Staying in a secret den is a magical Middle-earth experience, writes Rob McFarland.
Long before Peter Jackson re-created Middle-earth in the fertile hills of New Zealand's Waikato region, Graham Hannah and his young daughter Jessie had a dream. They would sit in a valley at the bottom of their six-hectare property and talk about building a secret Hobbit-esque den. Fifteen years ago that dream became reality when Graham excavated a cave. With the help of friends he shored it up with hefty wooden beams, installed a kitchen and a bed, and christened it Underhill.
Until recently the family used it exclusively for parties and celebrations. Jessie and her husband Craig had their wedding reception in it. Jessie's sister got married there. Then, in July last year, they started renting it out. "We just wanted to share it with people," Jessie says.
Guests are only given an address once they've booked but even with detailed directions I still drive past. There's no sign, just a low-rise wooden homestead enclosed by a white picket fence set among undulating farmland 10 kilometres east of Hamilton. After being greeted by a grinning mop of blonde hair (Jessie's two-year-old daughter Piper), Jessie loads my overnight bag onto a quad bike and we trundle down the hill.
For years the family's neighbours knew nothing about Underhill and when we pull up outside I understand why. Located in a secluded dip near the boundary of the property, it's carved out of a steep hillside and camouflaged by a grass roof. The only prying eyes are the cows in the field next door.
After a quick orientation, Jessie leaves me to explore. The living area is dominated by a sturdy dining table made from macrocarpa, a type of cypress. On one side is a double bed covered in blankets and possum fur cushions; on the other is a kitchen with an impressive soot-black coal range set into a rock wall surround. Lining the walls are shelves crammed with pots, kitchenware and dozens of candles.
Access is through a pair of heavy, custom-made concertinaed wooden doors. There's no key and Jessie tells me most people sleep with them open because the cave remains at a steady 17-18 degrees all year round.
Next door is the most agreeable composting toilet I've ever encountered and a separate bathroom beautifully finished in stone and burnished honey-coloured macrocarpa.
The cave looks out over a picturesque pond with a small jetty and a quaint wooden bridge. Dotted around it are weathered benches, pairs of seats and a leaning post for "watching the sunset." At every turn there are delightful touches such as a porcelain handle on an old blackened kettle, an ornamental lead-light window in the bathroom and a scattering of tiny vases filled with delicate posies of fresh flowers. The whole set-up is nothing short of enchanting.
While you could easily self-cater (in addition to the coal range, there are two barbecues and a gas burner), I've chosen the catering package. At 6pm Jessie returns with two baskets - one for dinner and one for breakfast tomorrow - crammed with enough food to feed the All Blacks. Tonight I will be feasting on steak garnished with rosemary, pasta salad, homemade tomato and basil dip, a kaleidoscope of fresh veg, a sunflower and honey loaf and a flourless chocolate cake. All I have to do is cook it.
There's no power so after watching the sunset I light every candle I can find (27 in all) and do what any sane person would if they were on their own in such a heartbreakingly romantic spot - I drink an entire bottle of wine.
Barbecuing a steak by flashlight after a bottle of Wither Hills pinot gris proves a challenge. I manage (just) and before turning in spend half an hour lying on the jetty gazing up at a sky crammed with stars. Other than the noise of an occasional distant car, the only sounds are the percussive drone of cicadas and the intermittent croaking of frogs.
I wake as if from hibernation, buried beneath blankets and cushions, with the sun streaming through the cave's porthole window and in around the concertinaed doors (I wasn't brave enough to sleep with them open). After a piping hot shower I investigate my breakfast supplies to find another extravagant array of fresh produce including eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, cereals and homemade jams.
I'm only here for one night whereas you really need two, not only to lose yourself in this magical location but also to explore the area. Hamilton gets a bad rap so I was surprised to find several compelling attractions nearby. The laid-back town of Raglan is a 30-minute drive and has one of the world's best left-hand surf breaks; Hamilton Zoo has an affordable range of interactive behind-the-scenes experiences; and who would have guessed that New Zealand is home to Zealong Tea Estate, a plantation that produces the world's purest organic tea?
Bookings for Underhill are managed by Canopy Camping Escapes, a company that has partnered with private landowners across New Zealand to offer unique 'glamping' experiences.
At $NZ260 ($240) a night (plus $NZ90 a person if you choose the catering package), Underhill is no bargain. But it is truly a fairytale brought to life. Before leaving I flick through the guestbook to find it filled with poems and poignant odes to a simpler time. My favourite is an entry that says it all: "Sometimes it takes nothing to realise you have everything."
The writer travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand and Canopy Camping Escapes.
Air New Zealand operates daily flights from Sydney to Auckland. Underhill is a 90-minute drive from Auckland or a 15-minute drive from Hamilton. Phone 13 24 76 or see airnewzealand.com.au.
Stays at Underhill start at $NZ260 a night. A catering package including breakfast and dinner costs $NZ90 a person. For bookings and other properties from Canopy Camping Escapes, see canopycamping.co.nz.