A lifelong love of entertaining and travelling has seen New Zealand couple Steve and Mary Blakemore open a glamping site on their pretty rural property in the Wairarapa.
“Retirement? What retirement?” laughs Mary Blakemore as she offers me a freshly baked slice of ginger crunch. The smell is incredible and it tastes just as punchy.
“I know it’s a cliché, but we’re busier in our retirement than we have been and the great thing is its extremely fulfilling. We love it.”
Mary and her husband Steve own 20 acres of rural farmland on the outskirts of Masterton in the Wairarapa, a one and a half hours drive from Wellington. The land, which is bordered by the Ruamahunga River to the east and shelter belts of towering poplar trees to the west, is speckled with 40 grazing cattle the couple “fatten” up each year. From their home, beautiful landscaped lawns run down to a stream and a courtyard on the northern side is drenched in sunshine.
It’s hard to believe this was once a market garden growing cabbages and cauliflowers.
Now, it makes up the dual operation of Mas de Saules homestay/B&B, and Gypsy River Camping, a gorgeous glamour camp site in a beautiful riverside setting, with four colourful gypsy caravans and shepherd's huts - hand-made by Steve.
It’s a retirement the couple dreamed about for many years and is an extension of their love of entertaining.
“Even when I was young with the children running around I had a sense of wanting to own a B&B,” explains Mary. “I’ve always loved people and hearing their stories and conversely, sharing mine.”
Mary was born and raised in England, with her early career working in retail and as a bank teller for Lloyds. However, a desire to travel saw her become an air hostess with British Air Ferries, a charter airline specialising in cross-channel flights with cars and passengers, and passenger charters to European destinations. She then became a hostess with Gulf Air based in Bahrain the 1960s. “At that time they were just building the first Hilton there. How things have changed!”
Fueled with a curiosity to see more of the world, Mary jumped on a flight to New Zealand and stayed with friends in the Wairarapa. It was here she met Steve, who had completed an Ag. Science degree, and the rest they say is history.
The couple married, had two children and then designed and built Stoneleys, a traditional NZ colonial two-story home. Here they developed a successful nursery business with each playing to their strengths – Mary loved the customer interaction while Steve enjoyed the number crunching and hands-on nature of horticulture and landscaping.
After 17 years the couple sold the business and began planning the next chapter in their lives, which was partly inspired from the pages of a coffee table book titled Provence: French Country.
“Long before there were television shows like Grand Designs, we set about with a grand design of our own,” recalls Steve. “We brought 15 acres of land that had terrific soil and decided to build again with the long term view of setting up a B&B. Mary and I loved the styles of French country farm houses, so I designed our house on the computer and spent nine months project managing the build, letting and running 17 different contracts!”
The couple also did their own interior decorating and once complete, named their property Mas de Saules, “House of the Willows”.
Here the couple ran their B&B for the next decade, while Steve worked for the Greater Wellington Regional Council in Resource Management and served on the boards of several community organisations. Mary continued to work in retail, selling fashion shoes, and latterly assisting in her daughter Stella’s design and homeware store.
Along the way, a morning tea stop in the South Island township of Lawrence, changed the course of the couple’s focus again.
“Steve became intrigued by New Zealand’s early pioneering huts after we stopped off in Lawrence and saw a vintage harvest workers sleeping hut (known as a Stinky) being restored. Well, one thing led to another and eventually he built a Shepherd’s hut for me to use as an artist’s studio. One day we were with our kids having Christmas lunch by the river when someone suggested we should have a shepherd’s hut down here. One thing led to another and our Gyspy River Camp was born.”
In 2013 the couple opened their unique glamping site next to the elevated banks of the Ruamahunga River. Gyspy River Camp comprises three colourful wheeled huts called Primrose Cottage, Rose Cottage and Gyspy Caravan that can sleep up to 8 guests. There is also a Cookhouse hut with full working kitchen and a bathroom with shower and vanity. There is a separate “Dunny” with a flushing toilet. An outdoor Bush Bath surrounded by native trees, where guests can relax under the stars, is a great hit with guests. For the children there are kayaks for the river, a small children’s’ playground, big swing, and a fabulous flying fox which whizzes guests from one side of the paddock to the other.
“Kids of all ages love the flying fox,” laughs Mary.
Between the glamping site and the homestay, the Blakemore’s welcome both national and international guests – from couples on their honey moon to grandparents. Family groups really enjoy making the most of the region’s long hot summers. Judging by the positive and descriptive comments left behind in the Visitor’s Book guests relish the beautiful surrounds, wonderful hospitality and personal touches the Blakemore’s are so good at providing, such as Mary’s fresh baking, bottles of cold ginger beer left in the fridge for guests or posies of freshly picked flowers in recycled jars.
“This is a very special place and people just love it” says Mary. “Although officially retired, Steve spends his time building be-spoke huts and caravans for clients, farming the land and maintaining our property and I work hard behind the scenes making sure our guests are catered for and feel welcome. It’s busy but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
For more information about Mary and Steve visit their site here.
Image credit: Loren Dougan