A Far North farm hostel has been voted the favourite in New Zealand by those who like staying at backpacker lodges. Colin Moore discovers its attractions.
Kahoe Farms Hostel proudly defies the maxim location, location, location. The Far North backpacker lodge squats beside Highway 10, stranded in the middle of a rural nowhere between the tourist spots of Kerikeri and Mangonui.
You would think that travellers would barely blink as they passed on by. Someone must have neglected to tell them that this was nowhere.
In backpackers' and youth hostels from Alaska to Zimbabwe travellers chat about the places they have been and the places they are going to. And they scribble in their diaries advice on where to stay and things to do.
If the talk gets around to New Zealand you can be sure it will get around to the backpacker hostel set in a Northland paddock and its hosts, Stefano Virgili and Lyndsey Johanson.
Last year nearly 4000 travellers in backpacker lodges throughout New Zealand completed survey forms rating the lodges where they had stayed. That totalled more than 33,000 listings.
Kahoe Farm Hostel led the way with a 97 per cent rating.
You have to go back to 1887 to understand why. That's when the Johanson family cleared the scrub that kauri loggers had left on the land near the upper reaches of the Whangaroa Harbour and began a farm that is still in the family.
Fast forward four generations to when Lyndsey takes off to London on her big OE and meets and falls in love with a handsome young Italian chef. When Stefano came home to meet the folks in Kahoe in 1991 the couple decided to put their travel experience together and start a budget hostel in the roadside farmhouse that Lyndsey grew up in.
It was a sublime act of faith and many must have been the passing motorists who, like myself, noticed the hostel's cute sign - the derriere of a rag-doll-style farm couple - and wondered who on earth would stay there.
But motorists did stop, day and night, to collect the tomatoes and capsicums that the couple sold for $2 a bag from a roadside stall on an honesty-box system.
And then I began to hear on the travellers' grapevine about the magic hostel and the innovative couple who run it.
The location is not as odd as it first seems. For cycle tourists it is conveniently placed between the Bay of Islands and Kaitaia. And for many travellers it is a welcome escape from the more "touristy" spots.
But the most important element was Stefano and Lyndsey. Travellers might arrive as guests but they leave as friends. The hostel is almost like a rural resort, farmstay, holiday club and homestay rolled into one.
You can round up cattle and help sort sheep from goats, borrow a kayak and paddle along the mangrove-fringed Kahoe River and into the Whangaroa Harbour, hike up the ridge at the back of the farm for views of Whangaroa, Doubtless Bay and the Hokianga, or trek over the hill to see old kauri dam sites and swim in natural rockpools in hidden streams.
When you have done all that you can organise a Cape Reinga bus tour to pick you up at the gate, go charter fishing in Whangaroa, take a trip into Mangonui or play a round of golf at the 18-hole Whangaroa course, a couple of kilometres up the road.
And, if you are too tired to cook a meal when you get home, you can order one of Stefano's pizzas or home-made pasta. They are as famous on the backpacker grapevine as the hostel.
Near the hostel is a distinctive rock formation that has become rich in backpacker lore because of the Kahoe challenge to scale it. The fastest time on the challenge board is by a Scottish triathlete at 22m 15sec.
Then there is the Bryan Williams' Log of Wood. Back in the 1970s BG, who is married to a cousin of Lyndsey's, once pumped his legendary thighs to the top of a hill behind the hostel for rugby training.
Now hostel guests run with a ball to the top of the hill, boot the ball back down, over a creek, sidestep some obstacles in the hostel grounds, and touch down for a try. A Welsh backpacker holds the record at 1m 41 sec.
And pass the lodge around 4 pm and you'll likely see the most distinctive of all Kahoe Hostel traditions - its international soccer games. They are held almost daily on the front lawn of the hostel, fun and good fellowship in a paddock in the Far North of New Zealand.
Stefano and Lyndsey have moved another old house onto the site where they live with their children, James, aged 9, and Anna, 5. Stefano's parents have followed their only son to New Zealand and live in Kerikeri.
"We're nestled between two fairly popular tourist sports," says Stefano explaining the hostel's success. "We gave it three years to see if it would work. We're happy it has.
"Our children are lucky to be able to mix with people from all over the world. We get a lot of people coming back and most stay for more than one night.
"Just having one-nighters would be horrible. I wouldn't want to do it."
On the picnic tables outside, a group are sipping afternoon coffees. Joanne had read about the place at a backpackers' lodge in the South Island.
Mark, a 37-year-old from England, has spent eight months at Kahoe on three different trips to New Zealand. His fondest memory? Scoring a winning goal in a soccer game in 1996.
An older couple from England have come to join their daughter and are touring by hire car. They heard about Kahoe at a backpackers' lodge in Auckland.
For me only one thing is missing - the roadside vegetable stall. Stefano and Lyndsey no longer have time to grow tomatoes and capsicums. They are sorely missed.
Kahoe Farms Hostel is at 1266 State Highway 10, RD 2 Kaeo. Phone: (09) 4051 804.