Cloudy 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 for 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 charter as it has become for wine.

Stewart is the owner and captain of the 102-foot Alloy sailing yacht 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, which was stunning (parts of The Lord of the Rings were filmed near his farm) but never called to him like the sea. In 1999, when New Zealand was preparing to defend the America’s Cup, Stewart knew he and his 65-foot sailing yacht needed to be part of the action. “I said to myself, ‘How can I go be involved in all 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, mixing not only with his guests, but with the assemblage of helicopters, heads of state, and famous boats. He’d had his beloved yacht for about ten years, but the setting rekindled a lust he’d long harbored for a bigger sailboat by the same designer. The 102-footer had been launched as Dove II in the mid-1990s and later rechristened Fantasea by a German man who bought her 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 German 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, 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 like the 6-foot-2 Stewart in the companionways.

What the boat most needed was an updated décor. Stewart turned to his wife, Pieter Stewart, who is highly respected for her work with L’Oreal 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 Capt. 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. That’s not to say the area makes for drab cruising; on the contrary, 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 well-maintained “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. As guests of Pacific Eagle, we got dropped off at the tip of Ship’s Cove and tramped all morning down to Resolution Bay, where the yacht and her talented three-man crew were eagerly awaiting our return. Read more

First mate Sebastian Alexander has been in the yachting business only 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 bed sheets so they feel crisp and clean at the end of each activity-filled 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 collected bare-handed from the bay while awaiting our return. As we showered and collected ourselves, they set out the rest of our buffet: wild pork tatins, green and yellow heirloom tomatoes, delicious feta served with watermelon slices and fresh basil, wild watercress with red pepper and pumpkin seeks, 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.