After a few hectic weeks at work, my husband and I are more than ready to escape Auckland for a restorative weekend in the country when we pull up to the driveway of Cambridge's The Good Life Retreat, where lambs and foals frolic amid lush green grass and pretty pink blossoms.
It's an idyllic rural setting that instantly makes us forget our big-city stresses – and those worries fade even faster when the accommodation's owners, generous hosts Nat and Paul, greet us with a glass of wine and show us around the hilltop property, which has stunning views over the surrounding farmland.
Just a simple house and paddock when they moved here in 2020, the luxury escape now boasts gorgeous gardens, a pool, a spa, a gym, a sauna, an ice bath, outdoor tubs, a fire pit, a pizza oven, a wine cellar, beehives, a mini vineyard and a duck pond, plus a playhouse, swings and an abseiling wall for kids.
Previous guests have included The Bachelor lovebirds Art and Matilda Green, Woman's Day columnist Jay-Jay Feeney, and The Edge's Sharyn Casey and Clint Randell, and you can rent the place out in its entirety or, as we're doing, check into a bedroom for a homestay.
But we're not the only ones staying – The Good Life Retreat is also home to a menagerie of animals, including Dolly the Chihuahua, Pat the sheepdog, cats Kevin, Martha and Elephant, Kenny the rainbow lorikeet, alpacas Trevor and Lady, Valais blacknose sheep Lucy and Mabel, a flock of chickens, two turtles, and two hutches of Flemish giant and mini lop rabbits.
Having left our own four-legged friends at home, we spend the evening cuddling and feeding all the cute critters, before joining our human hosts for a few more wines and a delicious dinner, featuring venison shot by Nat's dad, a tasty egg-and-potato bake, salad and fresh bread with home-smoked butter, followed by Nat's famous pear crumble for dessert.
It's like a dinner party with new best mates, but they do all the cooking and cleaning while we soak in the spa!
The feasting continues the next morning, with coffee, eggs, bacon and crispy hash browns served up on the deck, but only after we've made our way around the property to greet and feed all the animals. Kenny the lorikeet helps me with my brekkie, then we're off to look for birds of a different feather at nearby Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, which we can see from the breakfast table.
Surrounded by predator-proof fencing, this wildlife refuge is an oasis for threatened species and the birdsong throughout the thick native bush is raucous. We don't spot any kākāpō, which have recently been introduced to the sanctuary, but we have close encounters with kākā and toutouwai (North Island robin), and spot tīeke (saddlebacks), hihi (stitchbirds) and Pōpokotea (whiteheads) amid the ancient rimu, giant ferns and towering nīkau.
It's an enchanting slice of Aotearoa as it used to be and there are tracks to suit every level of fitness. Climb the mountain itself if you've got the time and energy, but at least ascend the 16m-tall observation tower for canopy views. There's also a café, which sells souvenirs and houses former prime minister Helen Clark's dad George's fascinating egg collection.
Back at The Good Life Retreat, we recover from all the hiking with a soak in the outdoor tubs, which have beautiful bucolic views, then join Nat and Paul for wine and cheese accompanied by their favourite country tunes.
The soundtrack then switches up to classic Italian music as we settle in for a night of pizza making, where we stretch our own dough and pick out toppings, before Paul crisps them up in the woodfired pizza oven. Mamma mia, it's a taste sensation! If you like it spicy, don't skip the homemade chilli oil.
The next morning, thoroughly rejuvenated after a quick sit in the sauna and an even quicker dip in the ice bath, we spend an hour farewelling all the animals (and Nat and Paul!), then head into Cambridge itself.
The monthly Trash 'N' Treasure Market is a must-do if you're in town on the right day and it's not just bric-a-brac – we picked up a dozen duck eggs for $8 – but there are plenty of antique shops to browse through if not.
I also highly recommend checking out local eatery Alpino for a taste of Italy in the Waikato. The crumbed feta-stuffed olives were just the sustenance we needed for the drive back home, much of it spent fantasising about ditching our jobs and moving to the country for good!
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