Taking his cue from the lush subtropical growth of the award-winning Wharepuke garden, chef Colin Ashton is working fusion magic with the fresh and fragrant flavours of Thai cuisine.

Ashton's culinary journey to Wharepuke in Kerikeri has seen him cook for Shania Twain and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

More recently he was head chef at Waiheke Island's Passage Rock Winery.

It was there he won best dessert in the 2008 Metro Magazine restaurant awards for his kaffir lime and lemongrass panna cotta.


In the Metro judge's words: "We made ourselves eat it slowly, savouring the thing to the last wet morsel. We loved it."

I can vouch for their review. It's on the menu at Food and I loved it.

Ashton said he developed his love of Thai flavours during travels in Thailand plus time spent in Queensland, Australia.

A menu heavy on tamarind, coriander, lime and sweet chilli marry perfectly with the green growth on show.

Verdant palms and bamboo arch over the large restaurant veranda. A mass of bromeliads, ferns and orchids form a luxuriant carpet of undergrowth.

It is 15 years since nurseryman and plant enthusiast Robin Booth first planted the garden on a block of family land just up the road from the Stone Store.

The original plan was to feature sculptures fashioned by his brother Chris - his well known works include the memorial to the Rainbow Warrior overlooking Matauri Bay and the gateway arch in Albert Park in Auckland - but Chris' work commitments have put that on hold.

Booth relocated an old American Army barrack from Whangarei, originally to serve as a place for his plant sales but more recently as a venue for hire.

A false ceiling was removed to create a light and airy space and the corked Tawa floor restored to its former glory.

The return of Booth's daughter Tania from her 10 year OE with her British partner and printmaker Mark Graver saw the establishment of cottage accommodation around the garden.

A little more than two years old, the one-bedroom cottages were built offsite in large panels by a local boat builder.

It was while staying at the cottages last year that Ashton approached the family with the idea of turning the barrack building into a restaurant.

Each of the five cottages features the work of Graver, as does the restaurant - available for sale if you fancy them - with a small herb garden out front.

Anyone not keen on cook-your-own can wander through the garden to Ashton's restaurant.

Ashton cooks with the freshest Kerikeri ingredients.

I'd spied the oyster mushrooms that float delicately in the hot and sour tom yum soup the next morning at the regular Sunday Farmers' Market in Kerikeri.

We'd also earlier run into Ashton stocking up at one of the local orchards.

Father-in-law Paul Goldfinch cultivates vegetables for the restaurant in a sun-soaked kitchen garden on the property.

Local legend has it the site of the garden is where the Reverend Samuel Marsden first ploughed New Zealand soil.

Ashton said he tries to source fresh ingredients locally and says he is spoilt for choice.

Over the winter, for instance, he took the opportunity to turn a mountain of tamarillos, feijoas and other local fruit into preserves to use in the restaurant and sell at the market.

* Wharepuke's attractions are all online at accommodation-bay-of-islands.co.nz.

* Wharepuke restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday to
Sunday, at 190 Kerikeri Rd, Kerikeri. Phone (09) 407 8936.

* Wharepuke cottage accommodation offers five self-catering one-bedroom eco-cottages. Phone (09) 407 8933.

* Wharepuke Subtropical Gardens is a 2ha garden of regional significance planted in rare and unusual subtropical plants. Self-guided or personal tours are available with garden creator Robin Booth but must be pre-booked. Phone (09) 407 8965, email wharepuke@xtra.co.nz.

* Wharepuke Print studio offers classes and residential art holidays for beginners to advanced. Phone (09) 407 8933.

Farmers' market: Bay of Islands Farmers' Market is 8.30am to 12pm every Sunday in the public carpark off Hobson Ave, rain or shine.

Where to stay: Kerikeri Park Motel is a brand new motel set in 3.5 acres on the outskirts of Kerikeri township. Phone 0800 800 500.

Helen Twose visited Kerikeri as guest of Kerikeri Park Motel.