Italian Antonio Pasquale arrived 25 years ago, searching for a place where he could be whoever he wanted. The doctor of philosophy, naturist and "maniac" sailor became a farmer, a vigneron and is the person behind the luxury Donkey Bay Inn, judged the world's most eco-friendly hotel. Pasquale talks to Phil Taylor about life, love and getting naked.
You know you are in for something special as soon as you pull up to Donkey Bay Inn. In the centre of a flamingo-pink wall, a curving canary-yellow tunnel beckons, an entrance that Antonio Pasquale originally created so his young daughters could imagine being Alice travelling into Wonderland.
The tunnel releases you into a magical world. Beyond a lush courtyard garden is the inn, a curving, soaring structure supported by huge hardwood beams from French Guiana and pillars of Oamaru limestone that overlooks an idyllic bay of beige sand and blue sea.
The decor is a visual feast, a riot of colour and diverse styles.
A statue of a baby hippopotamus sits as though in welcome inside tall glass doors. In the lounge, a red velvet sofa bends around a bass drum that serves as a coffee table. A print of Princess Margaret on water skis, with the addition of a pink floral bathing cap, hangs on a wall, while a regal taxidermied peacock stands nearby.
Upstairs, in the $1200-a-night Skyfall suite, the biggest of four, a print of Pope Francis has been given the added touch of bright red lipstick.
All rooms open to expansive decks overlooking Waitata Bay where the sight of a handful of sailboats bobbing on anchor lines is the only reminder you are not entirely alone. A private path leads to a naturist beach at the quiet end of the bay, where on warm days you may find Pasquale, sans clothes, puffing on a Toscano cigar.
In November, Donkey Bay - the area so named for a story that donkeys were used here to carry armaments during World War II - scooped three categories, including the World's Most Eco-Friendly Hotel and Australasia's Most Inspired Design Hotel, at the Boutique Hotel Awards in London.
Each finalist was visited. "An eclectic masterpiece overlooking one of the world's finest coastlines", the judges said of the Northland inn. Its interior design is "so exquisite and expressive, a few hours at Donkey Bay Inn and you may believe you are inside the imaginative soul of the owner himself".
And that is just as Pasquale would like it. As he shows the Weekend Herald around the property near Russell, he points out the metre-tall gold statue of Jesus they found in Auckland, then pauses in the library, where a spiral staircase leads to another sumptuous suite. Pasquale is brown and a little round, his wispy hair a match for his silvery beard. He wears shorts and a floral shirt and his voice is mellifluous. "To have a library, a place to think, is cool."
Surroundings are so important. "You walk in and you have all these dreams come to you. You change the visual aspect, you can change people in 20 seconds."
New Zealand did that for Pasquale. Aotearoa gave him a life he says that would have been impossible for him in the conservative, crowded and competitive old world. Born, raised and educated in Northern Italy's Veneto region, he and his ex-wife, Stefania, a psychology major, arrived in Northland in 1994 not long after they graduated.
He was interested in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand, he says, was a mystery to him but he had been given the phone number of an Italian sailor who was living by the ocean near Kerikeri. They came for a look and never left. Daughters Anita, Tosca and Indra, who all work at Donkey Bay Inn, were born in Northland.
With several hundred thousand dollars from his father - a trader in bottled water - he bought a sawmill out of receivership and "a piece of dirt in the back of Titoki", near Dargaville. His fortune was made buying, improving and selling farms, 18 in all. One was Cliffside, a station in the Hakataramea Valley, northeast of Kurow, bought from Don and Margaret McCaw, parents of Richie.
"It was very hard for me," he says, of a place as strange to him as the flamboyant Italian must have been to locals. Life for them, says Pasquale, revolved around farming, dog trials, sports and beer. The Italian arrived in the valley with a land agent who spoke the Queen's English. "We were a very funny pair," he says, "for them, we must have been like extraterrestrials."
He never felt as welcome in "the Haka" as he does in the north. He switched the farms to beef, once flooding the market in South Canterbury by selling 20,000 merinos in one go, and he modernised the farming equipment. When he introduced a pivot irrigator, someone called the police, worried he was using too much water. He wasn't.
"I didn't play rugby, I didn't go to school in Christchurch, my English is s***. And I consider myself a Northlander. I embrace that we are half Māori and half Pākehā." Elsewhere in the South Island, a land agent once asked Pasquale whether he thought it safe for him to leave his wife and daughters at home in Northland. He raises his eyebrows at the recollection. He was appalled by the implied racism.
