Daily dining on Royal Doulton china and an after-dinner port - the formal but relaxed hospitality of Whanganui's Bushy Park Homestead is winning customers over.
Dale Pullen took over the business and lease in September 2018, as the $1.4 million homestead renovations were under way. The homestead is 25km from Whanganui and set in a 95ha predator-fenced bush reserve.
Pullen has made his own improvements to the homestead and brought overnight occupancy of the 13 beds in five bedrooms up to 68 per cent, year to date - and 100 per cent at weekends.
The homestead sorely needed renovation. Before it the roof leaked, some windows were broken, sills were rotten and wind whistled through. It's now insulated and draught-free, with most fireplaces removed.
Pullen has added extras, like an old fashioned leafy wallpaper for the breakfast room and easy chairs for the lounge. He's turned a dark little storeroom into a bar with a mirror and chandelier, and made one bedroom into a study.
People who came to the homestead for a meal used to eat with stainless steel cutlery. It's now bone handled or silver, and the Royal Doulton dinner sets are used daily.
The Chronicle arrived on a Tuesday afternoon to find a formally dressed Pullen who was expecting 11 overnight guests. Guests arrive to a cup of tea or coffee and a tour, assemble in the lounge for pre-dinner drinks at 6.30 and meet the other guests.
Conversation flows quickly and they are often slow to leave the table after a three-course dinner, which is followed by a glass of port and more tea and coffee before bedtime.
The cost of a double room is $160, with continental breakfast included. The evening meal costs $35.
Homestay is a major part of his business and Pullen has part-time staff at least 20 hours a week - a baker, two housekeepers and an office manager. He does all the other cooking, and he manages the garden and lawns with a Whanganui Garden Club helper.
"North Island robins get under the garden fork. Wood pigeons graze the lawns and sometimes you have to give them a hurry-up," he said.
The homestead is open for morning and afternoon teas and light lunches from 10am to 4pm Wednesday to Sunday. Most nights there are guests.
"If I get a night off, it's bliss."
Pullen will also host functions of 60 people or less - but he will not do big events.
"They're too big, and there's too much health and safety rolled into it. They're hard on the house and property," he said.
He prefers New Zealand visitors, and has never looked for overseas tourists.
"I do get international tourists, but they are the ones that come specifically to look at heritage homes or forests or birds, so I'm always getting the right kind of people."
He paid $60,000 for the business and the transfer of the homestead lease. He's got the place until 2025, with three three-year rights of renewal. He's paid at least $100,000 of his own towards improvements.
"My focus has always been service first. I have never worried about the money, because I know that if I give people what they want and what they like, the money will come."
A genuinely hospitable person, Pullen joined the army in 1979 to become a military steward. That has included training as a valet, a batman, a mess manager and a chief steward, and being out in the field.
He's stood at ease for an hour while people eat in the officers' mess at Burnham Military Camp, and he's worked at Government House.
"When you are in the army you don't get a second chance. You are there for a serious matter of looking after people that kill people. I did take it really seriously," he said.
Since then he has been a change manager for places of hospitality, with the job of "making things work, if they can work". His last workplace was the Bay of Island Swordfish Club.