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Bach of the day

The ubiquitous holiday cottage offers cheap and cheerful accommodation during a tour of the top end of New Zealand's North Island, finds Ed Peters

 

Few opening lines pack such an intriguing punch as J.R.R. Tolkien's "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

And ever since Peter Jackson brought his particular brand of alchemy to the silver screen, visitors - 500,000-plus at the last count - have been flocking to Hobbiton, the movie set on New Zealand's North Island, to get a closer look at the Green Dragon Inn, The Mill, the double-arched bridge and, yes, those Hobbit Holes.

Weaving a blend of other-worldly magic with stunningly bucolic landscapes, in many ways Hobbiton is quintessentially Kiwi. However, the half-million rubber-neckers are the antithesis of a country that's defined by its wide open spaces and scant population. Few New Zealand homes lack a garden, and many folk have a second home, a holiday cottage known as a bach - pronounced "batch" as in "bachelor" - which they're often all too happy to let out when not in residence.

Bachs are eminently more comfortable than a hole in the ground, and amazingly good value - try NZ$100 (HK$650) a low-season night for a three-bedroom house and garden. So, having picked up a set of wheels - appropriately branded Jucy El Cheapo - we head north from Auckland Airport, destination Langs Beach.

As an antidote to Hong Kong, there can be few better hangouts. No shops, no restaurants, no petrol station and barely a soul in sight: Langs Beach does what it says on the packet, with just a few score houses set about the hillside looking out over Bream Bay.

At Red Barn Bach, Carey, the owner, wanders over to say hello, bearing a plate of freshly baked brownies, introduces us to the family dogs and opens up the front door with a flourish that takes in the kitchen, bathroom, king-sized bed, DVD collection, picture windows and outdoor barbecue.

With the sea in front and fields and woods behind, the Booker Prize-winning author Keri Hulme's words - "[At a bach], the veneer comes off and you revert to being a happy primate" - sum up the general ambience in a nutshell.

A little-known New Zealand law decrees that all sizeable towns must include one fish-and-chip shop, one Indian restaurant and one Chinese takeaway. Waipu - founded by tough Caledonian immigrants in the 19th century and 15 minutes' drive away - ticks all the boxes and, strolling along the nigh deserted main (only) street after a biryani, we are ambushed by the town's Scottish country dancing club, on the hunt for new recruits. Pleading jet lag, we scurry back to our Barn.

New Zealand's like that - startlingly friendly and refreshingly low-key. Admitting you live in Hong Kong frequently elicits an admiring "wow". And just as the pavements are uncluttered with pedestrians, the country highways are largely free of traffic.

From Langs Beach we motor north to Russell, a one-time whaling station that bears up well under its "historic township" label and the gateway to the Bay of Islands. Crocodiles of passengers from a cruise ship moored offshore totter round the streets and lay siege to the information centre; so - having stocked up on fresh mussels in the supermarket and filled up at the 80-year-old petrol station - we head out of town, fetching up on a working farm at Elliott Bay, where the bach's manager pauses from bottle-feeding a Hereford calf to hand over the keys and explain the intricacies of the linen cupboard. It is all very much like going to stay with the friend-of-a-friend.

Given that we've just doubled Elliott Bay's population, and night is drawing in, wild partying is not on the agenda. There again, there's no reason why a bach holiday shouldn't include a distinct honeymoon element, and there is no television to distract us.

Back down south, Auckland provides a contrast, although it's a thoroughly leafy metropolis that tends more to jungle than urban jungle. Holing up in a studio above an Anglo-Sri Lankan couple's garage in the suburb of Titirangi, whose laid-back cafes and arty population attract a Bohemian tag, puts us in easy reach of the city sights and the beaches on the west coast.

Half-an-hour's winding drive leads to Piha, whose empty black sands and pounding surf must have simplified the job of The Piano's location scout enormously. Finding somewhere for lunch is uncomplicated, as only the Piha Store is open. It is a family run delicatessen whose home-made pies and bread-and-butter puddings could easily pick up a Michelin star if the inspectors were ever to venture this far into the wilds.

South of Auckland, the Coromandel peninsula is remote even by New Zealand standards, and is a mecca for New Age therapists and alternative lifestylers. Learning to pronounce Whangamata, our first port of call, proves tricky, but the rest of our three-night visit plays out to the rhythm of the grapefruit that drop from the tree in the bach's garden at breakfast time.

"Help yourself," says the owner, who lives next door. "I can't eat citrus."

Most visitors come to Whangamata to chill on its six-kilometre-long beach, to hike or bike the trails in the forests that border the resort town, or - possibly - to salivate over the 200 or more classic cars that have migrated here. But best of all is its small-town lack of pretension, with its bonsai cinema, landscaped aquamarine police station, butcher-baker-candlestick-maker high street and a hardware store that makes it obvious that do-it-yourself is not so much a hobby as a way of life. When we ask where to buy fresh fish it is pointed out, not unkindly, that "mostly we catch our own".

Our last bach - Pukeko Retreat, a comfortable prefab costing NZ$75 - is the most remote, reached by a gravel road that twists and turns up over a mountain above Kennedy Bay, on Coromandel's east coast. Apart from a boisterous Maori family a couple of hundred metres away, and the pukeko birds that peck their way thoughtfully along the beach, we have - with more than a little sense of déjà vu - the place to ourselves.

Absolute quiet and broad night skies spray-painted with myriad asterisks just serve to underline what could well be New Zealand's motto: life's a bach.

 

Getting there: Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.co.nz) and Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) fly codeshare flights from Hong Kong to Auckland direct daily. See www.bookabach.co.nz for bach locations and bookings.
 

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