KAIKOURA, Jan 24 — One of the tricks of travelling is to always keep an eye out and be open to new experiences. Driving around New Zealand’s breathtakingly scenic South Island, one of our favourite stops is Kaikoura, famed for its whale watching cruises. However, aside from the whales, dolphins, fur seals and sea gulls, well... there isn’t much else, really.
Or so we thought.
While exiting the small fishing town — the name Kaikoura is Maori for “meal of crayfish” — we notice a small sign indicating a lavender farm a few kilometres outside the town centre. A lavender farm so near the sea? But of course, New Zealand is home to diverse geographies and microclimates, so anything is possible.
Passing a few farms and small houses along the way, we soon turn into a wide gravel path leading up to Lavendyl Lavender Farm located under the rugged slopes of Mt. Fyffe. The view is simply stunning: one side is the ocean, the other the mountains with their snowy peaks.
Built in 1990, the lavender farm is run by Dutch-born Kiwi couple Corry and Jan Zeestraten. The 3.5 hectare land includes a large show garden, commercial lavender crops, a distillery and a small gift shop cum café.
There is a shed with a jovial-looking scarecrow; on its walls, various farming implements such as scythes doubling as décor. This was actually the tea room and gift shop! The Zeestratens happen to be away but their son Tim is at hand to greet us.
We start by entering the lavender gardens through a leafy arch. Carefully tended bushes of vibrantly violet blooms stretch before us. Bees and butterflies flit from flower to flower, collecting nectar and pollen. The fragrance of the flowers is intoxicating.
According to Tim, working on the lavender farm is a full-time occupation even though the lavender flowers only from December to February, during which harvesting goes on throughout the day. Before the harvesting months, the rows of lavender must be maintained — from weeding by hand (since no pesticides are used) to pruning and removing dead flowers.
Harvesting typically happens in the morning when the flowers are dry but before it gets too hot. Drop by at this time and you may see the Zeestratens using old school sickles to harvest the lavender flowers by hand. The flowers are then quickly taken to the distillery while they are still fresh to be made into high quality essential oil.
Up to 25 kilograms of lavender can be processed at a time. The essential oil is extracted from the flowers through the use of steam; different varieties of lavender produces different quantities of oil. The 100 per cent pure oil is then stored in dark brown bottles and allowed to mature for at least six months to deepen their fragrance.
Some of the varieties of lavender the Zeestratens grow as commercial oil crops include Miss Donnington, Seal, Scottish Cottage and Impress Purple. The most popular variety is called Grosso, a hybrid of Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula latifolia suited to the stony soils at the Lavendyl Lavender Farm.
Other lavender varieties such as the Pacific Blue and Violet Intrigue are edible and used to make food products. The remainder of the lavender grown is meant for ornamental purposes, something we appreciate as we stroll from bush to bush, marvelling at the subtle differences in fragrance.
Getting sunburned from all that time outside in the lavender gardens? There’s no better respite than hiding in the gift shop, where it’s not only cooler but you can get some moisturiser or balm — made from the lavender oil they produce on site, of course — for your skin.
Other lavender-based skincare products include bottled essential oils, massage creams, bath oils and salts, handmade soaps and perfumes. But it’s not only your skin (and your home) that will benefit from the flower’s inimitable fragrance — you can also have your lavender and eat it too!
Besides lavender honey, one of the most popular food items is the lavender and honey ice cream, which is perfect for sunny summer days. For those desiring something a little bit more decadent, try the Zeestratens’ lavender chocolate truffles — these are so addictive you can’t stop at just one!
As we bid goodbye to the Lavendyl Lavender Farm, Tim tells us that he and his brother Stef had just started their own lavender farm in Wanaka on the west coast just a few months ago. We promise to drop by the farm should we find ourselves in the neighbourhood.
Fast forward a week or so and we find ourselves — you guessed it — in Wanaka, after a carefree and haphazard bit of driving around the South Island. Wanaka is the gateway to the Southern Alps’ Mount Aspiring National Park, so the resort town has it all: glaciers, snowcapped mountains, forests and alpine lakes. (The town gets its name from the beautiful and otherworldly Lake Wanaka.)
Since one can never have too much of lavender, we follow the signs and head to the Zeestraten brothers’ farm. At 4 hectares, the Wanaka Lavender Farm is slightly larger than the Kaikoura farm, allowing more space for activities such as weddings and animals such as sheep and alpacas.
The barnyard animals we find an especially adorable addition to an otherwise flora-dominant environment. Roaming in between endless rows of lavender in full bloom is a fine thing, but who could resist a cute lamb or an irrepressibly shaggy alpaca?
Colours astound here: besides the typical violet-purples one expect lavender flowers to be, there are strains of lavender that come in white (White Widow) and even blue (Hidcote Blue)! The bees and butterflies seem to like these as much as the conventionally coloured lavender though.
We linger by spending a lazy afternoon in the Zeestraten brother’s charming tea room. The space resembles a converted barn with plenty of natural sunlight and bouquets of dried lavender hanging from high ceilings. Here one can enjoy lavender tea with homemade treats — lavender cookies, lavender ice cream and even lavender chocolates. It’s a lavender feast!
We relax and unwind. We don’t have many decisions to make: enjoy our cuppa while reading a good book or simply stare outside the windows. Indeed, what view could be more peaceful than rolling fields of lavender as far as the eye can see?
Lavendyl Lavender Farm
268 Postmans Rd,
Kaikoura, New Zealand
Open hours vary; see website
Tel: +64 3 319 5473
Wanaka Lavender Farm
36 Morris Rd, Wanaka,
Open daily 9am-5pm (October to April only)
Tel: +64 3-443 6359