Revealed: the holiday hideout of NZ's rich and famous

By Cliff Taylor

Trelise Cooper leans back in her white cane deckchair and looks out past her verandah, out beyond the dunes, the sands of Omaha Beach and the sea, across to Little Barrier Island with its silhouette dark against the blue sky.

"I wake up and I say 'It's a whale day' or 'It's a dolphin day'," she says, as if expecting one or other of these mammals to hove into view, which they reputedly do here.

"It's so peaceful and relaxing here. Sometimes you can go to the beach and not see anyone. And it's just an hour out of Auckland."

Fashion designer Cooper and husband Jack have just celebrated their second Christmas in their imposing whitewashed stucco Mediterranean/Mexican-style home at Omaha, relaxing after hosting 10 guests. They are among a growing colony of well-heeled and well-known figures with holiday homes in the resort, described by some as being to Auckland what the Hamptons is to New York.

Trelise Cooper's "neighbours" in Omaha include Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, National Party leader John Key, actor and radio and TV presenter Louise Wallace, fertility medicine pioneer Richard Fisher, former BBQ Factory owners Roger and Lorraine Richwhite and Navman founder Peter Maire.

At this time of year you can find most of them engaging in a tradition shared by thousands of other New Zealanders - relaxing at beachside holiday homes.

Well, it's Kiwi beach life all right ... but not as we know it. There is something slightly odd about Omaha. There is a uniformity about a lot of the new homes. A couple play cricket with their kids in front of a row of two-storey architectural statements, all rakish angles, huge windows and grey and white all-weather cladding. Each is worth more than a million dollars. No fibrolite or rusty iron in sight.

There are no dairies or cafes either. All the shrubs are small, as if recently planted - especially in the southern end. There, it is all brand new, barely established on land that was dunes and scrub just a few years ago. In the older parts of Omaha there are still remnants of what the place used to be, modest cottages which could almost be described as "baches". But they are in the minority these days.

"It's definitely changed heaps in the past 10 years," said lifeguard Claire Fitzjames, as she kept a keen eye out for sharks and struggling swimmers at the beach. "It's got this reputation like Pauanui. That billionaires' club sort of thing. So everyone wants to jump in. It's a bit silly really."

Silly money, some would add. A house not far from the Coopers' is being advertised for sale at $3.5 million. Bare beachfront sections sell for up to $1.8 million.

A world away from when John Key bought a piece of beachfront land in the aptly named Success Court 17 years ago for $147,000. It's now worth $2.95 million.

The Opposition leader, dressed in shorts, T-shirt and peaked cap, stands on the verandah of his holiday house and admires a boat moored off the beach. He used to keep a picture of this place on his desk during the years he was based in London as a foreign exchange trader.

"One of my neighbours just sold his place for $3 million," he said. "This is expensive real estate. It's serious money for sections."

Key and his family went up to Omaha before Christmas, planning to spend a few days by the beach "completely blobbing out". He's making the most of it. Since he became National leader he hasn't had the time.

"We used to use it quite a bit, but now very infrequently. We've got up here twice in 2007. It's a function of the amount of time you have to put into the job. Outside of the big job, it's probably one of the best jobs out. But it comes at the price of family life."

Key said he was concerned that the price of coastal properties was making access for many New Zealanders difficult and he was keen for the Department of Conservation to open more camping grounds.

In a nearby street called, poetically, The Southern Isle, the holiday home of Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, wife Mandy and their two young children appeared deserted. They had, said the neighbours, "gone out on the boat".

A few doors down Louise Wallace was at home. Husband Scott was busy making toheroa fritters as Louise, seated on her seaward-facing verandah, explained why she loved Omaha.

"It's just such a beautiful beach. And you can commute from Auckland. I quite often come up with some girlfriends for a night or a day.

"All the blokes go back to work in the second week in January, while all the girls stay here and play up."

Wallace bought the house last year for $1.5 million. She said the northern motorway extension and tunnel, due to open by the end of next year, would make Omaha even more accessible to Auckland.

"Coastal real estate has gone through the roof. I thought, if I don't get in before the tunnel I will never get in. I know at least two or three couples planning to live here full time."

Wallace said she believed the Kiwi summer bach idyll was still intact, but it had become "a lot more sophisticated". She planned to stay in Omaha for 3-4 weeks before starting a new television job at the end of January.

People don't like to talk about the cachet of living in Omaha. This is still New Zealand after all. Some locals, in nearby Matakana and Leigh, are positively disparaging about the place and the kind of rich people who own homes in it. One muttered darkly that they dreamed of "blowing up the causeway" that connected Omaha with the outside world.

This kind of local antipathy is perhaps to be expected. Omaha has earned a reputation as an enclave for the rich and famous.

The multi-million-dollar "baches" are simply holiday homes after all, used for a few weeks each year by people who own equally palatial homes elsewhere - mostly in Auckland.

The cynics would claim they are taking over, sallying forth in armadas of SUVs, hogging all the parking spaces in Matakana and generally turning the area into something it was not and shouldn't be.

But those enjoying the festive season beneath the blue skies at Omaha deny there is anything exclusive about it. "This is a very poor version of the Hamptons," said Jeremy Tapper, whose family own a house near the Coopers'.

"They do call it the playground of the rich and famous," added his sister- in-law Amy Robens.

"But we are pretty laid back here. People are pretty down to earth. There's none of the snootiness you would expect. It's not all glitz and glamour."

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