Slice of Marlborough magic

The stunning view from Gunyah is tranquil for just an hour a day, when the churning sea ripping in and out of the Tory Channel "slacks" briefly on the change of tide.

It's little wonder, then, that guests to this cottage perched high on a hill at the tip of the Marlborough Sounds sit mesmerised at a picture window watching ferries come and go, smaller boats struggle against the tidal flow and birds float swiftly along the top of the water like pucks across ice.

Little wonder, too, that those mesmerised guests have occasionally been responsible for warning Antonia and Mike Radon when boats get into trouble.

The Radons, she from Wellington and he from California, met in northern California in the 1980s where they were part of a caravan-living community riding on a massive boom in the sea urchin (kina) industry.

In 1993, on one of their regular off-season trips to New Zealand, they happened to see a real estate listing for the 360ha waterfront farm owned by the Perano family, who had long fished and whaled in these waters.

Intrigued, they decided they had just enough time in Picton to head out to Whekenui Bay, on Arapawa Island, to take a look.

Antonia says noticing the sale sign was good luck, visiting the farm was spur-of-the-moment and seeing the view was life changing.

"We walked into that house up there and into the front room and thought `wow!'

"We've got this video of us saying `it's a lifetime's worth of work'."

They were on their way to the Bay of Islands, but Mike got as far as Antonia's mum's house in Hamilton before he decided he couldn't let it go.

He flew back down, took his accountant for a visit and bought it then and there.

The couple returned to the US to get married (followed by a second, bigger version at Gunyah the next summer), bought a live-on boat and concentrated on paying off the farm.

For the next five years, 10 months a year were spent in a "marathon of fishing", diving for sea urchins up to seven hours every day, broken by six weeks at Arapawa in New Zealand's summer, spent renovating the buildings.

"We were so motivated to make money for this place," Mike says.

"Everyone else would say `how do you do it?', but we could come back here to rejuvenate."

That rejuvenation involved first repairing Gunyah, which was built by Joe and Patty Perano in 1945 but uninhabited for 12 years before the Radons bought it.

They replaced rotting woodwork and windows.

Then they set about restoring it to its original style, with rich floral Axminster carpet, shining antique china cabinets topped with crocheted doilies, and a kitchen gleaming with perfectly painted pastel green 1950s cabinetry. "I wanted to keep everything the way it was," Antonia says.

Back in California, they had bought a boat to live on so they could concentrate on making money for the farm and for Gunyah. The more they visited, the more they discovered the natural qualities of their property, from the many stunning views to the underwater rock formations, teeming with life.

For Mike, who had dreamed of farming abalone for more than three decades, the discovery of rich paua stocks throughout the bay was wonderful. He had thought it looked a good spot, "but I didn't know how right I was".

They also quickly began to appreciate the property's layered history, with its concrete World War II gun emplacements and close connection to whaling.

Te Awaiti, where John Guard established a whaling station in 1827, is two bays away and the Perano whaling station, which processed humpback whales from 1911 to the end of whaling in 1964, is just around the corner.

The Whekenui School house, down on the Radons' beach, was where whalers' children came to do their times tables, and the woolshed on their beach (now housing a paua farm) used to fix damaged whale chaser boats.

Early on in their life there, someone gave them a book about whaling in the area, which talked of families living in hardship through harsh winters.

"Here we were in winter, complaining it was cold, then we would look at this book and say `wow'," says Mike.

When Gunyah was complete, they moved on to renovating the school house, putting in windows to catch the view, taking out the macrocarpa trees that blocked it, then turning the timber into gleaming big bed heads and kitchen bench top.

Kitchen cabinetry came from the property's second house, down near the beach, which they also renovated, realising it would be easier with young children, and with work in the paua farm they planned to establish on the shoreline.

Now that homestead is a warm heart of the property, with a constant coming and going of family, friends, Wwoofers (willing workers on organic farms) and guests.

The beautiful garden around it is testimony to Antonia's energy, a wide sweeping lawn wrapped in a border of thriving plants and sheltered by trees planted many decades before.

Beyond, a lush vegetable garden means the family, who dive together for their seafood and grow their meat and eggs, have little need for weekly supermarket deliveries.

The conditions can be harsh on this exposed tip of the South Island, and Antonia says shelter is essential, as is using the plants that work well there, like the abundant hydrangeas that thrive around the house and school house.

In 1998, after five years commuting between California and Marlborough, Antonia fell pregnant with twins.

"I said, 'Right, Mike, we can't keep doing this. I have to start looking out for me.' My whole life changed."

They came back to New Zealand when she was seven months' pregnant.

"I could barely sit in the economy seats. I still didn't have a midwife. I knew nothing about any of it."

These days she home schools their three children, though it's a constant struggle to drag them away from the water, the hills they have grown up on and the guests that come to stay at Gunyah and the school house.

Antonia says it's amazing to be able to share the magic spot with visitors, who are almost always as blown away as they were on their first visit.

"It's a special, unique spot. You explain on the phone but it's not until people get here that they realise, you just can't come for a couple of days.'



Renovation wasn't the only thing on Mike Radon's mind when he visited his Arapawa Island farm every summer.

The potential for growing paua on the shoreline, something he could never achieve in the United States, was also high on the agenda.

He had first explored abalone farming in the US in 1973, and on trips to New Zealand had explored possibilities, including a trip to the Chatham Islands to meet paua farming pioneer Roger Beattie.

In 2001, he and Antonia launched Arapawa Seafarms, starting with just four tanks and a plan for supplying cocktail-size paua meat.

More than a decade on, they have more than 200 tanks and produce juvenile paua for several commercial reseeding projects, as well as large paua for abalone pearls and meat.

"It all fell together when I came to New Zealand. I thought, this looks like the spot but I didn't know how right I was."

The Marlborough Express