After a decade he sold his South Island farms to "a big company that bought the lot", keeping a vineyard he planted in the Waitaki Valley.
Pasquale says he was lucky because he had a wife - who was based near Kerikeri with the couple's children - who supported all of his projects and he found Bill King, "a great bank manager". "Bill didn't judge. I was 30-years-old with a doctorate degree in philosophy, no work experience, marginal English and in a new country."
The farming sector was depressed and so were the prices.
"I'm not a good farmer but I can see a farm worth $3 million that I can sell for $6 million with some beautification." His banker saw it, says Pasquale. "[King] helped me gamble on the land … to make myself in New Zealand, and, on the other hand, I was Bill's best customer."
Pasquale describes himself as a borderline dyslexic. "On the positive side I'm a visionary but on the negative side I'm a visionary," he laughs. "So I need a team around me. I can't do things by myself." He was once told that living with him was "like living in Pasquale land, like Disneyland, because there is always a circus of ideas. And I'm an alpha male. Come for the ride!"
He bought the land where Donkey Bay Inn now sits in 2000. The home was completed in 2003 and used as his family's home but as circumstances changed, Pasquale decided to transform it into a luxury accommodation like no other in the Bay of Islands.
The architect was his sailing friend, boat-designer, Gary Underwood, "a humble genius, a man of so many values", says Pasquale.
Rather than start with a design, they first chose materials. The 12-metre huge beams were dictated by the length of the containers they were shipped in from South America. "So the house was designed by the shipping containers too."
Spaced five metres apart, the beams support the weight of the lush roof garden that insulates the building and makes it disappear into the hill. There is 320 cubic metres of soil sitting on the roof, a Southern Hemisphere record, he believes. When it rains, the weight can increase as much as 200 tonnes.
Next, he and Underwood discussed the shape. "If you look at the house, it is constantly curved. The frames of the windows, all curved. The roof starts and ends in the soil." It is, he says, an homage to the compass. "It's a tribute to the tools because the tools are important. Today we have computers but I'm talking about the beginning, the Greeks, they had the compass."
To transform the building from a home to a luxury inn, he hired Patrick Crawshaw, an architecture and design graduate and career hotel manager who has worked in some of London's most famous premises, including Blakes, renowned for its interior which was created by Kiwi-born Anouska Hempel, a style icon and former Bond girl.
Antonio had a vision, says Crawshaw, who had returned to Northland to reconnect with family.
"Then the architect created something that we had never seen before, and then I came in and turned it from a house to a hotel."
Crawshaw describes Pasquale as "eccentric and eclectic" and says he is too. "We are both pretty out there. He is very much an individual, he doesn't give a s*** what anyone thinks of him which is an amazing accolade because it gives you the freedom to just do whatever you like."
Inside, you find yellows and greens and blues and reds. That's Pasquale, says Crawshaw.
"Antonio broke the colour rules. And he broke me out of that grey and black mould. He likes really tacky, so I had to pull him back from it looking like a bordello.
"The colours took on a Barcelona look and that happened purely by accident. I think we exhausted one another because it was a constant battle of me trying to pull him back and him trying to pull me out."
But it works. "If you have got the sunshine, you can inject any colour. Go into an Italian village. They are full of every colour of the rainbow, pure colours."
Pasquale toyed with the idea of bringing a butler over from the UK but it's too hot for collars and jackets, and now the staff wear flowing dresses and bare feet, blending a beach feel with the luxury of an upmarket hotel.
A walk around the grounds reveals that Donkey Bay Inn is off-grid, powered by wind and sun. There's a vineyard of Chardonnay grapes, a gin distillery, olive groves, beehives, chickens and three Mammoth-breed donkeys, Texas, Mocha and Giuseppe.
Before Pasquale bought the 24ha block, there were plans to subdivide it. He's taken steps to legally protect half of it from future development because, he says, some things are worth more than the sum of their parts.
Pasquale lives on the property close to the nudist beach - though he prefers the term, naturist - in a house just 10sq m. There's a desk, a chair and, upstairs, a bed. Outside is a composting toilet. It is all he needs. "I like my tiny house and I like it up here [in the inn]. I like extremes."
He looks towards the sea and says it is a pity there are so few naturists. "It is the antithesis of the sexualisation of everything, of voyeurism."
When he is in Europe he is asked why he travels on a Kiwi passport. "It is," he says, "because I am proud of this country. I like the person I am able to be here."
And then Pasquale calls to two guests, pale from the Northern Hemisphere winter, on their way to the beach. "Get naked. Make your bum brown!"