Passion shared with 'perfect job'

INVITING: Ratanui Lodge in Golden Bay.
INVITING: Ratanui Lodge in Golden Bay.

Ratanui Lodge in Golden Bay is the essence of a couple living their dream. The lifestyle Steve Wakeman and Pete Willocks have created reinvents the term "commuting to work".

Steve and Pete started out in completely different worlds, Steve in New Hampshire, United States, a state where the motto is "Live Free or Die", and where there is no sales or personal income tax. While at university, he funded his lifestyle by working as a valet parker, doorman and bellman, as he climbed the hospitality hierarchal ranks. He loved the industry so much he abandoned a blossoming academic career for it.

"I loved it, still do, I started at 19 years old and have worked my way up learning all the way. I transferred to a hotel in San Francisco and then an exclusive resort in Alaska where the only access was by five-seater plane."

At the same time, in New Zealand Pete was selling his 120-cow dairy farm in Inch Clutha, south Otago, and venturing into the dairy industry at a technical level, to pursue his passion for cheese making.

When Steve arrived in New Zealand at the behest of an American travel agent keen to learn more about New Zealand, the men met and quickly set up shop together, spending half the year at Awaroa in the Abel Tasman working in a lodge and the other half in Alaska also working in the hospitality business. They were honing their skills, to eventually own their own business.

They began to develop their dream, an exclusive lodge, seaside, where they could offer the elements they knew were so unique and exclusive to Golden Bay - good food, excellent accommodation and good company, a place to "chill out" the Kiwi way, yet in style.

A year ago they opened for business, leasing a premises' specifically designed and built to their requirements, Ratanui Lodge, opposite Pohara Beach, beneath the limestone cliffs and with the setting sun on the horizon to punctuate the end of each day.

"It's going great," Steve says, "we've got an apartment upstairs so we are right here to cater for our guests' needs 24/7, we like it that way, it's important to offer service."

They selected the furnishings, sourced from the US and locally, creating a decor to make guests feel the place is a home away from home.

Each of the 10 rooms is individual but decorated to make people feel at home.

"We stayed just three doors down while the place was built so we could watch and oversee the development."

Their business is very much their home, the men rarely leave, generally only to indulge in a little outdoor recreation that Golden Bay is known so well for - kayaking, hiking beachside or on hillside tracks.

"I've always enjoyed cooking, I suppose I started when I went flatting and it's just gone on from there," Pete says.

He cooks up a treat for up to 34 diners most nights and is back cooking over the grill the next morning preparing a hot breakfast if ordered. The couple say while the lifestyle is busy and demanding they love living on the job, and they say going to work for them involves walking down the stairs.

"Things just happen here," says Pete. "An elderly lady who had been a resident in Golden Bay for a long time died and her sons offered this piano to us on loan. It was evidently the first piano at Nelson's School of Music, it was made by Richard Lipp from Stuttgart and is apparently over 150 years old. "

In fact Richard Lipp & Sohn was established in 1831 and music experts say their pianos set the standard worldwide.

House keeping is similar to any home just on a larger scale, 10 rooms of carpeting need to be vacuumed, 10 ensuites bathrooms cleaned and 10 lots of beds made, when the house is full.

"We treat everyone like our own guests, because they are really staying in our home," says Pete. "Steve is front of house so he does all the welcoming and serving at tables and I do the cooking, but we'd be lost without locals Bob and Trish McTaggert and Rosita Toynbee who help us when we need extra assistance. They are amazing."

The lodge includes a swimming pool with plenty of patios outside and the Pohara beach, a typically safe Golden Bay beach, across the road. While their apartment overlooks the beach and Golden Bay, the men don't have the time to choose the day's activities according to the weather, like many Golden Bay residents.

"Summer is, of course, our busiest time so while we may work from home, summer isn't the time we can relax Golden Bay style, that's for our guests to enjoy."

Like any good host, Pete rotates his nightly cuisine through the traditional main options of fish, beef, lamb, chicken, pork and venison, while expanding and varying the menu with herbs, his methods of cooking and accompanying vegetables.

"I use as much local produce as possible, so it varies according to the season and the weather.

"What's funny is that fresh fish isn't sold here in Golden Bay. We get it from Nelson.

"Visitors are always surprised, but we get it in fresh, as we have a wonderful supplier."

Steve takes time off in the winter to visit family in the United States, and despite the returns from dairying these days, Pete has no regrets about leaving Inch Clutha and the cows to head north and into the hospitality business.

"This is home. I love it here," he says. "It's just what we had in mind when we began to think about living our dream and owning our own place. It couldn't be better."

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