Ten years ago, Chris and Lisa Preston left their respective mothers soaking in a Hanmer hot spring while they climbed the slopes of Mt Isabelle on the other side of the valley. They had seen a sign - "For sale, 26 acres" - and they hoped it would turn out to be the excuse to pack in their corporate jobs in Wellington, plant an olive grove and build a rural retreat for guests.
The view from the property got them hooked: a great sweep of alpine valley crossed the Waiou River and Hanmer rooftops up over high-country pastures to the Southern Alps. They knew the north-facing slopes would favour the olive grove and gardens they wanted to plant before the guest accommodation took shape. The couple returned in the evening when the lights of Hanmer Springs twinkled across the river and countless stars pricked the Canterbury sky. They reached for their chequebook.
Fast-forward a decade. Chris and Lisa are tending a thriving grove of maturing olive trees, their leaves shining silver in the heat of the north Canterbury summer. Nearby are fruit and nut trees and freshly watered vegetable and flower gardens. And rising above them is a handsome house built of stone and wood.
The three large bedrooms, living room and adjacent guest cottage look out across the valley to the Southern Alps on the horizon.
"We decided to call our place Amuri. It means land of the shining tussock," says Lisa, waving a garden-gloved hand over the property.
"It's the realisation of a dream that started 10 years ago when Chris and I planted the first few hundred trees. And then we tapped into an organisation called Organic Pathways and the Christchurch Polytechnic Organics Department.
"The department head arranged for students to help out planting the rest of our olive trees as a work experience project. They were manna from heaven."
During a single weekend, the students helped dig, plant and mulch (with organic mulch, of course) no fewer than 1000 young olive trees. They also helped install the irrigation. And Chris and Lisa kept the barbecue spit roast turning and the refreshments coming. In the years since, Woofers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) and other students have turned up at Amuri to give a hand in exchange for food and board.
"Our guests enjoy the olive grove because there's always something going on," says Chris.
"We planted five varieties of olives sourced from Italy, Spain and France. And they are doing well up here on Mt Isabelle, 400m above sea level. We've been harvesting for a few years now and the olives are pressed here in North Canterbury."
Amuri's guests and people travelling via the North Canterbury Food and Wine Trail take part in the "Taste of Italy" lunch which the Prestons serve several times a week. Participants tour the olive grove and compare a variety of olive oils produced around New Zealand and at Amuri before sitting down to substantial platters of food and a glass of wine.
It is almost a year since the first guests booked into the spacious house overlooking the trees. And tours of the garden, which also includes quince, plum and citrus trees, are often accompanied by Charlie, the Preston's good-natured German shepherd.
The environmentally conscious couple made sure Amuri was built with its own waste-recycling plant. And comfort and privacy were an essential part of the house design. Chris and Lisa live on the upper floor, leaving the spacious ground floor and adjacent cottage for the exclusive use of guests. If required, the couple prepares meals for guests. The meals, plus the tasty platters served during the Taste of Italy events, feature organic produce.
Each bedroom is named after a North Canterbury station. The St James room faces towards the station the Government bought last year, which contains the St James ski field.
The Molesworth room is named after the huge station that extends from the edge of Hanmer for more than 180,000ha and brings together farming and recreation under the management of DoC. From Amuri, Jack's Pass can be seen snaking up the hills to the entrance of the great station.
"People are attracted to the area because the landscape is striking in all seasons," says Chris. "With so many trees, the area is stunning in autumn and spring. And in summer fishers are wading into the rivers to catch the brown trout."
Summer is when the olive trees flower and pollination takes place. And the mountains across the valley fold from violet to blue as they recede into the distance. By winter they will be covered in snow. Skiers will often finish a day on the slopes with a soak in the Hanmer hot pools. And guests at Amuri will settle down in front the fire as the sun disappears over the horizon.
* Room rates are from $250 to $375 a couple a night. Phone (03) 315 5059 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Hanmer Springs is under two hours' drive north of Christchurch.
* Activities in the area include: thermal spa pools, therapeutic treatments, specialty shops, fly fishing, river rafting, skiing, riding, mountain biking, forest walks and tours of Molesworth Station. Hanmer also has good cafes and restaurants.