Away to the Bay

16:00, Dec 02 2010
homestead
GRAND DAME: Gwavas Station, a homestead and garden worth visiting in Hawke's Bay.

Hawke's Bay is home to some of New Zealand's grandest homesteads, some with spectacular gardens. Most of them off the beaten track, but Ann Packer finds a guided road trip that gets inside the trophy properties.

Forget your suburban fundraisers, how about a country house and garden tour? Century-old homes still in the family, fabulous food fresh from the garden and roses, roses all the way. As garden tours go, it doesn't get much grander than Caroline Sarfati's Story Tour, which goes inside the houses, including a sleepover at a historic central Hawke's Bay homestead.

We meet at Te Pania Hotel, on Napier's Marine Pde, where we'll stay the second night. Before we set off for the country proper, morning tea at a quiet Havelock North house and gorgeous garden offers a chance to meet the group - 17 of us, all women except for one token bloke, here with his wife. It's a pity because there's much for men to enjoy.

Watercolour artist Richard Moorhead and wife Caroline are the first hosts with a story to tell - he's painted theirs on a screen inside the front door of the home that belonged to Caroline and her late husband. Richard obligingly paints a rosy bouquet while we sip our coffee; one of the group buys it for her mum for Christmas, the first of a clutch of souvenirs that go into the luggage racks in our Nimons bus.

I've passed the entrance to Gwavas Station on Highway 50 - the back way to Napier - many times, but never ventured up the driveway. The third house on the site settled by Cornishman George Gwavas Carlyon, this grand 1890 homestead lay vacant for more than 40 years until 2008, when descendant Phyllida Gibson and family moved back in to begin the long task of bringing the Historic Places Trust Category 1 building back to life. The house is rich in detail - nothing was disturbed while it lay empty, including the original billiard table and the letter ordering it. The stained glass windows are breathtaking, the entrance hall and staircase a superb example of totara panelling. Luncheon in the refurbished dining room, watched over by Carlyon ancestors, is perfect in every detail. Pity there are only two guest bedrooms.

The Cornish Woodland Walk is a gently-nurtured splendour of rhododendrons in full bloom beneath an arboretum of exotic trees, modelled on the family garden in Cornwall. Outbuildings include a glasshouse designed by CT Natusch, who also added the homestead's top floor and a turret, while generations of Carlyons - and their faithful gardener - lie in the brick-walled cemetery. A 110-year-old summer house is overshadowed by an enormous oak. Even the raspberry canes are centenarians - we buy jam.

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Back on the bus, skirting the village of Tikokino, we head for the hills. Springvale sports a sign marking the 150th anniversary and six generations of the Holden family. After wandering through the 1903 homestead - still very much lived-in - we inspect the original dirt-floored 1858 cottage where the first Holdens raised seven children. Springvale's woodland sports masses of forget-me- nots under tall trees, while the garden approaching the house is on a more intimate scale.

We head east via historic Onga Onga village - stopping at The Stockroom for a couple of Perry Davies' quirky birdhouses - and head out to Wallingford, home for six generations of the Ormond family. It's reputed to be the largest single-storey dwelling in the Southern Hemisphere. Several of our party have trouble finding their way back to bed after dinner, and not only because of Johnny Ormond's G&Ts. Long corridors branch off at right angles into whole wings, each with a story.

It's too cool to swim in the pool, but the bonus is roaring fires in the family rooms for drinks before dinner, cooked by the resident cordon bleu chef and served at tables gleaming with family silver. We eat far too much, including angus beef raised on the farm, more asparagus and divine dessert tarts. Breakfast is a treat too, from wake-up coffee to eggs benedict. On a misty morning, there's time for a last wander around the gardens with Jen Ormond, a keen gardener who keeps these grounds in tip-top condition.

Day two's homestead is Horonui, off the main road at Poukawa. Parts of the garden are much older than the house - the original homestead was nearing its centenary, after 30 years of restoration, when it was destroyed by fire in 1998.

Fourth-generation Johnnie and Pauline Campbell have poured their hearts into their elegant new home, and are developing a new garden, looking out on to ponds past Paul Dibble's stunning bronze Horonui Anchor Stone.

At Birdwoods Gallery, on the outskirts of Havelock North, we buy gifts with an African flavour before an elegant lunch at Te Awa Winery. More food's in store at the art deco Atkins house in Hastings - so it's good to take a long walk on Napier's Marine Pde before dinner at Te Pania.

The last day sees us heading back into the country, on the Taihape road. At Tunanui, in a wood-panelled entrance hall lined with portraits, John Russell tells his military family's history, dating back to the New Zealand wars.

We have morning tea in a room of restrained elegance, in the homestead designed by CT Natusch in 1913 and not structurally altered since.

There's time for a serious browse at Touchwood Books - a New Zealand gardening institution - before lunch at our last stop.

Okawa, home of Joannie and Tom Lowry is famed for its racehorse stud - his study is draped with silks.

The house is much younger than any we've visited, as Heathcote Helmore's 1950 design replaced an earlier one that lost its chimneys in the 1931 quake.

We lunch under umbrellas on the terrace, looking out over the biggest lawn we've seen - "room enough for three croquet games at once" - before a leisurely wander around gardens a-froth with roses and a very productive vege plot.

Three days of gorgeous gardens, good company, architecture on a grand scale and an intriguing who's who of family interconnections. Memories are made of this.

Caroline Sarfati's next Story Tour takes place November 2 to 4, 2011. See storytours.co.nz.

The Dominion Post