"Just look at all the stars. Look at the them. I've never seen so many before. Ever."
It was true. Turning my face away from our campfire I looked to the skies and let my eyes adjust. There's no light pollution at all at Ridge Top Farm in Manawatu so the view to the stars is very pure.
You can see the lights in the distance at Palmerston North but they are too far away to spoil the view. My own wish was to see a shooting star and minutes later I did but I'd used up my wish already.
Unlike normal camping, when we headed to bed it wasn't to a sleeping bag on a roll mat. This was glamping (as in, glamour camping) so it was to a king-sized bed in a large and tastefully furnished tent. Our two girls, Niamh, 15, and Marianne, 12, had taken the "cool" tent next door, the one shaped like a garlic clove that would look perfect at Glastonbury.
Before we arrived at the farm some 20 minutes north of Feilding, our family's experience of camping had not been good. Previous disasters included a leaky tent and a daughter's green vomit on a Cornwall camping trip, and the tent being blown down twice - once on the South Coast of England at the height of summer when a gale destroyed nearly every tent at the site, and once in Wales.
We have all the camping gear somewhere in the garage but haven't been tempted to try again since coming to New Zealand, preferring instead to stay in a bach - a great Kiwi invention.
But the clever Kiwis at Canopy Camping Escapes have come up with something that might just suit those yearning to enjoy the great outdoors, a roaring campfire and a bit of outdoor cooking while looking forward to a good night's sleep in a double bed and having a loo, shower and kitchen close by. The price is similar to staying in a good bach.
The idea of glamping has been around a while now and has really taken off in Europe. Canopy Camping Escapes is introducing the concept to New Zealanders and has seven sites with the promise of lots more to come.
The one we headed to is right in the heart of the North Island and our first stay as a family in Manawatu.
Before we set off, our two girls didn't seem overly impressed by the idea of being outdoors for the weekend. They were in the middle of a Dr Who marathon and didn't fancy being away from the TV for the weekend but they were promised something a bit different.
And that was certainly what we all got. The site, run by Sarah and Angus Gilbertson, is really a combined farmstay-glamping venue. It's a great location with views to Mt Ruapehu and, on a good day, Mt Taranaki and Kapiti Island. It's pretty spectacular and makes you realise what a great spot the Gilbertsons have for their farm and your trip.
The glamping area itself is very new, but the Gilbertsons have been clever with how they have decked it out. Reclaimed matai floors from an old cottage on their 600-hectare farm line the main tent, while the kitchen is part of a house that's been chainsawed off and moved to the glamping area. It's good to see recycling used in this way and it makes for a rustic feel.
The site is tucked away at the end of a long field that's used as an airstrip for crop dusters. It's shielded from the Manawatu winds and is private enough to have two outside claw-footed baths (also recycled by the Gilbertsons). My partner Finola's highlight was a bath under the stars before heading to the luxury tent and sleeping in a quality bed with cotton sheets - and not a roll mat in sight.
With glamping it's all about taking the hassles out of camping. "We've worked hard to create an experience that we really hope will encourage you to slow down, get back-to-basics and reconnect with family and friends," says Sarah.
You can either bring your own food or have Sarah provide meals on-site and direct from the farm. After sampling her food for a weekend it's a no-brainer - she's a fantastic cook and we were overloaded with food all weekend.
As vegetarians, we were wondering if she would struggle but that proved to be a baseless fear - the food really was outstanding, the highlight being vege burgers on the first night and various salads the next.
We awoke after our first night in the tent to the sound of wild turkeys, and a hare wandered into the campsite while I was having breakfast. After breakfast, we went on the "glamp and tramp" which is an excellent way to explore the farm. It's about a four to five-hour trek all told but is worth doing for the views.
The walk is pretty easy but it was a stifling day so we were pleased to see Sarah at the halfway point. Trampers get their lunch delivered to a hay barn and the food is wonderful. Pastries, fruit, cake, tea, coffee and juice - just what the hungry hikers need. We had thought the girls might find the trek a bit too much but it was just about right.
Later we got to try claybird shooting. It's the first time any of us have ever fired a gun so we were all a bit nervous. Marianne was put off by fears about the recoil but Niamh gave it a go. Finola also had a try and got pretty close using the double-barrelled shotgun. Angus gave a lesson on using the gun beforehand and stressed the importance of safety. I tried my hand and hit three out of five. "You're a natural," said Angus. It's probably my highlight of the whole weekend.
Ridge Top Farm is of course a working farm so it's very much like a farmstay trip. Sarah and her two boys brought us along to feed their pet goat, Diesel, sheep and Ned the cow. Angus gave us a shearing demonstration the next morning and we were surprised at the speed.
There's plenty to do in the area including the Gravity Cannon bungee and flying fox, or fishing on the Rangitikei River but to be honest there's so much to do on the farm that we didn't feel the need to leave the site.
After our disastrous South Coast holiday in England, we packed the remains of the tent up and drove back home, vowing to never camp again. In fact we did go one more time, in Northumberland in northern England, and it wasn't too bad, but I remember getting back from that holiday feeling tired and in need of a good night's sleep.
Glamping at Ridge Top Farm was nothing like that. We got home feeling refreshed and the role of our hosts, Sarah and Angus, must be praised for this. They are friendly and helpful and we knew when Sarah pulled up at the gate on her quad bike several times a day that she was bringing yet more delicious food.
When it was time to head home there was no tent or sleeping bags to pack up.
Our two girls hadn't been sure what to make of the trip but both of them thought it had been brilliant. Niamh had loved the tramp while Marianne had built the campfires herself so she could sit back and enjoy toasted marshmallows.
Glamping was declared a hit and something we would do again.
Getting there Ridge Top Farm is 20 minutes from State Highway 1 just north of Hunterville and halfway between Wellington and Taupo. More detailed directions are on the website, canopycamping.co.nz.
The standard rate is $250 per night for up to 4 people. Additional people are $25 per person per night. "Glamp n Tramp" – $45 per person, $150 per family (2 adults and up to 3 children, aged 15 or less). Fully-catered glamping – $90 per adult, per day, $50 per child under 12, per day.
When to go The season runs from November 1 to May 30.
Charles Woollin's trip was courtesy of Canopy Camping Escapes and Ridge Top Farm.
- Sunday Star Times