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Episode 1

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Island Escape, Nicaragua

Martin and Jenifer Thomas seem to be living out a dream and we want to know how! 

Since leaving New Zealand with two young children in the 1990s - they have increased their family in size - to three sons and two daughters; moved to Italy where they renovated and sold an old school house and bought a 26 acre island off the coast of Nicaragua where they have built a stunning and stylish island house. They haven't just done all these things - they have done it all with serious style and creative flair.  

Martin and Jenifer have a talent for creating a home in the most remote location and living a life that includes taking risks and dealing with the unknown.  They also seem to manage to create a life of harmony. They spend most of their time together and home school their children. They also have a mutual spiritual dimension to their lives and a desire for perfection. This is a life of aesthetic pleasure, family closeness and new experiences.

Once they had bought the island they set about designing the house while they were still living in Italy. They even bought everything they would need to set up house on an island - right down to the bed linen and even an antique harp that Martin says is"17th century and one of only two in the world! In a way we brought the harp to the island and built the house around it"

The Pearl Cays are located about 3 nautical miles from the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, and around 60 miles north of the town of Bluefields (pop. 15,000).  Access presently is by speedboat from Bluefields, via river and sea, and this trip takes around two hours, depending on weather conditions. Seaplane or helicopter would make the trip much shorter, and further information is available on both these options.

Two local airlines serve Bluefields, which is a short, one hour flight from Managua.

It is always nice to know who your neighbours are, and in this sense these few privately owned cays represent a sort of exclusive private enclave. To the north is Coco Cohiba Cay Resort, presently the only operating business in the Cays. This is a boutique eco-fishing lodge owned by Christian Billard. This resort is open almost year round and is highly acclaimed, in particular with fishermen.

Other owners of nearby Cays include a Swiss industrialist considering early retirement, a family of restaurateurs from Paris who visit only occasionally, an American couple, and an English family.

Martin Thomas has written a book about the family's adventure in Nicaragua "Slice of Heaven" which is published by Phantom House and is available by contacting:
Grant Sheehan
Phanton House
PO Box 6385 Te Aro
Top Floor, 1 Marion Street
Tel: 04 384 5451

For information on the book, go to

The book is widely stocked by Whitcoulls and Paper Plus.

A West Coast Adventure

This fabulous coastal retreat blends stunning natural beauty with engineering vision to create what we consider to be the first private West Coast adventure park.

It comes complete with its own nail-biting rollercoaster ride to the beach, a huge Fortress-like windbreak wall, a bush bure complete with hammock and swimming hole, a fifty foot waterfall and enough bush walking to keep even the fittest adventurer on their toes.

This garden is a West Coast paradise. It is 12 hectares of coastal delights complete with native bush, a wetland, two small lakes, a sumptuous swimming pool, a Pacific bure with sea views and a private railway down to a secluded beach.

In amongst the bush and beauty you will find the unique addition of an eight metre high windbreak, amongst miles of DoC like paths through the bush, the bure and of course, the railway.

Private Rollercoaster

The most extraordinary structure on the property would have to be the railway line (like a private rollercoaster) that goes down the precipitous 80 metre cliff to the beach below. The railway was built to make access to the beach easier for the more frail members of the family.

The "rail car" is actually is an Argo, an amphibious craft made in Canada. It was modified  by putting blades behind the wheels to grip the track he has put in. The track runs for at least a kilometre through the bush and then over the top of the lovely wetland and then literally over the cliff to the picnic table at the private black sand beach.

"In the family we had mobility issues that mooted the idea of a railway," says the owner, "There were strict planning conditions and we couldn't impinge on the natural cliff edge unless there had been an existing structure. So we had to work within the structure of the beach path that had been there for 25 years."

He says he could have put an elevator down the cliff edge but it would have cost "megabucks". It took a while to get the design sorted out as the tracks had to be low enough that they did not impinge on the natural environment in any significant way.

Because of the exposed and rugged nature of the coastline, steel was not an option for the tracks because it would be a rusty mess within ten years. For longevity they used old-fashioned timber rails treated against the elements with fixed stainless steel fastenings which provide a lifetime of maintenance free use.

"The railway connects the property to the beach," he says, "it makes it possible for visitors to get down the 80 metre cliffs and back up again - no matter how old they are." - some visitors wouldn't go down there - cliffs are 80 meters high - all very well going down but by time you struggle back up its pretty hard&

It was built over a period of 18 months in 1998 and has been in use ever since.

Swimming Pool

The elegant swimming pool area was designed by Leo Van Veenendal. The marble sculpture on the pool stairs is by artist Cuan Forsyth-King and is carved from rare Coromandel white marble.

The pool was made out of rough-hewn slabs of schist which blend naturally into the bush around it. Blue/green tiles around the sides and dark green grouted pebbles on the bottom ensure the water is a natural colour. It is designed to look like a natural swimming hole in the bush.

The Windbreak

It stands at seven metres high and 40 metres across and was designed to screen out the brutal winds from different parts of the garden. It also acts as a viewing platform which looks out to sea and also acts as a screen to create some privacy in the valley.
The wall is made from old wharf posts and brush sticks - it looks like an ancient fortress placed perfectly between the sides of the valley.

The wind shelter has encouraged growth in what was a windswept gully. But instead of a conventional windbreak, they were determined to make it into an architectural feature.

Natural beauty: The property boasts extensive native bush (with bridges built over gullies so you can walk through the trees), pastureland, a waterfall fed by several streams, two acres of regenerating wetlands and three lakes. The jewel in the crown in the private horseshoe shaped beach with caves and grottos which have their own fossils. There is a shark's tooth in part of the rock that had been carbon dated as 2 million years old.

