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Watercliff, Bay of Plenty: The Jurassic valley hiding one of New Zealand's best secrets

Travel News from Stuff - 14-11-2022 stuff.co.nz

Down a long snaking driveway you'll find one of New Zealand’s best-kept secrets. It's a place with its own kind of gravity: the weight of life doesn't seem as heavy here.

Watercliff is a new off-grid escape just outside Tauranga. It's a remarkable place with an even more remarkable story: a tale of a couple who risked it all to follow their dream.

In 2005, Delia Harris (then Mathews) left New Zealand as a 15-year-old with an incredible opportunity: to train at the Royal Ballet School, one of only 28 selected that year.

She then joined the Birmingham Royal Ballet, a job that would take her all around the world, eventually being crowned its principal dancer - the highest rank in a dance company.

Her move to the UK also led to a chance encounter with Josh, a young civil engineer who was quickly rising the corporate ranks with a "frantic" job, that like Delia, involved huge hours.

Deep down, the pair knew a circuit breaker would eventually be needed. But nobody quite expected the circuit would begin to break on their wedding day.

The Cornwall venue for their nuptials was an off-grid farm with accommodation, where family and friends gathered to celebrate, almost like a retreat.

Not only did they leave the venue man and wife - but also with the seed of a business idea. Could they do something similar with one of the most beautiful canvases in the world: New Zealand.

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Delia told her parents of their idea and asked them to keep an eye out for a potential bit of land. Five years later, we're sitting on the deck of a sleek off-grid cabin, surrounded by Jurassic-like bush. Hawks glide high above a canopy of ferns that give way to dramatic ignimbrite cliffs towering around the valley. What's remarkable is we're only a 20-minute drive from central Tauranga, but the valley feels like you could be in the outer stretches of a national park.

Delia’s parents found the piece of land a few years ago – although it had one big "but". Access to its most beautiful parts, deep in the valley surrounded by the Omanawa River and towering bush-covered cliffs, was extremely difficult. How could they get guests down there?

Not afraid of a good challenge, the 18-hectare section was purchased and plans made to come home. Designs were well underway as a mysterious illness started making people sick in Wuhan, China.

By the time the couple arrived back in New Zealand, their life had changed. They had a child on the way, and had made a no-going-back financial commitment to build the business. Covid-19 had decimated tourism, but not their determination.

Watercliff feels like a luxury off-grid resort, something that's distinctly lacking in New Zealand. There is no end of 'glamping' escapes popping up around the country, but this is different.

When you arrive, there's a traffic light system at the top of the gully where you'll descend on a dramatic road down to reception. You have to wait for the green light to go, but this is more than a traffic sign; it's a green light for relaxation.

After a few minutes of tight turns, you arrive at the Watercliff reception - where smiles and a coffee machine wait. It's also your first taste of the astonishing landscape below.

From there, you board a Suzuki Jimny for a snaking kilometre-long journey to paradise. It's here, on a bank next to the Omanawa River, you'll find four state-of-the-art off-grid cabins.

An impressive solar array powers everything from underfloor heating in the bathroom to air conditioning. You even have automatic blinds, so you don't need to get out of bed to watch sunrise.

We stayed in "The View" cabin, which has an outdoor bathtub overlooking the bush. Soaking here with an evening chorus of birds, then watching the stars rise, will do more for your mental health than you realise.

There are three other cabins: two for couples, and another that sleeps four (one large bed, and two bunks perfect for kids). The property has a series of walks, one that leads to a nearby waterhole and waterfall - which will be popular in the warmer months. There is also a glowworm gully to explore after dark.

Josh and Delia are so passionate about the place that they've sunk their life savings (and more, thanks to borrowing from the bank and family) into the project - revealing they spent about a million more than expected.

That's largely due to the enormous amount of work and money spent on access roads down to the cabins - which included 400 tonnes of road concrete being poured on some pretty tricky terrain.

The pair have saved money wherever they could, including Delia doing the interior design and Josh laying his hand to almost anything - including buying a digger and learning how to use it on YouTube.

Because of their handwork (alongside their builders and Delia's parents, who have been with them every step of the way), their dream has now become reality. And the best part: it’s unlocked a very special part of New Zealand that we can now enjoy.

Watercliff is a 15-minute drive from Tauranga or less than three hours from Auckland. Air New Zealand has direct flights from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to Tauranga, with connections across the domestic network. See:

Cabins at Watercliff start from $375 for two. The Hangout, which sleeps four, is $450 per night. The View is the only cabin with an outdoor bath and is $395 a night. See:

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