TRACY WHITMEY meets a couple bringing a touch of Ireland to Kawau Island.
“Couple wanted to run island retreat in New Zealand” – that was guaranteed to catch the eye of experienced Irish hospitality couple Karina Quinlan and Luke Treanor as they headed to NZ after a spell working in Australia (well, the wording might have been slightly different but no matter, they were hooked). Within three days of getting off the plane they had taken on the job of running the Kawau Beach House.
Immediately they could see the potential of the property; nestled beachfront in Vivian Bay on Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf, it’s just a 20-30 minute boat ride off the coast about 45km north of Auckland. Over the previous few years the place had become a little shabby and suffered from a lack of attention. “What it needed was a burst of fresh enthusiasm and energy,” says Karina. Together with an eager and committed owner, within two weeks they had plans drawn up and in the past seven months the island retreat has been completely refurbished. Today guests can choose from three beachfront suites with private decks stepping right onto the sand, four courtyard rooms or suites with views out over the gardens and Vivian Bay, or a hidden-away cottage with two rooms surrounded by native bush. Sharing the bay with only 12 other houses and completely traffic- free, the sense of peace is palpable. Just add one of Luke’s deluxe G&Ts, a bowl of freshly popped turmeric popcorn and a Kawau sunset for complete heaven.
While renovations were underway, Karina and Luke had chance for a quick tiki tour of the country sampling wondrous produce along the way. “Even before we came we were very excited about New Zealand food, due to everything that we had heard. Where I was working in Australia there was so little connection to the products I was using, but I need to know about where everything is coming from, it’s Marlborough they visited Whitehaven Wines and were delighted to find a sauvignon blanc named Mansion House Bay – now firmly established on their wine list back on Kawau. There it sits alongside local wines from Hyperion and Heron’s Flight and lots of locally sourced produce such as fish from Leigh Fisheries, smoked salmon from Matakana Smokehouse, Matakana bacon and honey, as well as craft beer from The Sawmill Brewery and 8 Wired. Karina is an excellent chef with a gentle hand and an understanding of how to use great technique without overkill. The food is elegant and clever and Karina enjoys a good forage in both the beach house gardens and those of their neighbours. This is apparent in a clever dessert of lemon & vanilla set custard with rhubarb poached in an elderflower and horopito pepper cordial.
Karina and Luke feel very fortunate for the opportunity to live an island life. With just 72 permanent residents on Kawau, it’s a close community. Keen for Kawau Beach House to be part of that community, the couple invited all the residents of the island to visit, to see the new place for themselves.
Back in the 1860s and 1870s visiting Kawau Island was a popular day trip, with ferries bringing boatloads to see Governor Grey’s palatial house and menagerie of exotic animals – zebras, antelopes, wallabies, kookaburras, Indian peacocks and monkeys – along with untold species of tropical plants. While the zebras and monkeys are long gone, visitors today can still see peacocks, kookaburras and wallabies as well as myriad native birds including weka, kiwi, kererū and morepork. The waters around the island may offer glimpses of dolphins, orcas and rays, while on land there are varied hikes from a few minutes to 4 hours long, including the popular track to the historic remains of the copper mine.
Karina and Luke feel very lucky that they’ve had the chance to stamp their own mark on this special place. Karina says, “Our ethos is to use the best produce, and to offer it so it’s accessible to everyone. We love high-end hospitality, but we are not pretentious. We’re friendly, down-to-earth country people and we just want to showcase the very best of New Zealand in both food and hospitality.”