For years, I have been curious about Gore. The name, we know, is unfortunate. And the fact locals are — somewhat unkindly — referred to as Gorans. But there were whispers of an exceptional art gallery, gentle country manners, and Heather Du Plessis-Allan staring straight down the barrel of the lens on Story one weeknight — "It's fantastic," she declared (her husband is from Gore, but still).
For the easy two-hour drive south of my home in Dunedin, I pack an overnight bag and my dog, Mr Wallace, and hit State Highway 1 for a Gore weekend. I pass a plethora of towns so tiny I am not sure they have even made it on to the map, except for Kaitangata, which is now globally famous for having too many affordable houses, too many jobs and not enough people to fill them.
When I pull into Gore it is immediately charming — both bigger and far, far prettier than I had been led to believe. The main street is rural-wide and densely planted with established trees (the town has more than 2000 street trees) and the spring rhododendrons are in full-bloom.
I head to the elegant Thomas Green Public House and Dining Room for morning coffee, and snuggle into leather couches by an open fire to peruse the local paper. I am already in a good mood; lulled into a gentle weekend pace by the quiet, appealing ambience of this town.
My guide Emma, an ex-journalist, shows up and we meander down the main street to a new clothing shop — the Collective Design Store, a huge, semi-warehouse space brimming with local and international designers, "Don't let me buy anything," I say to Emma, as I make a beeline for the new summer dresses.
Resisting the very tempting designer purchases, we cross the main street (called Main St) to browse a host of second-hand stores, including the Salvation Army and the Hospice Shop. Here, we can shop guilt-free, and I buy half a dozen novels, a near-new Italian espresso pot, a stylish armchair and a pearl-encrusted photo frame, all for $30. Emma buys sensible woollen clothes — she does live here permanently.
Dr John Money — Janet Frame's life-long friend and ally — was also an avid New Zealand art collector, becoming a patron of Rita Angus, Theo Schoon and many others. Before he died, he gave his entire collection to Gore and, spurred on by this generous act, other notable New Zealand artists, including Ralph Hotere, have given works.
Unusually, once an artist became successful, Money would often stop buying their works, as he felt they didn't "need him" anymore. In Frame's memoir she describes staying with Money in his crowded, gallery-like home in a dodgy part of Baltimore, trying to clear a space to write among his densely hung walls and floor space (he has an extensive collection of larger-than-life African statues and Frame found them creepy).
The gallery's curator, Jim Geddes, walks me through the exhibits, regaling me with stories of gin-soaked evenings at Money's US home, and the mammoth job of recording and shipping the collection from Baltimore to Gore.
I love visiting art galleries, but rarely do, as I hate how crowded they can be at weekends and the awkward, enforced intimacy of staring at a work alongside half a dozen strangers.
But here, we are entirely alone with the works, their rich history, and the superb insight shown by their owners when they decided to bequeath them to little old Gore; putting this Southland town on the map for art-lovers nation wide.
After the gallery, I feel oddly tired, the way you can when you've been told a very good story, and need time and quiet to process it.
While the sun is out, we drive to Dolamore Park, about 10km south-west of Gore. The established gardens and winding pathways at the base of the Hokonui Hills are soothing after the intensity of the Money collection, and my energy returns.
"It's so beautiful here," I tell Emma, letting my eye rest on the native podacarp forest and rolling farmland.
"If Gore was called Riverton, it would be over-run."
As we amble through the gardens we make up posh-sounding names for Gore — the Paris of the South? — which in reality is far posher, and far more elegant than dozens of New Zealand country-towns I've visited, north or south.
After our walk, we return to the Thomas Green Dining Room, craving meat and deep glasses of red wine. We have entrees, mains (local lamb, delicious), and desserts; and still the sun doesn't set, bathing Main St in golden hues.
Two glasses of pinot in, I feel well and truly on holiday, that particular kind of holiday where nothing is expected of you — no adventure sports, no marathon tramps, no check-list of must-sees. Gore is the kind of holiday that reminds me of childhood weekends, when, as city kids, going to "the country" was a cause for great excitement.
By 9.30pm, I am tucked up in my fluffy bed at the newly-renovated Heartland Hotel Croydon, watching Netflix. Just before midnight I slip on my boots and take Mr Wallace for a final stroll around the grounds. The night sky is brilliant and clear, and the only sound is sheep in a nearby paddock bleating softly to themselves. Work, life — everything — melts away under the vast southern sky.
The next morning at the hotel I eat a huge Kiwi breakfast, the remains of which the staff are only too happy to doggy bag for Mr Wallace. The day has broken sunny and hot, and after a walk through a couple of Gore's 40 parks (not kidding — 40) we drive south to the Croydon Air Museum at Mandeville, as the rivers are too swollen for my planned fly-fishing expedition.
I am sure that to enthusiasts the air museum would be a treat, but it's Sunday and all I feel like doing is lounging in the sun.
At the unexpectedly stylish Miss Cocoa Coffee, next to the museum, I drink lattes on the lawn and read my book. The vast gardens of the cafe are teeming with kids, running and climbing trees; delighting in the space and freedom. It's a relief to not see a tablet or smartphone in sight.
At 1pm, when the art gallery opens again, I head back for a second look. I linger and linger, until a darkening sky urges me to get home to Dunedin before the southerly hits.
In my notebook are half a dozen Gore story ideas to pitch to my editor. I may not be on holiday next time I visit, but I'll take any excuse to come back.
IF YOU GO
• Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Invercargill, via Christchurch or Wellington.
• Thomas Green Public House and Dining Room
30 Medway Street.
• Collective Design, 21 Hokonui Drive.
• Green Room Cafe, 59 Irk Street.
• Eastern Southland Galle, Norfolk Street.
• Heartland Hotel Croydon, 100 Waimea Street, Croydon.
• Croydon Air Museum at Mandeville, 1558 Waimea Hwy, Mandeville.
• Miss Cocoa Coffee, 1558A Waimea Hwy, Mandeville.