Fresh from Moeraki

Fleur Sullivan likes to boast that the fish she serves is so fresh it's still wriggling when she buys it although this feisty Moeraki restaurateur has fought a few bureaucratic battles to serve food her way. 

Her commitment to using the best local produce doesn't end with her fish and Fleur continually seeks out regional specialties for her menus including Moeraki Maori potatoes, mutton bird and even kelp harvested locally which she dries and uses as a condiment.

Fleur's customers appreciate her efforts and in the three years since it opened, Fleur's has become a legend for the quality of its food and the tenacity of it's proprietor.

Until recently Moeraki was most well known for its beach with perfectly rounded boulders, millions of years old, but these days it's the legendary Fleur's Café located on the wharf at Moeraki that is pulling in the tourists and putting the village on the map.

The Building:

The café building is an attraction in itself.  Fleur says she wasn't convinced her food alone would attract the patrons 'I knew the building needed to have a story of its own to draw customers from the main road to eat here'. 

The building is constructed of gathered collectables and demolition materials from around New Zealand.  The majority of timber comes from a building that once stood at the Kakanui wharf - Fleur bought the building so she could use the timber which really proved a more expensive way to build than buying brand new.  She then enlisted some local strong men to help her build the place but she jokingly says it was she who ended up helping them.

Inside Fleur has demonstrated her talent for interior design with a recycled motif!  Almost nothing is new - the tables and chairs are mid century Russian, Fleur found them under the grandstand at the Oamaru racecourse.  The cutlery is Sheffield, there's an old working coal range - the partition dividing the dining area and the loos is the hull of an old boat.  The stair case is from an old Dunedin mansion once owned by the Hudson family (think Cookie Bear) - Fleur bought it ten years ago hoping she'd find a place for it one day!  The walls are lined with old photos and paintings illustrating the region's maritime past. 

The Food and Fleur's Philosophy of Food:

When it comes to her food, Fleur's motto is 'Good Food Naturally'.  Processing is kept to a minimum and her fish is only rinsed in sea water before it hits the pan.  Of course freshness is imperative, Fleur's customers tell her they've never tasted fish like her's before and if they're foreign tourists they tell her their meal at Fleur's is the best they've had in New Zealand (although Fleur in her modesty does concede she doesn't know where else they could possibly be dining).

Fleur's approach to food is the result of a childhood on the land where she foraged in the paddocks for mushrooms and trawled the streams for trout.  She says her father was a hunter gatherer type and she remembers driving down a quiet country road with her Dad while he shot rabbits from a running board.  Her mother too was a capable country woman, tending her own garden making her own soap, Fleur grew up thinking everyone grew their own vegetables. 

How Fleur uses kelp:
Fleur uses kelp in a range of ways - she smokes it and grinds it to use as a flavour enhancer and condiment on her various fish dishes.  Another variety; the sea lettuce she uses as a garnish on the kaimoana platter as it goes nicely with salmon.  But more recently she's been cooking with it.

Bladder Kelp (Macrocytis Angustofolia)
This is a much thicker gutsier brown kelp and is stronger in texture than the others.  This kelp was traditionally used to preserve mutton birds.

Sea Lettuce (Ulva Lactuca)
This is the pretty green weed that grows on the rocks.  However Fleur can only harvest this when it's floating in the sea - she can't pluck it straight from the rocks
Fleur uses this mainly as a garnish but she also includes it on the kaimoana platter - it works perfectly with the salmon.

Japanese Wakame (Undaria Pinnafitida). 
This is brown kelp with wide brown to yellow blades.  It's native to Japan and came to New Zealand by accident.  Fleur says it's very invasive so she's actually doing MAF a service by using it.  In Japan they grow it commercially and use it in a range of things including miso soup, Fleur tends to dry it and use it as condiment or flavour enhancer, she also smokes it and sprinkles it on salmon.

Kelp requires little preparation you simply rinse it in the sea water and you're good to go. 

Cooking with Muttonbird:

One of the more unusual items on Fleur's menu is her mutton bird.  Once a year Fleur buys her mutton bird from the registered hunters and she thinks she is the only person serving it. 

Fleur prepares her mutton bird using a pakaha version of the traditional Maori preparation called titi.  The mutton bird is boiled and served in a kite bag with the fat from the pot poured over the top of the bird confit style. 

Fleur substitutes glass jars for the kite bag - after the mutton bird is boiled the fat is scraped off and poured over the bird (now in the glass jar) - sounds quite unappetising to me - but actually looks quite smart and could be interesting to watch .  This is served with native spinach and Moeraki Maori potatoes.

Address for Fleur's Restaurant:
Fleur's Place,
169 Haven Street
RD2 Palmerston
Tel: 03 439 4480

Totally Tawhiao

Artist, poet and film-maker, Tracey Tawhiao is unapologetically passionate about her life and her work. Her house is an extension of her creative life with many of the walls and even a couple of the doors adorned with her native art which is heavy with ancient symbolism but at the same time completely contemporary.

Tracey says her work is fuelled by the forces of nature. She has christened her home in Laingholm on Auckland's West Coast, "The Home of the Seven Whales" because of the whale imagery that is a large part of her work and because while she was working on a whale inspired piece, seven whales beached themselves just up the road on Kare Kare Beach.

Tracey shares her house with an assortment of different creative people who come and go.  Through the house she has made links with artists from all over the world.
Buying and decorating the house:

The house is an intrinsic part of Tracey's artistic journey because she became a full time artist when she moved there.

When the family first moved to the bach Tracey was finishing her law degree and starting out as an artist.

"At first I didn't have to make a living out of it which was a relief," Tracey laughs, "so to start off with I just started painting the house. Literally I painted stuff on the walls. The whole house has just evolved from that really."

This is evident in the house itself. Almost every wall is covered with Tracey's signature artwork. Many of them are her newspaper works which have become something of a trademark.