People don’t usually rave about their commute to work but Craig Hay and Neil Barber do. From their elevated Prairie-style homestead near Havelock North they follow the Tukituki River to the coast and the quaint town of Clive, then along the coast road, with views on a clear day stretching from Cape Kidnappers to Mahia.
In 20 minutes they’re at work – managing their hotel on Napier’s waterfront – without encountering a single traffic light en route. And on the way home, there’s always the possibility of veering towards one of the vineyards or restaurants at Te Awanga or Clifton for a glass of wine and superb local cuisine.
Craig and Neil have been in Hawke’s Bay for just over a decade and in that time they’ve built something of a reputation. Craig has a passion for restoring architectural piles with potential and Neil for entertaining and they came here looking to do “something in hospitality – something smart and grand… and Hawke’s Bay seemed the logical choice,” says Neil. “We work well together. Craig’s the accelerator and I’m the brake!”
Thanks to them, two historic cottages will live to see another century and a colonial homestead in Raukawa has been transformed into the luxurious Greenhill Lodge. But the project closest to their hearts is Napier’s iconic waterfront Masonic Hotel. They’ve owned it for 14 years, since before the move south, and for the last two years they’ve also run it – the perfect custodians for the hotel’s unique art deco legacy.
Raised in Napier, Craig was the sort of single-minded teenager who drew up house plans “just for fun”. He bought his first property at 21 and made his career in real estate, mostly in Auckland. He and Neil met 20 years ago when Neil was working as an accountant for an insurance company. And then, in 2001, they decided they were ready for a change.
Their first move, to be closer to Craig’s Napier-based family, was to the Raukawa Valley, where they started restoring the old colonial building that became Greenhill Lodge. “Eye-catching buildings with character just seem to draw us in and we love finding significant places that need some love and care,” says Craig. “It’s incredibly satisfying – realising the potential of a building and allowing it to stand for another 100 years.”
Two years later, a reinvented Greenhill was suitably “smart and grand” and the pair began looking for another challenge – maybe buying a villa somewhere in Europe. Their plans changed when the Masonic needed their immediate attention. “We’d planned to run the hotel in a few years’ time but we saw this as an opportunity and became hands-on managers,” says Neil.
Not long after, the smart and grand factor came even closer to home when Craig and Neil fell in love with a “unique” home near Havelock North. A handsome 21-year-old homestead, it was built on an elevated 25ha site with panoramic views of the Tukituki River below, Te Mata Peak to the west, the fertile plains of Hastings and Napier to the north and Hawke Bay to the east.
Although younger than Neil and Craig’s usual projects, it was built from locally hewn limestone that’s millions of years old.
With its solid castle-style doors, tapered stone pillars and pitched timber rafters, the sprawling, three-bedroom, 370sqm home inspires comparisons with the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Renovations involved simplifying and softening the original design, opening up spaces and emphasising the views. In the main living area, a window seat and two external pillars made way for a 6m expanse of sliding glass doors; ceramic floor tiles were removed and the concrete beneath sanded and polished; three skylights were slipped in and a bright and varied palette painted over with neutral tones to showcase the couple’s impressive art collection.
They’ve been in the house almost two years now and, despite the elegant interior and landscaped grounds, it’s the outlook that continues to astound Neil and Craig as well as their visitors. “We never tire of the views here and we can literally watch the weather,” says Neil. “Fog hangs over the river some mornings like a ribbon and, as the sun warms the valley, the river slowly appears. Sunsets are dramatic too and there was snow on the Giant last year.” (Te Mata Peak viewed from the west resembles the form of a man in repose and locals call him the Giant.)
Completely sold on their new lifestyle, the pair now entice others to the area. Neil is on the board of the Art Deco Trust and both are involved with tourism groups. “We still talk of going to France but we’re loving life here,” says Neil. “That old French villa can wait.”For more images including web-exclusive images click on the "photo gallery" link above.