Once ashore, I head to Fishermans Bay Garden, an uphill 20-minute drive away. Covering two hectares, the stepped garden is perched high above the water, with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. It is a riot of colour and textures, with more than 150 species of native and foreign plants, including New Zealand hebes, roses and ferns.
But the most remarkable aspect is that it is a private garden, essentially the back yard of Jill and Richard Simpson, who open it to guests from November to April.
Artwork by Jill, mainly landscapes, fills their modest house.
“Your paintings are lovely,” one visitor says on the way out.
“Thank you,” Jill says. “You’re just too kind. Thank you so much for visiting.”
And there it is again. That generosity, that sincerity. It’s me who should be thanking Jill for letting us invade her home, not the other way around. I’m reminded of the time I stopped to buy dulse near Hall’s Harbour in Nova Scotia; the seller insisted on giving it away for free because it wasn’t “good enough.”
Ah, but I can hear you say, these people have a vested interest in being nice to tourists. Perhaps. But the feeling of welcome is pervasive here, even when it serves no tangible benefit.
On my first afternoon at Otahuna I explored the grounds while waiting for the rest of my party to arrive. The 12-hectares surrounding the elegant Victorian mansion are a seemingly neverending mix of formal gardens, orchards and vegetable plots (which inspire chef Jimmy’s five-course dinners) and secluded forest walks. I almost feared getting lost, so I headed out along the main road. I passed the expected flocks of sheep and herds of deer, when suddenly an animal made me stop short. It was a Scottish Highland calf, a.k.a. a hairy coo. His mother rested under a nearby tree.
As I snapped pictures an older gentleman wandered by with a dog at his heels.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but do you know what these are doing here?”
He smiled. “They’re mine.” And then his eyes lit up. “Have you ever seen a Kunekune pig?”
He led me to a driveway a few metres along, and there I met Seamus, a shuffling, grunting hog with a nose ring and small, curling tusks. I was smitten.
The man then introduced me to the rest of his gang of animal misfits (including a female pig rescued from frat boys who trained her to chug beer) and we spent a few minutes chatting before I headed back.
And that was my favourite New Zealand moment. No mountains in sight. No helicopter ride. No wizards or orcs. Just a warm-hearted stranger and his pig.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Owners Miles Refo and Hall Cannon have lovingly restored Otahuna Lodge, originally built as a private mansion in 1895. The entry hall sets the tone for luxury, with a roaring fire, rich kauri and rimu woodwork and a portrait of a Maori warrior. It feels like the setting of an Agatha Christie novel (complete with butler). Each of the seven suites boast a unique feature, such a 14-metre verandah or wood-panelled walls . Enjoy pre-dinner drinks and canapés in the drawing room, but leave space for the nightly five-course degustation menu. By day, take a guided tour of the gardens, play tennis or go for a swim. Save the jacuzzi for night, when you can sip champagne under the stars. Rumour has it Prince Charles stayed here during his recent November tour (no word on whether he went hot tubbing). Suites from $1,100 (NZ), includes breakfast, dinner and other services); otahuna.co.nz
What to do
David Hiatt, general manager of Canterbury Guiding, finally made me realize the value of an expert guide. Want to visit a sheep station, have a picnic in the Alps or just tour around with a funny, patient, knowledgable local? Call him canterburyguides.com
Spotting the small Hector’s dolphins in Akaroa can be tricky – unless you have a secret weapon. Murphy, a terrier cross who’s part of the team at Akaroa Dolphins boat tours, barks at the dolphins before you can see them. akaroadolphins.co.nz
The TranzAlpine scenic train rides is a must-do for rail lovers. Travel from Christchurch to Greymouth and back in a day, with a stop at Arthur’s Pass in the Alps. kiwirailscenic.co.nz
Any backyard botanist will be inspired by Fishermans Bay Garden, perched above the Pacific Ocean near Akaroa. This is a private garden, so bookings are required. gardenstovisit.co.nz
Where to eat
Refuel during a busy day of sightseeing with lunch of glazed Akaroa salmon or haloumi and mint fritters at the Raspberry Café on Rhodes Road in outer Christchurch. Sweet tooth? Don't miss the caramel and oat slice. raspberrycafe.co.nz
The writer travelled courtesy of Otahuna Lodge. The proprietors did not approve or review this article.