Tuesday, September 1, 1992

A Californian Goes Kiwi

"A Californian Goes Kiwi" by Armistead Maupin
House and Garden, September, 1992

My boyfriend, Terry Anderson, and I discovered New Zealand's Banks Peninsula in early 1990 at the weary end of an international book tour. After bidding farewell to the last reporter, we rented a car in Christchurch and set off on a leisurely loop around South Island, ending up in Akaroa, the southernmost French settlement in the world. We glimpsed the village first from the peninsula's historic Hilltop Tavern, gazing down on an impossibly blue harbor making jigsaw dents in the volcanic hills, and were instantly seduced. Our hostess at a local inn, a transplanted Californian, recognized the crazed light in our eyes and told us about a small colonial farmstead for sale across the harbor.

The next morning, without waiting for an estate agent to guide us, we took off in search of the property. After several false starts-and a phone call back to the innkeeper-we found it at the end of a winding dirt road: a two-acre or so plot containing an empty farmhouse, a cowshed, several outbuildings, and an apple orchard. Peering furtively into windows, we determined that the interior of the house was dark and cramped and, worse yet, paneled with characterless fiberboard. Still, the old garden had been lovingly maintained, and the view of the South Pacific out through the headlands was nothing short of heart stopping.

Here, we realized, was the weekend house we had always dreamed of in northern California, complete with a babbling brook, a huge Monterey cypress, and a wraparound vista of grazing sheep. What's more, the price was comparable to that of a nice garage back in the Mission District, our neighborhood in San Francisco. The only daunting part was the prospect of a "summer place" at the bottom of the world where no other landmass stood between Antarctica and us. Could anyone in his right mind construe this as a practical commute?

The thought that we might be victims of end-of-tour hysteria occurred to us immediately, so we avoided the subject for a while and lost ourselves in sightseeing. We booked onto the Canterbury Cat, a local tour boat, in the hope of spotting one of the rare Hector's dolphins among the world's smallest-that make their home in Akaroa Harbor. We saw several little blue penguins and a cormorant or two, but there wasn't a dolphin in sight. One of them had died earlier in the week, the captain explained, so the rest were most likely in mourning.

Disappointed, I let my mind wander back to our previous obsession. I scanned the nearest hillside with my telephoto lens until I found the telltale cypress and, beneath it, the little iron-roofed house. As I handed the camera to Terry and we began to fantasize anew, we heard a collective gasp from the people next to us and turned to see a trio of Hector's dolphins, frisky as poodles, cavorting off the bow. If their perfect timing wasn't an omen, it seemed enough like one to set our minds racing again. It was our last day there, but on our way to the airport we opened an account at the Bank of New Zealand. And less than two months later, we closed the deal by mail from San Francisco.

The following July, while I was in New York sweating over the book for a musical, Terry returned to the chilly Antipodes to begin renovation of the house. Working with a local contractor, he tore out the offending fiberboard to reveal the original "matched lining" (tongue and groove paneling) of native rimu. He replaced the modern mismatched windows along the veranda with French doors he found in salvage yards and ripped out several interior walls. He designed a new kitchen, using rimu for the countertops. Perhaps most dramatically, he created a windowed alcove on the veranda for a large bathtub commanding a view of the South Pacific. "Just make sure it's supported," he told the builder. "This thing has to hold two fat men and a lot of water."

We named the place Kahikatea-or, more accurately, renamed it, since it had once been called that-after the venerable native tree that stands where our driveway crosses the creek. Taking occupancy in mid October just as spring was arriving, we received a welcome as warm as the weather. A neighbor we'd never met had filled every room of the house with flowers from her own garden and left a batch of homemade brownies on the kitchen table. Another neighbor spent most of the day unclogging our spring and teaching us the mysteries of our water supply. Even more amazingly, our local "postie" (mail carrier) let us know that she would gladly deliver to our door any items we might have forgotten at the general store. By the time we joined our fellow valley dwellers and their kids for a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire at the beach, we felt as if we'd lived there all our lives.

Copyright ©1996 by Armistead Maupin