Homecoming for Alison Gerry is never less than dramatic. The plane banks in tightly over the Southern Alps; there’s the anticipated silvery flash of the Shotover catching the sun, the imposing bulk of the Remarkables suddenly filling the window, followed by the reassuring bump of wheels hitting tarmac.
“It’s always the same fantastic emotional rush landing in Queenstown,” says Alison, a company director whose career involves regular business trips away. “You drive home and you think, ‘Yes, this is why I live here!’”
Home for Alison, husband Alistair Nicholson and their two teenaged children, Matthew and Isabella, is a place of Oamaru stone and steeply pitched roofs set in that extraordinary landscape between Lake Hayes and Coronet Peak. They bought their 20 hectares in 1994, built the house in 1999 – initially for holidaying – and have lived there for the past four years, which for this family is close to a record.
Peripatetic is the word that best describes the Gerry-Nicholson lifestyle until now. Alistair’s financial trading career pulled them to Europe; they’ve also had stints in Sydney, Hong Kong and Singapore.
When they first decided that they’d like to buy a holiday house that might one day become their home, it wasn’t Queenstown they thought of but Chamonix, in the French Alps, where they’d found a likely-looking place. Before they signed, though, they thought they’d have a quick peek at the Southern Lakes.
“I’d spent time in Queenstown as a child because my aunt has a crib in Arrowtown,” says Alison, who was born in Invercargill but raised in Northland. “But Alistair hadn’t spent much time there, so he flew down. He fell in love with the place and so we bought the land.”
They had to wait a little longer for the house – according to Alison, the council maintained that 20 hectares was too small to build on, and in the end the vendor had to go to the Environment Court – but thereafter things quickly fell into place. A friend recommended his brother as a decent architect. The brother turned out to be Malcolm Bowes, a founding director of top Auckland practice Architectus. Bowes designed a modern but sympathetic house, nestled beside a hill and looking across farmland to snow-covered Coronet Peak.
“When we built it we thought we’d come and live in it when the children were still small, but in the end they were more like nine and 10. We moved the odd wall and did a very small renovation, but that was it. It’s been a very flexible house.”
You’d imagine landscaping might have been difficult, given the large area of land and that in the early years they were only ever there briefly. Handily, the real estate agent who sold them the property lived nearby and, in his retirement, devoted himself to planting it. The house’s presence is softened by more than 2000 trees, along with a small vineyard of pinot noir and pinot gris.
Inside, it’s spacious – “No room is square,” says Alison, “which I really like” – but warmed by creamy stone walls offset by rich timber detailing, with floor to ceiling bookshelves, unexpected little alcoves and a window seat that invites you to stop and soak up the sun and the view down the valley to Coronet Peak.
Everywhere are treasures collected during their nine years in Asia – bowls and pots and larger items of furniture from Hong Kong, Jakarta and Macau sit comfortably alongside older pieces that survived the cull when holiday house became home.
Alongside that transformation, the family has settled into life as Queenstown residents. The kids are at Wakatipu High and have become adept skiers thanks to a curriculum that includes plenty of time up the hill. Alistair has been elected to the school board and local ski club. Alison attempts to calm their hyperactive vizsla, Lucky, by taking him for long, taxing runs in the hills and, like Alistair, she has become a keen skier.
“It’s fair to say there wouldn’t be many small towns in New Zealand I could live in, but Queenstown has an international flavour,” she says. “I love the diversity of nationalities here. I love the change of seasons – after Singapore, having a spring and autumn feels special. We are very much involved in the community but then we also have a lot of friends who have holiday houses here, so there are always people to do things with.”
So, home at last? “Absolutely,” she answers firmly. “It will be five years next April – the longest we’ve ever lived in one place since we got married. I think we’ll be here for another 20, easily.”