LITTLE AKALOA, New Zealand — Mention a country or a city and almost always a particular image will leap to my mind:
France, the cathedral at Chartres looming over the landscape; Japan, the teeming streets of Tokyo; London, Big Ben in a fog; Venice, Piazza San Marco on a clear evening; Berlin, the Wall; Hong Kong, its harbor; New Zealand, Decanter Bay.
Decanter Bay? Don't bother looking for the bay in any travel books or brochures on New Zealand. It seems not to be mentioned anywhere. It is not even on most maps of this bucolic land between Tonga and Antarctica.
A modest cove tucked into the remote eastern shore of Banks Peninsula on South Island, the bay is about a two-hour winding drive out of Christchurch, the last three miles on a narrow dirt road that edges up and over a steep hill and down into a glen.
At first glance the bay could very well be the setting of the fictional village of Brigadoon, transplanted from the Highlands of Scotland.
To be sure, I have seen and experienced more dramatic sights in New Zealand, including sidling through the thermal wonders gurgling and gushing in the Rotorua area, landing a trout in Lake Taupo, jet boating on the Shotover River and skimming over the Southern Alps in a light plane, to set down in the spectacular scenery of Milford Sound.
But Decanter Bay was special, for it offered a relaxed opportunity to become acquainted with a way of life in what has to be one of the most exquisite locations on earth.
Named after a rock formation at its entrance, Decanter Bay is the home of Tad and Jill Harris, who with their son and his family operate a 900-acre sheet and cattle station. The farm wraps itself around the bay in a protective hilly coat of lush fields, a rural outpost of sorts and a reminder that despite its English tones and civility, New Zealand is a relatively young and rustic country.
We had been sent to the Harrises by Farm Holidays, one of several efforts coordinated by the New Zealand Government Tourist Office to accommodate visitors and introduce them to local life. (With prices running about $56 double a day for a room, with a private bath and a hearty breakfast and four-course dinner, the package has to be one of the better travel bargains available.)
It was a memorable visit. We toured the farm, learned it history and a bit of New Zealand's, witnessed the anxiety of mustering the sheep to the sheds for a shearing (only to have a rain drive away the shearers), enjoyed marvelous meals in the kitchen, swapped spirited opinions in the living room, and even reviewed the agenda of the county council, of which Tad is chairman.
We were made to feel at home, a gesture that seems to come very easily to New Zealanders. It is a country in which you can become comfortable very quickly, especially when fed farm-fresh food, regaled with local gossip and soothed by the sight and sound of the sea.
Leaving was hard, but our schedule beckoned. We tried to keep off the beaten track and away from the usual hotels, hoping to get a better glimpse of this lovely land and character.
For something not as intimate as a farm stay but certainly as friendly and quite a bit more luxurious and expensive, we spent a day and night at Muriaroha, a private guest home on two lushly landscaped acres on the outskirts of Rotorua on the relatively more populous North Island.
A Bit of Heaven
Muriaroha was a bit of heaven, and very much in the manner of a down-home grand tour.
We indulged ourselves in a well-appointed suite decorated with antiques, were served a succession of gourmet meals, offered the use of the spa, a courtesy car and generally were pampered by a staff that seemed never to stop offering refreshments sprinkled with good humor and local tales. The total bill was an inclusive $150 a day a person.
"I really don't like to mention money," said owner-operator Rosalie Ellis as we sipped tea in the drawing room. "That is why everything, from the courtesy car to doing your laundry, all drinks and all meals, are included. I don't want anyone to think about money. I want them to feel as if they were simply guests in my home.
And with that comment, we were offered with smile yet another plate of pastries. We could not refuse.
Coming back down to earth and within our budget, we had another delightful farm stay outside the town of Ngongotaha, also near Rotorua.
Although not as remote and seductive a setting as Decanter Bay, the Top End farm, an apple orchard operated by Colleen and Dennbis Finn with the help of their three young children, offered a similar glimpse at New Zealand life.
Like the Harrises, the Finns said they participate in the farm stay program not for the income, about half of which goes to promoting and administrating the program, but for the opportunity to meet travelers from other countries.