Nest easy in Kaikoura
I almost bump my head on the sky. I can tickle the stars. If I were to reach up from my crow's nest in the treetops, I could stroke the round belly of the moon. Or so it seems, staying in one of the tree houses at Hapuku Lodge.
A full moon hangs outside my window like a giant pearl, so bright it casts a regiment of shadows behind the olive trees below, and makes their leaves glow silver. Miles Davis blows cool and blue through a muted trumpet in the corner, tag-teaming with John Coltrane in the depths of a well-stocked iPod.
Am I drinking wine? Indeed I am, and why not? I feel almost giddy with pleasure here, perched between the mountains and the sea just north of Kaikoura, in a big warm room 10 metres above the ground, gazing out towards the sea through the tree canopy, my belly full of wild venison and porcini mushrooms, my wife and daughter softly snoozing nearby.
How did I get here? I guess you could say I got ideas above my station. Ground down by winter, knackered from relentless toil, I decided it was high time a lowly journalist like myself experienced a little luxury for a change. Surely I deserved it, given my decades of selfless dedication to the cultural life of the nation?
Normally my holidays are circumscribed by my puny bank balance, so my usual strategy is to go somewhere beautiful and stay somewhere cheap, with the location the drawcard and the room merely a place to sleep after being out all day. But this time I was on a writing trip. Money was no object, so why not go somewhere where the accommodation WAS the destination, then just stay put?
So I ransacked Trip Advisor, searching for high-end accommodation options previous visitors had loved. The Hapuku page stood out - it was crammed with digital testimonials from blissfully gobsmacked souls who used far too many superlatives and had written things like: "This was the most beautiful place we had ever seen!"
Even their emails seemed damp with tears of joy. I could find only two complaints. One sourpuss moaned because all rooms had been fully booked and he couldn't get in. And another complained that, while the place was magnificent in every other respect, too much sun streamed in through the windows each morning at sunrise.
This, apparently, is Hapuku Lodge's most egregious fault: too much sunlight, beating down from a clear blue sky. Now that I'm here, I would add other irritations such as an overabundance of tranquillity, the relentless glitter of sun on sea, and the blinding whiteness of the mountain peaks.
Hapuku Lodge was developed by the Wilsons, a close-knit whanau of New Zealand architects and eco-foodies who divide their time between here and San Francisco. A folder at the foot of the bed outlines the history of the place, from early imaginings right down to a breakdown of which fine timbers were used to build the bespoke furniture in your room. A lifelong traveller himself, project leader Tony Wilson had one guiding principle in mind: "To provide guests with a great night's sleep in one of the most beautiful places in the world."
For once, this is more than just tourist-brochure hype. The tree houses sit within an astonishing natural environment, arranged on stilts that poke up through the canopy of a century-old kanuka grove. The rooms have an ingenious design, with a jutting sunroom on one side and a deck/bath/shower pod poking out on the other, both of which can be curtained off at night so your bed feels like an enormous four-poster floating in the trees.
To the immediate south, kanuka rearing up to fill the windows beside my bath, the Kaikoura Ranges, thickly iced with snow, a mysterious mist hanging around the middle reaches. To the east, a field of oil-producing olives with free-range chooks foraging beneath, then manuka-fringed pasture sloping down to Mangamaunu Bay. To the west, a field of young deer and rolling green foothills. In your ears, the distant whisper of the sea and a gentle chattering of tui, fantails and bellbirds who flit and twitter around your tree house like your own personal welcoming party. And just off shore, a deep ocean trench that's a state highway for orca, seals, dolphins, giant squid, sperm whales, humpbacks - even the occasional blue whale.
It's an eco-friendly joint, too: the owners planted 11,500 native trees here to offset the travel miles of incoming guests. Olive oil, eggs and venison are produced on-site, there's a small sauvignon blanc vineyard, and an organic vege garden supplies the lodge's restaurant, which is run by former MasterChef finalist Fiona Read. Husband Chris Sturgeon is Hapuku's general manager, and the couple are in the process of setting up a cooking school, due to open next year.
