Alexia Santamaria finds a special sanctuary to drive away the pandemic blues
There is such a thing as too much "quality time" with your family, and as Aucklanders who spent 100 plus days of the latter part of 2021 locked down with two teenage boys (followed by what seemed like a very long school holiday period) my husband and I were ready for some healthy space between us and our beloved offspring – far from Playstation fights, endless snack demands, and burping competitions. It didn't need to be long – just a night of peace to recharge our batteries.
What we didn't expect was that this break would come just 30 minutes from our house in West Auckland, in fact 10 minutes from busy Albany Mall. New Zealand is great like that. One minute you're in semi-industrial suburbia, the next surrounded by lush native bush with only the sound of tūī and kererū for company.
Warblers Retreat is a remarkable property. You truly feel a million miles from anywhere, on 2 hectares of regenerating farmland - gullies brimming with interwoven ponga, tanekaha and nikau in glorious shades of brown and emerald. Natural springs flow through the property, gorgeous bushwalks have been carved out, the sound of native birds is ever-present and there are even glow worms! For anyone needing to disconnect from pandemic stress, this is where to do it.
We arrived on a Friday afternoon and felt the grip of deadlines, family demands and timetabling of any sort, slip instantly away as we descended the driveway to Kereru Studio, our home for the night. There was a welcome basket waiting for us, crammed with cheese, crackers, homemade pesto, chutney and biscuits, fresh fruit and a bottle of bubbles. It felt like Christmas rifling through these delights, and any parent who has endured the pressure cooker of lockdown knows that bush tranquillity, a basket of snacks you didn't make and the sound of silence is almost enough to make you weep.
Tired after a busy week, we cracked open a beer and a rose, strawberry and hibiscus seltzer from the fridge, busted out the platter food, kicked off our shoes and exhaled. The peace was exquisite and it was only the thought of a dip in the resort-style pool that stopped us from falling asleep on the couch right then and there. Hosts Barb and Dave open up their pool and spa to guests and after some serious lounging, we went on to explore the rest of the property.
While there was definitely a strong New Zealand theme to the foliage, there were also many moments where we felt like we could have been in Italy or France as we ducked under an arch dripping in fat bunches of green grapes or spotted fig trees starting to fruit. We passed a huge vegetable garden, with an abundance of courgettes, feijoa trees and some pretty happy looking chickens. It's obvious the couple love to work with the land in any way possible, and their passion is evident in every square centimetre of the property - from the sugar water dispensers outside the bedroom window of the "The Cottage" (complete with one-way glass so you can watch the congregating tūī from your bed without scaring them away) to the neat signposted tracks through the bush to the perfectly round topiary.
There are three dwellings: Kereru Studio, The Cottage and the Eco Glamping - and all have their unique charm. The Eco Glamping option is a renovated caravan complete with old school Temuka crockery and other retro charms. There are private outdoor baths in The Cottage and Eco Glamping but anyone staying on the property can use the outdoor bath near the stream - and it's an experience that shouldn't be missed.
After Dave and Barb brought a lovely home-cooked meal to our cottage (would the pampering ever end?) we headed down in our swimsuits to find a neatly packed basket full of soap, cloths, bottles of water, chocolates and candles. While I had been slightly apprehensive about the whole concept – how warm would it be? Would there be mosquitoes? - five minutes in that perfect temperature water under a star-filled sky with only the sound of ruru calling and the flapping of tūī wings overhead and I saw why they said it was a must-do. Relaxing in that kind of stillness is pandemic therapy no psychologist could ever prescribe. Not much renders me speechless, but this truly took my breath away.
After our bath we couldn't resist meandering down the path to where Barb told us we might spot glowworms. It took us a while but, when our eyes adjusted, there they were - tiny twinkly lights up the bank of the creek. Bush magic so close to the suburbs.
After a wonderful sleep in a cloud-like bed we woke to breakfast provided in the basket from last night. Barb's muesli and freshly stewed rhubarb and yoghurt were like a hug on a plate. Maybe she infused some of her joy (she is a celebrant and loves conducting weddings on site) into what she was cooking. "I just love love," she says – "sometimes I look up and almost feel like I can see big hearts in the sky. We love the property, we love seeing our guests happy and we really love seeing people take their vows and start their life together, right here."
Even if, like us, you're not exactly newlyweds, it's pretty hard not to fall in love with this magical spot and the enthusiasm for nature and relaxation its owners exude.
Disconnection from the craziness of our current world not too far from home is what we all need right now.
For more travel inspiration, go to newzealand.com/nz.
Check traffic light settings and Ministry of Health advice before travel at covid19.govt.nz