Dressing up in elegant 1920s-style outfits, riding around in vintage cars, judging an apple pie-baking competition and partying the night away at a glamorous vineyard ball – it was a magical weekend at Napier's annual Art Deco Festival for Zac Franich and Erin Simpson.
"I was having the most amazing time," the TV presenter tells Woman's Day. "It was just like The Great Gatsby – I almost expected Leonardo DiCaprio to pop up. It couldn't have been more perfect."
That is, until her boyfriend, 30, wangled them a private tour of one of the New Zealand Navy's visiting patrol ships on the final day of their trip. But once aboard the HMNZS Hawea, things got weird.
Erin, 36, recalls, "It was strange because Zac loves ships and all things military, but he was saying nothing. I was the one asking all the questions. He was just following me around like a nervous puppy."
However, it all became clear when they got to the front of the $36 million vessel and Zac asked if they could have a moment alone, before getting down on one knee and taking both her hands in his.
In a bowtie and pinstriped jacket, the star of the third season of The Bachelor NZ declared, "Erin, I love you to bits. We're a little team and I've wanted to do this for a while. I wouldn't want to do this with anybody else. Will you do me the honour of marrying me?"
Then he presented her with her grandmother's diamond wedding ring.
Laughing, Erin remembers, "I'd been dreaming of this for many, many years and it was finally happening, so I paused and took a few seconds just to live in the moment, but then I realised I had to reply. I was in the moment too long!"
Zac continues, "It felt like time stood still. I was freaking out, like, is this not good enough? Should I have got a band and some confetti? But then she finally said yes and we had the longest hug. It was such a special moment."
And it got more memorable when the Auckland lovebirds were dropped back at the pier, only to hear a band playing the final notes of Frank Sinatra's My Way, which had featured at Zac's grandfather's funeral only a couple of months earlier.
"It was an out-of-body experience and we both started crying," reveals Erin. "I remember the sun shining on our faces like a beam straight from heaven."
Zac adds, "Erin and I have both lost people who are close to us – her grandmother and my poppa – and it was almost as if they were saying, 'Well done!' I absolutely lost it. I was the first grandchild in my family and I got on really well with my granddad, and it meant a lot to me that he thought so highly of Erin.
"She spent a lot of time visiting him in hospital and in one of the last conversations I had with him, he said, 'Whatever you do, do it properly. Don't go getting her knocked up before you get married!' In that moment, I felt like he was watching over us."
"And my nana too," says Erin, adding that she really treasures the fact Zac made a secret trip to her family farm in Te Kauwhata to ask her parents for permission and pick up her grandmother's ring.
"Nana was like a best friend to me. Coming from a farming family, it was hard to be a creative person, but she always had my back. She would have absolutely loved Zac. I'm convinced she did some work up there to find him for me."
After meeting at a red-carpet event, the two TV stars started dating in November 2017 and were soon inseparable, spending almost every day together, eventually moving into their own apartment late last year.
Zac confesses, "I knew from quite early on I wanted to marry Erin. It was the easiest decision I've ever made."
Nodding, his fiancée adds, "I definitely believe the cliché – you know when you know. Until I met Zac, I was always like, is this true love? But now I fully understand it. I knew almost from day one. If Zac had asked me to get married before this, I'd have said, 'Sweet as. I'm ready!'"
Former Dancing with the Stars contestant Zac continues, "We'd talked about getting engaged in a roundabout way, but I wanted to surprise her at a special time. I picked Napier because it was the first time we'd had a weekend to ourselves, the weather was beautiful and we both love that part of the country. I was just waiting for the right time, but it almost got spoiled."
Zac tells how at the Great Gatsby Party at Mission Estate Winery, the night before his proposal, the couple had fallen in with a group of delegates from the navy and various overseas defence forces, some of whom were asking Zac why he hadn't proposed to Erin.
He recalls, "They started putting the heat on me, like, 'She's a great girl – lock her down or she'll find someone better.' I started fumbling my words.
I couldn't think straight. But eventually, when Erin hit the dance floor, I told this guy to pat my jacket pocket and said, 'What do you think is in that box you can feel?'"
Zac's embarrassed new friend turned out to be Rear Admiral David Proctor, the Chief of the Royal NZ Navy, who then offered the use of their ship.
Erin says, "We had no idea he was such a big deal, but we're really humbled and grateful that David and his wife Wendy organised all of this. No-one's ever got engaged on that ship, so it's a part of their history now too."
The proposal capped off a busy summer for the couple, which kicked off with Zac's 30th birthday.
They celebrated the milestone with family and friends, including his Dancing co-star David Seymour, at an Auckland pub. But the birthday boy's highlight was a special gift from Erin, who had painted a picture of his favourite World War II plane.
Zac explains, "She was really nervous when she gave it to me, but I just burst into tears. It was like, this person gets me! She took a massive punt and she nailed it. She blew me away."
Erin continues, "Then I started crying too. It gives me goosebumps how in touch with his emotions this amazing man is. After dating a few rejects, my emotional core had grown tough, but Zac has really broken down those walls and taught me to be vulnerable again. Now I cry all the time."
The blonde beauty took another gift-giving risk at Christmas, when she bought the professional surf-lifesaving coach a voucher to compete in the 30km Poor Knights Crossing kayak race – a dicey prospect given that Zac, a former top-level canoeist, had hardly been back in a boat since his dream of competing at the 2016 Olympic Games was crushed in a nasty legal battle that saw him spiral into depression.
Erin was shaking when she presented him with the voucher, but Zac was delighted with the idea of facing his fears. He explains, "It's a really big mental hurdle, but I've done a lot of work on myself and seen a therapist to get past that. I'm a bit anxious as I'm not as fit as I was back then, but I just want to enjoy the experience and not worry about where I finish."
Asked if they feel any different now they're engaged, Zac smiles, "Well, I like calling her my fiancée when I ring her on the phone."
Erin adds, "I definitely feel like more of a solid team now. There's more stability and I feel like I have someone outside my family who I can really rely on."
There are no solid wedding plans, but Zac confides, "We don't want a long engagement. The ideal scenario will be that we're married by this time next year."
Adding that babies are "on the cards", he continues, "That's one reason I want to get married soon. I want to start a family. When you find your soulmate, you just want to cut through all the crap. I get impatient."
"I'm going to be like Meghan Markle – a geriatric pregnancy," quips his fiancée. "Then we'll have lots of little Erins around."
Wrapping his future wife up in a bear hug, Zac laughs, "Oh, jeez, imagine how loud that will be!"
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