Packed with seasonal local ingredients, I can vouch for the deliciousness of their food. Tonight for dinner, while the rest of my family chooses crayfish, I'll be hoeing into fresh orecchiette with nettle butter made from nettles harvested in one of the paddocks, with wild blackberry compote and hazelnut cake to follow. And this morning, to give me sufficient energy to do nothing all day, my breakfast is a wild duck confit hash with a poached egg from one of the resident chooks on top.
Between mealtimes, I just lie in the sun, reading my book, as indolent as a seal snoozing on the rocks with a bellyful of fish. I am, after all, a firm believer in inactivity when on holiday. Many people seem determined to turn their holidays into a mad rush that's every bit as hectic as the working week they're escaping.
Here in Kaikoura, you could be as busy as a beaver if you so desired. You can go swimming with seals, dangle in a shark cage, head out on whale watching tours, hover in helicopters. You can drive out to one of the crayfish caravans north of the town and eat your body weight in crustacea. You can go bird watching or sea kayaking, tramp into the bush, walk for miles up a beautiful coastline lashed with ribbons of kelp.
But I believe you can have an equally fine time doing bugger all, vacating your armchair a couple of times per day only to investigate whatever's on offer within 15 minutes of where you are staying. I wouldn't say it's the best theory I've ever come up with; only that it is the most recent. And what better place than Hapuku Lodge to put it to the test?
On our second day in Kaikoura, while my lovely missus and child spend a few hours bobbing about in a boat spying on passing whales, I adhere to my self-imposed 15-minute rule. First, I drive for 10 minutes up the coast; next, I walk another five through the bush to the Ohau waterfall. There, in a lovely little clearing damp with mist, dozens of painfully cute seal pups have congregated in a pool under the waterfall while their mothers are out catching fish. It's quite a sight: a seal kindy, packed with splashing, honking, chubby little seals flinging themselves in and out of the pool and sunbathing in the undergrowth, just five minutes from State Highway 1. It's a strange and beautiful scene, and comical, too, with herds of tourists stroking irate seals right beside the "Caution: Seals may bite! Please do not approach!" signs.
After driving back to the tree house, I read a little more, have something else to eat, doze off in my elevated sun-porch. Then it's time to put my 15-minute rule to the test again as a pedestrian. With no idea where I'm going, I head out the back gate and set off down a narrow country road.
I couldn't be further from the local tourist trail, but it's a lovely stroll. Within a few minutes, cutting through deep green farmland, I pass an isolated farm gate with an incongruous "No Smoking" sign hanging from it. A kilometre or so further on, an elderly black dog makes a half-hearted attempt to attack me as I pass a farmhouse near the coastal railway line. I take to my heels - quite an achievement in itself, given the duck hash - and it soon gives up, and I fetch up beside the tracks just as a freight train appears, heading north. It gives an almighty blast on its horn as it passes, looking for all the world like an NZ Rail commercial story-boarded by Saatchi's: a streak of precision engineering clattering out of the bush in smart green and yellow livery, with snowy mountains arranged behind under a sky of perfect blue.
Crossing the tracks, I wander down a narrow metal road towards the roar of distant surf and break through a stand of manuka to find a carefully concealed campsite beside the beach. To one side, a collapsed tent with a jumble of black poles poking through rotted nylon. To the other, a collar of rocks around a long-dead cooking fire, and an old car seat facing the sea. There's even a tree house of sorts, with a rudimentary platform nailed into the crook of a willow, scattered with empty bread bags and jars of Marmite and peanut butter, with a big blue water barrel underneath.
Someone clearly spent quite a while living here, and finding their secret place feels slightly spooky, like I'm rummaging around a stranger's house while they're out. Now, I know what you're expecting. I can sense you bracing yourself for some laboured metaphor about the contrasting accommodation options available to rich and poor, carefully drawn for maximum impact. But no such thought crosses my mind as I head back up the road towards my own temporary home. I am too busy thinking about dinner.
Grant Smithies was a guest of Hapuku Lodge.
Sunday Star Times