When Belinda and Steve Fabris bought their country property in 2000, it came with an entree into the Ramarama community. The former owner became a friend and introduced them to the joys of close-knit country living, insisting they join the local Rotary Club.
The couple made the leap from a tiny Ponsonby plot to 1.5ha bordered by South Auckland's largest stand of kahikatea bush. "I'd dreamed of a driveway and bush like this," says Belinda, "but thought it was more Titirangi than down south." The level, sunny garden and tennis court appealed to the entertainers in them, although the 1980s house needed a facelift.
The property is now a fixture on the local social scene, with numerous weddings, garden rambles and fundraisers taking advantage of the landscaped garden and sociable house. Belinda and Steve's city friends come for weekends of tennis, enjoying overnight stays in the separate two-bedroom cottage or the renovated house.
Their biggest move was creating an outdoor room between the house and tennis court. "It's our living room all year round," says Belinda. "The fireplace is cosy in winter or we open the shutters for summer breezes."
Architect Rolly Adams recycled posts and beams to create an elegant pitched-roof shelter supported by metal arms that mimic the surrounding trees. "Rolly knew we loved Italy and used touches like the concrete fireplace and wooden shutters," says Belinda.
The plastered exterior, timber windows and copper spouting also provide hints of Italy, while the iron rails on the upstairs balconies reflect the screens on the antique French-style front doors.
Steve's rural past meant he was keen to get cracking on the land. "I loved building the garden, and it was a beautiful place to do it," he says.
The basics were there, but gradually he created bridges over a pond and paths through the bush, and even a petanque court and oversized chess board on the upper level.
"Children love rambling through here and playing," says Belinda.
A bootload of plants doesn't go far in a country garden, but the property has two large glasshouses that Belinda and Steve used for propagation and even to grow orchids for sale. Belinda has pursued a passion for growing bromeliads, as well as exploring painting and sculpture in the adjoining artist's studio.
At the house, they retained the good bones but refurbished downstairs to create an open-plan living area that opens on to a sunny terrace overlooking the garden.
"When we wanted to put in a hot tub, the former owner showed us the perfect spot," says Belinda, pointing out the sheltered bush-side spa. "The kitchen was in the best place, too, so we can just pass things to the outside room."
Upstairs, they lifted the roof to create a row of sunny rooms on the northern side. Belinda uses one of the four bedrooms as an office; it opens on to a terrace. Guests enjoy the two other rooms, which have views over the garden and the bush. The refurbished bathroom has a double shower, which Steve says is great for washing the dog!
The couple reconfigured the main bedroom to create a spacious walk-in wardrobe and another toilet. They love the timber doors and windows opening to another sunny terrace. "We can sleep with it all open, up here in the trees," says Belinda.
Belinda and Steve loved being part of this country community, but now they want to try an artistic, island lifestyle. "We're swapping the bush for the beach," says Belinda.