House of the week: A Kerikeri home that's all about the beach
Enduring one Christmas without a tree wasn't the end of the world for Vanessa and Richard Owen. But when they temporarily moved out of their Kerikeri waterfront home, beautifully decorated for Christmas, to make way for holiday renters, it was too much for their young son Reef.
"He walked into our neighbour's bach where we were staying, burst into tears and said: 'Where's the Christmas tree?' So Richard took him down to the beach promising, 'We'll make the best Christmas tree you've ever had.'"
And they did, with shells, bits of driftwood and string. "It will be our Christmas tree forever now," says Vanessa. "We just love it and Reef loves it because it is his."
A handmade driftwood Christmas tree fits perfectly in the Owens' family home. Vanessa, whose holiday home rental business is called Driftwood, has a styling mantra: "I like putting things together that don't cost an arm and a leg," she says.
One of her favourite creations is a "smashed up piece of boat" she and Reef found on the beach. They took it home, stencilled it with the house's coordinates and the name Driftwood, then hung it on the wall. One year, chunks of driftwood were turned into lamps with the words "A smooth sea never made a skilful sailor".
As well as being a great source of raw materials for embellishing their home, the beach is central to family life for the Owens – even their little Jack Russells, Annie and Archie, have been convinced to go swimming with the family.
The Owens had always loved this stretch of sand, often sailing past it and stopping to picnic. Twelve years ago they managed to buy the land that ran down to the beach. Later, they found a villa in Dargaville and trucked it to the site. "We gutted it back to bare walls," says Vanessa, and the couple spent the next 10 years transforming it into the welcoming family home they'd envisaged.
"Often our friends will come around, walk in the house and the kettle will be warm, but there is no sign of us anywhere because we are down at the beach," says Vanessa.
Christmas for the Owen family – Richard, Vanessa and their children Reef, eight, Milli, 16, Poppy, 21, and Dione, 23 – is all about food, family and a beautifully decorated table.
Originally from England, Vanessa and Richard still can't let go of their favourite Christmas traditions. Crayfish and salad is just not festive enough. "We are all divers so crayfish is the norm, it just doesn't feel like Christmas to me," says Vanessa.
"I get teased mercilessly about it, but for me Christmas is absolutely about a pot of mulled wine on the Aga, the turkey roasting, making stuffing, and if the weather is rubbish it feels even more Christmassy to us."
The wreath on the door symbolises their English-New Zealand blend, with its English pine foliage and assortment of starfish, shells and (of course) driftwood from the beach.
These reminders of the couple's Northern Hemisphere beginnings pop up throughout the home, with many pieces from England and France. The kitchen table, for example, was originally a ping-pong table bought by Richard and Vanessa two years after getting married. "It had no value at all, we paid about 20 pounds for it, but we have done it up over the years and I'm very attached to it," says Vanessa.
A Barry Ross Smith print of the Queen with a moko is another of Vanessa's favourites. "It references where we are from and where we are now," she says.
Vanessa and Richard emigrated to New Zealand 20 years ago after seven years sailing around the world. "All the people we met while sailing who were interesting and dynamic were Kiwis," says Vanessa, recalling characters such as a Stewart Island man who answered their SOS call off the coast of Bermuda and a Kiwi barman in South America.
The arrival of a couple of children and an urge to live somewhere other than the UK prompted Vanessa and Richard to purchase a one-way ticket to Auckland. "We immediately thought, yes, this is where we want to be," says Vanessa. "We came with absolutely nothing and just started with one house in Kerikeri, did it up, moved onto the next one that was a bit better, and then the next, and the next, and really over the last 20 years we have inched our way up to our dream home."
Friends love it too, and Vanessa treasures their home's casual, drop-in vibe. Occasionally someone will pop in when no one's home and leave a message on the blackboard at their entrance. One message read: "Couldn't wait, but had a cup of tea and did the dishes." That's all the evidence Vanessa needs that they've created the easy-living lifestyle they longed for.
This Christmas: Ness' sister and her kids are coming from the UK. Reef misses having cousins around so it will be great.
On Christmas morning we eat: Crêpes with cinnamon.
My favourite festive memory: Trying to cram a huge turkey into the very small oven on our yacht anchored off Sandy Island in the Grenadines.
Best piece of advice I ever received: When we found this land and couldn't quite afford it, my friend Craig said: "Do what you need to do to own this."
I'll never forget: Waterblasting the clay and mud off the inside walls of the house after it arrived in the pouring rain.
One tip for other homeowners: Hone your granite/marble benchtops instead of having them polished – much easier on the eye and never shows the mess.
A walk I often recommend: Taronui Bay track, which leads to the most amazing deserted beach.
- NZ House & Garden