In the splendid town of Middlemarch, Peter Feeney and his family stay on a sheep station and enjoy Southern hospitality that comes complete with locally brewed beer.
If you're looking for the middle of nowhere right on Dunedin's doorstep, Middlemarch is the right place. From the Octagon, it's just an hour's drive to the foothills of the high country.
We took Taieri Gorge train, which wound through spectacular spring scenery. Our kids spent the trip frozen to death on the outside viewing platforms, too gobsmacked at the views of plummeting gorges to move.
We were greeted at the station by Longford Retreat owner Lynnore, with husband Andrew, of The Rocks, a 2830ha fine wool merino station.
My wife, Nic, and I wanted the full sheep station experience (minus the work) and we found it at Lynnore's expansive property, a short drive from Middlemarch township.
The town lies in the broad Strath-Taieri Valley, a location for the Hobbit films (Sir Ian McKellan stayed at Longford, although I couldn't tell you in which bed).
With the Rock and Pillar Range as the backdrop, the detail is in the extraordinary local schist, which clads farmhouses, fences and forms lunar-looking rock piles. The grass was lush, but in high summer can be powder keg dry.
Aside from being home to the Singles Ball (the next one is April 4, 2015), Middlemarch is probably best known as one terminus on the Otago Central Rail trail, once part of the Dunedin to Cromwell railway.
Our aims, with three young children, were modest: we'd cycle Daisy Bank to Hyde. We were kitted out with bikes, a tag-along and trailer by Cycle Surgery, which is run by Pip and Dave.
Pip, who counts the entrepreneurial genes of Sir John Roberts (a Dunedin mayor and director of the NZ Refrigerating Company) in her pedigree, runs the business side. Husband Dave, who boasts a lot of cycling medals, does the nuts and bolts - right down to designing the bikes and supervising their construction overseas.
Peter Feeney with his daughter Tilly at Longford Retreat. Photo / Peter Feeney
We ambled along the trail, happy to be overtaken by hardier souls as we took on a viaduct and several other challenges. I can testify how loud a four-year-old's screams can be in a long, dark tunnel.
We had a late lunch at Strath Taieri Hotel: at $6 a pop, the kid's meals were gargantuan enough to feed a small suburb. Then Lynnore whisked the kids off to check out farm life. I found myself doing nothing on a wraparound veranda at Longford, a pot of pinot in my fist as I took in the sunset over them thar hills.
On our last night, the locals hosted Nic and I at a barbecue. They were of that hardy volunteer ilk who keep everything rolling along in a small town; people like Helen Finch, copper and organiser of the world-famous-in-the-South-Island Single's Ball.
Andrew's culinary contribution was fresh wild venison, marinated in Lynnore's granny's own recipe.
Dunedin beer baron Richard Emerson showed up lugging several flagons of his Taieri George beer. Profoundly deaf, Richard lip-reads. He told us about his passions: beer brewing, food - and trains, which is why he's named a beer after the railway. His grandfather George worked on the Taieri line, hence the play on the word "gorge".
Deprived of one sense, he's overdeveloped smell and taste - handy qualities in a master brewer, and which also allowed him to guess the exact ingredients of Lynnore's 100-year-old marinade recipe.
A happy collision of good beer, living history and a hearty repast, the evening was a fitting end to a great holiday we'll not quickly forget.
Eating: There's a good choice considering the size of the place. The Strath Taieri Hotel does traditional pub fare. Up the road, Steve at the Quench Cafe serves up a good latte and a menu of hearty Southern food. The Kissing Gate Cafe, owned by Dunedin councillor Kate Wilson, does a gourmet delivery service. Visit to try one of their moreish home-baked pies.
Biking: The Otago Rail Trail runs from Middlemarch to Clyde. The old rail line closed in 1990 and in 1993 the Department of Conservation bought the land. With local support, they embarked on the massive job of replacing the rails with a manicured gravel path. The trail attracts 14,000 multi-day riders annually. Winter deters all but the hardiest, but it's do-able all year round.
Walking: Several excellent DoC tracks up the Rock and Pillar Range offer magnificent views of the valley, plus a 45-minute walk around Sutton Lake - New Zealand's only inland salt lake.
Fishing: Taieri River has excellent brown trout fishing. Call 0800 MIDDLEMARCH and they will help organise a guide, who can show you the best spots - and help you with a licence.
Preserving: Middlemarch Museum is home to the remains of New Zealand's only gold-prospecting submarine, circa 1873, several restored railway wagons, which tell the story of the Otago Central Railway, and it includes an elaborate timeline wrapped around the walls.
Getting there: Jetstar flies from Auckland to Dunedin daily, with prices starting at $69.
Further information: See middlemarch.co.nz.