David Acland is tall and lean, with exactly the kind of ruggedness one wants in a farmer. Kate, his wife, is model pretty and more glamorous than any of her guests. One gets the feeling she was raised for a more glossy, urban life (she started a winery after university), but she seems right at home as she trucks through the dirt in her wellies, opening and closing gates behind a caravan of Jeeps so the animals stay where they should.
Home, for the Aclands, is Mt. Somers Station, one of the largest “ranches” in New Zealand. In the foothills of the imposing Southern Alps, about an hour outside of Christchurch, they are raising two adorable babies – and, this season, 18,000 lambs and 5,000 deer. They are kind (perhaps crazy) enough to occasionally tour visitors around the 4,046-hectare property, giving outsiders a chance to get close to the sheep that are so ubiquitous in this country.
By the time I leave a couple of hours later, I know the name of the Acland’s bratty Burmese cat, what their vacation plans are and even how they met. Theirs is a warm, gentle hospitality, a style I’ve encountered many times before – thousands of kilometres away – on Canada’s East Coast.
I came to New Zealand expecting to be wowed by an awe-inspiring, exotic land: mountains, glaciers … adventure! That is, after all, the image sold to the world by its tourism board, countless magazine articles and Peter Jackson’s endless hobbit movies. And make no mistake: It is a stunner. But, for me, the scenery soon faded to the background. What caught my attention was a surprising feeling of familiarity, as if I had just discovered a long-lost Maritime province. It was small human moments that made a lasting impression, not epic natural grandeur.
So as I listen to David share the history of Mt. Somers (the property, in his family for more than 150 years, once extended to the top of the mountains, he explains with a gesture to the craggy peaks), I appreciate the view, but more so just the simple fact that I get to hear him say it.
Mt. Somers is a fully operational farm so, no, tourists can’t just show up unannounced (although I’d bet $50 they’d still invite you to tea). My ticket in is David Haitt, the general manager of Canterbury Guiding. The two Davids grew up together, and their ease with each other speaks to years of friendship. Haitt, a fifth-generation Cantabrian, taps into such connections to offer visitors insider experiences. It is no surprise he works closely with Otahuna Lodge, a Relais & Chateaux property about 25 minutes from Christchurch (and my base for the next three days). Guests who spend $1,100 a night don’t take a bus tour around town – they take a helicopter into the high country.
After a drive around Mt. Somers, we gather in the Aclands’ ranch-style home. As Jimmy McIntyre, Otahuna’s chef, prepares a gourmet picnic-style lunch, Kate minds baby Leo while Otto, two-and-a-half-years old, hams it up for guests. The boys are just 17 months apart. A girl is on the way.
“That’s enough for now,” Kate says with a laugh.
The next morning, Haitt arrives at Otahuna around 8:30 in the morning, an ungodly hour for a jet-lagged traveller. But he is excited to show off Akaroa, a waterfront village on the Banks Peninsula, about a one-hour, twisting, climbing drive away. His passion for Canterbury is infectious, and one story in particular manages to rouse even this exhausted passenger.
He shares how about a week before our October arrival, close to 700 passengers from one of the first cruises ships of the season became stranded in town after a storm moved in and rough waters prevented their transfer back to the vessel. The people of Akaroa, population 500, did what good maritimers do: they opened their doors, offering up spare beds, couches and sleeping bags to more than 300 strangers (the rest went to Christchurch).
“I guess it’s like 9/11, when those people in Newfoundland took in the stranded plane passengers,” says one of my American travelling companions.
I find more reminders of home throughout Akaroa. Settled by the French in 1840, the Gallic influence is still seen on street signs and restaurant menus.
But most people come here for the water. Akaroa Harbour is all that remains of a prehistoric volcano; from a distance it looks like an oil painting, a glistening blend of cerulean, turquoise and deep greens. It is home to Hector’s dolphins, small creatures that usually measure no more than 1.5 metres in length. They are lightening fast, but I manage to spot dozens during a boat ride out beyond the harbour entrance and into the sea.