Having been lucky enough to lead more than a dozen garden tours to various parts of Europe, Japan and Australasia over the last 10 years, I’ve recently returned from a garden tour of New Zealand by cruise ship. It’s my first experience of conducting a garden tour this way but I hope it won’t be the last. I thought I’d share a typical day with you, which also gives me the chance to write about one of the best gardens we visited, Ayrlies, just outside Auckland.
Cruising offers the great advantages of unpacking once, and living in a safe, luxurious environment with meals, entertainment and personal services laid on. On the down side, there’s limited time in each port. There are about 40 in our group, with me as the garden expert, plus 2 tour managers to look after logistics and individual’s needs. It’s a Sydney-to-Sydney round trip of 14 days, calling at Hobart, Dunedin, Akaroa, Wellington, Napier, Tauranga, Auckland and Bay of Islands. It takes two days to cross the Tasman Sea, but otherwise the ship cruises overnight, stopping for the day in each port.
To greet the new day, early risers (and that includes me) like to go to the top observation deck (Deck 10 – it’s a big ship with 1600 passengers) to watch the sun rise and experience the approach to each port. It is far more exciting to arrive at a new destination by water than by coach, car, train or battling through an airport. Today we’re in Auckland, famed for its beautiful harbour, and it’s an impressive arrival to dock literally at the city’s feet, just a few blocks from the city centre. We’re eating breakfast on Deck 9 watching the ship tie up, then our group meets at 8.45am to disembark for our day’s private touring. Our coach driver provides local commentary as he shows us around the city highlights, then we head southeast to Whitford and the private garden of Ayrlies, about half an hour away.
Ayrlies is the creation of a remarkable woman, Bev McConnell, who came to a farm of bare paddocks with her husband Malcolm in 1964 and gradually transformed the property into one of New Zealand’s select few gardens rated as being of International Significance. It covers nearly 5 ha with woodlands, lawns, flower beds, walks, rare plants, ponds and some of the best waterfalls I’ve ever seen. Most recently, in 2000, Bev transformed a 14ha area of swamp flats into a wetland haven around a 3.2ha lake, linking the garden to the Hauraki Gulf.
Her vitality and slender frame make it hard to believe she is 82 this year, living evidence that gardening keeps you young. She tells us with a twinkle in her eye that to create a garden you need three things. (We are all paying close attention.) Firstly, she says, you must have a dream. Secondly, you mustn’t be afraid of hard work and thirdly you need a supportive husband who will pay the bills – an engineer is especially useful, she notes helpfully. She is also quick to acknowledge her staff, many of whom have been with her for years. Oliver Briars, affectionately known as Ollie, came out from England in 1974 (“We advertised in England in ‘The Lady‘, as one did in those days”) and did virtually all the hard landscaping over more than 30 years. Supposedly retired, he’s still lurking around the garden most days. The magnificent waterfalls, one more than 10m high, are the combined results of his skills and Bev’s vision.
After Bev McConnell’s welcome talk, two of the gardeners guide us slowly around the garden, pointing out highlights, explaining how the garden developed, and answering questions. Their personal input adds immeasurable value to our visit. Luckily I could still earn my keep identifying some of the plants and helping to answer some of the questions, especially about whether they could be grown in various parts of Australia.
The area of Whitford has few frosts and a generous 1300mm annual rainfall, allowing sub-tropical plants to thrive, but there are also clematis, maples, spring bulbs, roses and a grove of redwoods. One of my favourite areas is the ‘Lurid Border’, where hot colours pulsate, mixing flowers of orange, yellow and red with purple and bronze foliage in satisfyingly loud combinations. If you need an antidote to this heat and energy, there is also a secluded blue garden near the house. Descending gently down the garden, we pass through dappled woodlands, past a multitude of interesting plants, to a series of large ponds, dotted with waterlilies and fringed with Gunnera, irises of every colour and hostas. Tree ferns thrive here, forget-me-nots fill any bare ground and giant cardiocrinum lilies are raising their 2m-tall flower stems.
Bev McConnell is a high achiever, no doubt. She also raised five children, established the New Zealand Gardens Trust, and last year was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch Medal, the first woman in New Zealand to be so honoured. And she has just written the book of her garden, Ayrlies: My Story, My Garden, which is a lovely read, blending family history and anecdotes with details of the planting combinations, photographs and her personal views on gardening. To purchase a copy, follow the link at www.ayrlies.co.nz.
I could easily have spent the day there and leave vowing to be back, with a picnic and binoculars for bird-spotting in the wetlands. And I would love to see this garden through the seasons, particularly in early spring to catch the displays of bulbs, rhododendrons and magnolias, and again in autumn when the trees blaze with colour. One of Beverley’s daughters, Jacqui, who has joined us, describes three main belts of deciduous trees that form fingers pointing down the garden to the gulf, glowing with colour during autumn. It sounds magnificent.
Back in Auckland, the ship sails at 5pm, so there’s a little time for individual activities before we have to be back on board. There are a few requests to be dropped off in Parnell, a charming village-style suburb with enticing cafes and shops, while others are dropped in the city centre or else taken back to the ship. We have a regular meet in one of the cocktail bars at 5pm for those who feel like it. (Yes it was in my job description to be in the bar every day at 5pm!). Cocktails surprisingly are only US$6 or $7, with the second one $1 during happy hour. By trying the cocktail of the day each day we had a lot of fun and got a great education.
In the main dining room our group circulates informally between our six tables, giving the opportunity to dine with different people each night and getting to know the other group members. There are other restaurants if you want a change of venue, or a private dinner, but mostly the group enjoys dining together. The food is very good, offering an extensive four course menu that changes each night. After dinner there are shows and live music in various bars – our favourite is a superb duo of violin and piano who play a mix of their native Hungarian gypsy tunes, classical and popular music with a jazz twist. They are technically amazing and nightly fill the bar they play in with hushed fans, just like a private concert. The last strains of Debussy float in my head as I climb into bed (turned down by the friendly cabin staff, with chocolates nestled by the pillows) to be lulled by a very gentle rocking as we proceed in a stately manner across the seas. Tomorrow is another garden…..