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A TRIP OF A LIFETIME: RODD & GUNN CUSTOMERS WENDY & JOHN WIN A SCENIC NZ ESCAPE7th July 2023
As Wendy Cunningham watched her husband look out across the Lyttelton Harbour, she felt a swell of emotion. John stood at the shoreline, completely captivated by the SailGP boats as they cut through the water at high-speed.
To anyone else, John was just another spectator at this year's New Zealand Sail Grand Prix. But to Wendy, this man was a miracle. It was March 18th, exactly three years to the day that John was diagnosed with bowel cancer. And he'd fought back. He survived a gruelling fifteen-hour surgery and multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. That simple moment - the yawning expanse of the water, the salty air, the display of courage and adventure from the sailors - it was a reminder of what it felt like to be truly alive.
"He was standing on the Lyttelton Harbour, looking out at the race. I glanced at him, and it just took me back. Three years ago, our future was very uncertain. And if you'd said in three years' time that we'd be in New Zealand, we wouldn't have believed you!"
Last August, John and Wendy won the Rodd & Gunn competition exclusively with John Lewis in the UK. The prize? Escapism! A trip of a lifetime to New Zealand and VIP tickets to the SailGP event in Christchurch. The UK based couple married forty six years, were shocked.
John remembers the moment fondly.
"I'd just come out of a meeting at the hospital and was given the all clear. And then I got this phone call from John Lewis saying you've won a holiday. So, I said to Wendy, what are you doing in March? Because well, we're going to New Zealand!"
Wendy was awestruck.
"I thought he was joking! We could not believe it. I mean, it's such an amazing prize. A complete dream comes true."
Before heading off on their adventure, John stocked up on his Rodd & Gunn favourites, with Wendy fondly joking about how much of his packed bag was dedicated solely to Rodd & Gunn.
Together with Rodd & Gunn's travel partner Pure Black, the pair designed a bespoke itinerary that took them across the entire length of the country by plane and car - from New Zealand's oldest settlement in Russell to the remote wilderness of Doubtful Sound.
"We'd seen pictures of New Zealand, but nothing quite prepares you for the utter beauty. It's stunning," Wendy recalls.
They fell in love with the charming harbourside town of Russell, the first stop on their three-week trip. After a twenty-four journey from London, slow cooked lamb and Chambourcin at the Duke Hotel was a welcome relief.
"From there, Wendy and John made their way down the North Island by car. The quiet open roads, punctuated with breath-taking views and the occasional hot pie in a cosy roadside town, left an indelible mark on them both.
"It was so quiet and empty compared to the UK. Driving was a joy."
One of their favourite spots was Martinborough, an unassuming village nestled in South Wairarapa. A true hidden gem, it's known for its rolling olive groves and spectacular wine.
Wendy and John agreed Martinborough wines were world-class with a regional feel. A full day tour took them along the "golden mile" of family-run wineries. The pair spent time with the winemakers, who shared stories of their trade. John was struck by the local's down-to-earth nature. Locals, who simply enjoyed good wine and sharing it with one another after a hard day's work.
"The wine, oh the wine! We think you keep the best over there in Martinborough. We asked the winemakers; do you export this wine? And they said, "no, because we'd rather drink it ourselves!". Not to worry, we knew we were heading down South to Queenstown and had been told ‘The Lodge Bar' stocked all our favourites."
Of course, no trip to New Zealand is complete without exploring the rugged beauty of the South Island. On their first day in Queenstown, the couple woke up to a crisp, bright Winter's morning, complete with a fresh dusting of snow on the mountains. It was an unforgettable alpine view that will stay with the Cunninghams forever.
"We woke up looking out over the lake from this fabulous hotel and saw the snow on the mountains. The top of the mountains was golden, from where the morning sun hit the peaks. We felt so blessed."
While their trip had plenty of languid evenings spent dining harbourside, sampling local produce and meandering through leafy enclaves, the Cunninghams didn't shy away from a little adventure. After all, Kiwis are known for their adventurous spirit - their willingness to roll their sleeves up and stare down the barrel of a challenge with a cheeky grin.
"For the grand finale, we thought we'd go out with a bang. And so we did the heli hike on the Tasman Glacier." You can see the couples' glint in their eyes as they spoke about the experience.
The fly-in, fly-out heli-hike combines the excitement of a helicopter ride darting above the glaciers, with the excitement of walking atop the glacial ridges. The sheer magnitude of the glacier, the warmth and care of their tour guide, the infinite expanse of white, all of it was an unforgettable moment for them both.
"When John got diagnosed, we thought we wouldn't be able to do the adventures we've come to love over the years. When I was younger, if you mentioned camping or walking, I'd be like "Oh, no, I don't think so!" Now, we've transformed. All I can think is - why didn't I do this years ago!"
Rodd & Gunn, proud sponsors of the SailGP Christchurch event, invited the couple to join them at the race. Stationed right at the waters' edge in the VIP lounge, the Cunninghams watched hydro-foiling catamarans reach speeds of almost 100 km/h as they flew within meters of the shoreline by Naval Point.
"I couldn't believe how close the boats were. It's a completely different vibe to the quietness of the mountains. The champagne was flowing, the whole atmosphere was electric."
During the two-day racing event, the Cunninghams spent time with the Rodd & Gunn key stakeholders, including Mike Beagley, the CEO. Thanks to the team's hospitality, kindness and playful banter, the pair have left with lifelong friends.
John, a retired businessman, instantly connected with Mike. They shared an entrepreneurial spirit, and a love for fine wine and good company.
"We became part of the gang. They made us feel incredibly welcome. In fact, we all got a bit tearful when we said goodbye. It was special, a true trip highlight"
Wendy even surprised John with a Rodd & Gunn x SailGP NZL waterproof jacket on his birthday - a special piece of clothing that will keep his memories of New Zealand alive for years to come.
While the Cunninghams got to experience New Zealand's rolling green hills, craggy mountain ranges and breath-taking fjords, what stuck with them the most, was the people they met.
The pair spoke of the service with a smile they received at petrol stations dotted along the vast countryside. The local they met at Huka Falls, who struck up a conversation and invited them to stay at her home. The vivacious woman working front of house at a Arrowtown winery, who made sure the Cunninghams could get a true cellar door experience, despite being fully booked. And of course, the Rodd & Gunn team, with whom they shared champagne and swapped stories with.
"We enjoy meeting people. It was so great to meet Rodd & Gunn, to meet the people in New Zealand across the North and the South. We've met some amazing characters. Just wonderful people."