John Kerr hasn’t spent almost four decades running high-end lodges and resorts in Australia and the Great Barrier Reef to let the economic impact of a global pandemic thwart him. With our borders closed to overseas tourism for the foreseeable future, he is determined to adapt. So as John turns his attention towards opportunities for domestic visitors, the result could be good news for everyone.
Since 2009 he and his wife Kate have been the owners and hosts of Stonefly Lodge, luxury accommodation set deep in the Motueka Valley.
“We came over from Australia because we decided we wanted to slow down in life, and retire to a cooler climate. We’d spent the last 30 years in the tropics, and every day at our last lodge we were dealing with crocodiles, sharks, big spiders and snakes. For five years in a row we explored the entire South Island until we found this property, which suited the off-grid building we had planned.”
They established and built Stonefly Lodge over a three-year period, and it was in their first season that an unexpected meeting took place.
“A gentleman from the States named Don Fergusson had been searching New Zealand at the same time we were. He decided that the Tasman region was where he wanted to build a holiday home, and he loved our property.”
Don asked if John and Kate could develop a luxury retreat on their 150 acres for him, and their initial answer was ‘no’. “We weren’t interested in any partnerships involving our property.” But he continued to ask for the following few years until finally John suggested that if the neighbouring 200 acres of land ever went on the market, and Don wanted to buy, then the Kerrs would help build him his luxury holiday home.
“So lo and behold, in our sixth year here the property next door did become available,” laughs John. “I called Don up and said, ‘Look, we can build you the holiday home that you wanted’, so he paid us to develop the entire project, to his design.”
With Don only in New Zealand a couple of times each year, the property would become luxury villa accommodation the rest of the time. And so Falcon Brae Villa was born, which John and Kate now also manage and market via Stonefly Lodge.
Falcon Brae may simply be Don and Stacey Fergusson’s ‘holiday home’, but to the rest of us it is an exquisitely designed and opulently fitted architectural marvel, set amongst some of Tasman’s most stunning scenery. Encompassing over 720 square metres, the villa is perched on a hill bordered by rivers, giving a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and national park beyond. The three suites within boast floor-to-ceiling windows and cosy fireplaces. Additional luxuries offered include a heated lap pool, a spa with its own incredible views, a media room, games den, gym and a helipad terrace.
This last feature is a reminder of the challenges currently facing international tourism, resulting from the Covid-19 imposed cessation of foreign travel. Luxury ventures dependent upon overseas guests such as Falcon Brae Villa have been deeply affected, and it is a blow which John is very candid about. “We lost a hundred percent of our business the day lockdown was announced. The last six weeks of our season just vanished overnight,” he says.
Although John feels that New Zealand is now ‘on its way up’ again, he believes that any tourism operator focussed on the international market will still be suffering for another six months. “I can’t see the border to the American market opening anytime soon.”
It is a grim picture, but John Kerr’s lifetime of experience in this industry has taught him resilience, and he has a strategy.
“So we’re re-thinking our business plan between now and Christmas. We are going to offer Falcon Brae Villa to New Zealand residents at an utterly ridiculous price. We would like to encourage the Nelson, Marlborough and Wellington market to come and stay. Packages are going to be very attractive and this will be a one-off situation, probably between now and the end of the year.”
John employed 15 staff last season, shared between Falcon Brae Villa and Stonefly Lodge, and he wants to keep his key people, including highly renowned chefs. Opening up to the domestic market will allow him to do this.
With passports remaining safely stored away until further notice, New Zealanders are presented with a golden opportunity to discover what our own country has to offer. And John is convinced that Falcon Brae presents an unforgettable experience.
“For the local market we are the most luxurious venue available for small weddings and special occasions, which our packages will concentrate on. This is the ideal time to have a weekend away that visitors would not normally think of, instead of going to Fiji. And when you’re up there at the villa, you wouldn’t even know that you’re in Nelson Tasman.”
Although located between three of our best-known national parks, the environment of Falcon Brae also embodies a glorious remoteness which is becoming increasingly difficult to discover and enjoy.
The villa itself is a visual wonder on its own, the strikingly ambitious vision realised by local architects and interior designers. The 19-tonne chimney in the main lounge was lifted into place by a crane, and lined by a masonry artist with native stone. All of the interior fittings, furniture and floor coverings are crafted in New Zealand, and the walls are adorned with magnificent art from 20 local artists and galleries.
But foremost is still the uniqueness of the location, that special factor which first brought John and Kate to the area.
“Tasman has it all. The Abel Tasman is the icon for the far north of the South Island, and is readily accessible. We do a lot of heli tours and then there are 28 wineries and 24 boutique art studios all within an hour’s drive. For fly fishing, the Motueka is a world-renowned angling river, as are some of it’s tributaries and many of the rivers in the Kahurangi National Park.”
John recounts that when the hilltop site for the villa was first decided, an irresistible omen occurred. “A pair of falcons appeared, hovering virtually in front of us, as we were overlooking Kahurangi National Park. Brae is Scottish for ‘hill beside a river’, and Don decided then to call it Falcon Brae. The byline we’ve developed is ‘where spirits soar’, and now we’re refocussing our business plan on helping New Zealanders to visit.”