House of the week: Christmas at a sunny Whangapoua bach
For Hamish and Fiona Cameron and their family, Christmas spells beach holidays. And not just any beach. They have both – separately, together and later with their children – been holidaying at Whangapoua in the Coromandel for as long as they can remember. They probably couldn't tell you when they first met; their families have always been friends.
Hamish and Fiona still love to spend every Christmas at this idyllic spot, with their children, Kirsty, 19, and Alastair, 16, and other family members and friends who happen to be around.
"I do a full Christmas dinner with turkey and Christmas pudding, but the difference here is you can put the turkey in the oven, then go out paddleboarding," says Fiona.
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"And you don't have to leave afterwards," adds Hamish.
The story began in the late '60s, when both Hamish's and Fiona's families visited Whangapoua, a newish subdivision on the north-eastern side of the Coromandel Peninsula. They all stayed with relatives of the Camerons who had recently built a house at this isolated beach a long way from home at the end of a twisty gravel road.
The two families saw the potential, bought beachfront sections and built neighbouring baches. Fiona's architect uncle, Jim Stewart, a partner at Foote and Stewart, designed their house. "Uncle Jim was influenced by the simplicity of the Scandinavian designs beginning to be admired in the '60s and '70s," recalls Fiona.
"Our house was meant to be a Lockwood but the builder went bankrupt, so we ended up with a conventional build. Pre-cut native timber – matai floors, tawa wall linings – was delivered by an articulated truck, which couldn't get round a bend on the Whangapoua hill. All the timber had to be lifted off and carried by hand to a trailer around the corner."
As children, Hamish, Fiona and a gang of cousins and friends spent the holidays running wild over the hills. "One Christmas a friend built grass skis and we spent the summer grass skiing. We were pretty badly bruised by the end of it," says Fiona.
"Eventually we got our act together," says Hamish. "And once we were married we mainly holidayed in Fiona's family bach."
The original house was fairly compact. "But homes, and families, go through different phases and you sometimes have to reinvent different aspects to make sure they keep working," says Hamish, who is a practice director at Auckland architecture firm Archimedia.
The first addition was a separate rear wing for Fiona's father, who loved holidaying with his family before he died a couple of years ago, and Hamish and Fiona took over guardianship of the property. "We wanted to give him his own space, so his friends could drop in and enjoy peace and quiet when our children were younger and noisier," says Fiona. "When we did that renovation, we rediscovered the apricot tree – it had come from an apricot orchard in Kuaotunu, and was crowded out with undergrowth. We gave it a last chance and it came back magnificently."
More recently, with the house at risk of falling off its piles and other maintenance required, they decided to make a few more improvements. "The children were older and needed an area to hang out, and we no longer needed space for bunk beds," says Hamish. "It was a good opportunity to make a few changes."
Of course, the architect in Hamish has enjoyed the opportunity to muse on some of the principles behind his design ideas. "I really believe when you're renovating, if the house has intrinsic character it is best to work with that. We wanted to open up the interior spaces, but keep the original feel of the house."
It was important to the Camerons that the renovations maintained links with the house's history. "We took time to think changes through and didn't do anything in a knee-jerk way. We wanted to achieve a sense of continuity, and as various areas were updated we have made sure the modernised spaces don't stand out."
The existing layout of the house was still successful. "We love having decks on both sides of the house. The back is sheltered when the wind is blowing off the beach," says Fiona.
But a few small changes have had a huge impact on the living spaces. They decided to keep the tawa wall linings and the matai floors, but sanded them to remove the dark stain, "which makes the whole interior so much lighter and brighter", says Hamish.
Extending the covered deck overlooking the beach means a table can now stay out there permanently, and a solid wall at one end forms a protective wind buffer. A bonus of this addition is the large, lockable storage space created underneath the deck – now filled with kayaks and other beach equipment that seems to accumulate at most beach houses.
The original kitchen is still here. "It's in keeping with the style of the house," says Hamish, while Fiona points out that the sink has the best view in the world. "Mum was a great cook and loved the view, so she could cook and watch us as children on the beach."
Understandably, Fiona has no wish to move the sink if they redo the kitchen – "but we would love a dishwasher".
Hamish and Fiona, a doctor, both lead busy lives. "One reason we love coming here is the complete change of environment, so we can really relax," says Fiona. "You come into a warm community covering three or four generations of family, old and new friends, and you can get together or just do your own thing."
Christmas to me is: The pohutukawa in bloom. We have enjoyed Christmas here for years; it's a lovely, relaxing day in a beautiful setting. You're already on holiday. (Fiona)
Favourite Christmas tradition: Kirsty makes the most amazing pavlovas. (Fiona)
Most debated decision: Whether to have micro-blinds in the bedroom. We thought they were out of date and would be noisy in the wind, but Kate Thode, who helped with the interior, suggested them in the bay window and they are perfect. (Hamish)
High point of the renovation: Seeing the potential in the bedrooms when we raised the ceilings. They had been flat, and raising them was something I had thought about for years, so it was great to find it worked so well. (Hamish)
Favourite local shop: WANT Nursery in Kuaotunu. We've bought lots of stuff from there over the years. (Fiona)
Best time to visit: Late January or February for the sea and surf; Christmas to catch up with family and friends; midwinter to enjoy the beautiful views and cosy evenings in front of the fire. (Fiona)
Hamish and Fiona Cameron
- NZ House & Garden