Thursday, 12 November 2015

Haven in the west

Paradise is at the end of a road which leads nowhere in a region which is neither a golden bay or a west coast.

The sparkling Tasman Sea.

I’m reliably informed that Westhaven is in Auckland, boasting the southern hemisphere’s largest Yacht Marina, and Whanganui is a large coastal town in Manawatu, near the mouth of New Zealand’s longest navigable waterway.

We didn’t go to either of those places, as lovely as they sound, but we did go to a Westhaven, also known as Whanganui inlet, which many people don’t seem to know exists.  Which is perhaps why it is one of the most unspoilt and breathtakingly beautiful places we’ve ever been to. It is described as being on 'the west coast of Golden Bay', a geographical anachronism like Harry Potter’s 'Platform 9 3/4' which only enhances the magic, and seclusion of the place.  One of New Zealand’s largest estuaries (roughly 13km long and 2-3km wide), it is filled by the Tasman Sea at high tide which flows rapidly through imposing heads glimpsed briefly as you take the winding drive from Pakawau. (As with any route heading North of Collingwood, don’t expect to reconnect with civilisation – you are pushing into the wild west).

The western peninsula from the other side of the inlet.
If you have bionic eyes you might just make out the lodge on the ridge line at the centre of the image.
And it was on the western head that we were lucky enough to stay, which is also a privately-owned 400 hectare peninsula, and home to Westhaven Retreat, a 4-star luxury lodge.  Anyone who knows us won’t be surprised to hear that we didn’t stay here, however - our accommodation was a much more modest cottage, adjacent to the main building.  

After the long drive we had started to wonder if we had come to right place, as I picked my way through fresh cow pats to open a farm gate, loudly serenaded by dogs before manoeuvring carefully around huge wandering cattle beasts.  As we crested the hill and the lodge came into view we weren’t left in any doubt. A unique and exquisite structure of which there will be more about later.

The lodge is designed to compliment the landscape.
“You’re kiwis, we knew you wouldn’t mind!”, explained our host about our farm encounter entrance. She also apologised for the nearby helicopter, the way most guests usually arrive, which crouched close to our cottage like a giant shiny black dragonfly. The fact that Rose scampered out to photograph it ferrying its wealthy passengers to the beach later that evening would have shown just how much we minded, it’s rare we have a helicopter in our garden.

The 'other half' leave for their beach trip.
The cottage was everything we needed but as with all things here, it’s really about the location.  I’ve loved coastlines and this part of the country for almost as long as I can remember, but Westhaven is something else again. From the top of the peninsula views of the Tasman Sea to the west and the inlet on the other side were literally jaw dropping. Paths weaving down through surreal rock formations and a nikau palm forest led to perfect sandy beaches which we literally had to ourselves. 

A mysterious wall built by a primitive tribe.
Not Skull Island, but the Westhaven nikau forest.

Rose looks back at 'our' beach.
On our second day I interviewed the 'Westhaven family' about the retreat and then Rose joined us for a tour of the facilities which I will be writing about for work.  They seemed almost as interested in us as we were in them, and this led to them inviting us to use the spa and opulent indoor swimming pool that afternoon as an anniversary present from them.

The lodge's indoor swimming pool.
The lodge itself was designed and built by the patriarch of the family, an extremely accomplished Austrian engineer whose experiences working in Asia led him to believe in the principles of Feng Shui.  And so the building is formed of three interlocked octagons (a 45 degree angle being spiritually preferable to the hard right angles of most western structures).  The interlocked building is designed to be safely flexible during a quake and the shape also resonates what Bruno referred to as the two 'landscape guardians' of their home.  Two remarkable rocky outcrops sit above the lodge, the ‘lion’ to the west and the ‘dragon’ to the north, their shapes being quite self explanatory and also echoed within the low crouching form of the lodge.  It is a beautiful building inside and out which completely fulfils its aim of harmonising with the surrounding landscape.

The lodge and cottage (tiny white blob on the lower right) photographed from the head of 'the dragon'.
The 'lion' ridge can be seen in the distance.
Rose and I both did a lot of walking (almost every track available during our short stay), and after much goading I even braved the chilly waters of the Tasman. But we also did a lot of reading - something which I’ve shamefully let slip far too much this year.  And as eager as I was to write about the experience I also left my laptop alone, and I’m glad I did. ( I met a work mate at the airport when we flew out from Wellington who all but insisted that I hand over the PC to her so she could put it in my locker until I came back to work).

(Very) amateur body surfing was unplanned,
  but the waves were persuasive enough to carry me all the way to the shore.
Quite a different experience to our Melbourne holiday last year, the combination of exercise punctuated by long blissful spells of inactivity helped us both to relax more quickly than usual.  New Zealand’s earliest sea captains knew about this hidden inlet which provided shelter and safety from westerly storms, and it certainly worked wonders for us.

We discovered this hidden corner of New Zealand almost by accident at the beginning of the year - and look forward to coming back.

A friendly Kereru followed me through the nikau forest.

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