The best way to travel, it would seem, is to always keep an eye out for fresh sights and fresh sounds. Be open to new experiences. We are on the road, about to leave Kaikoura, where we had spent the morning on one of its whale watching cruises. Whales, dolphins, fur seals, crayfish1 – that’s everything we had expected from Kaikoura; there isn’t much else, really.
Or so we thought.
While exiting the small fishing town, we notice a small sign: Lavendyl Lavender Farm. A few kilometres away, not much of a detour at all. But a lavender farm so near the sea? In New Zealand, home to diverse geographies and microclimates, anything is possible. And the possible is what we’re after. An adventure.
We drive pass a sparse landscape of ramshackle farms and kitschy cottages. We spot the farm’s handmade sign soon enough. We turn into a wide gravel path leading up to the farm tucked under the rugged slopes of Mt. Fyffe. What a view – the boundless ocean on one side, the mountains with their snowy peaks on the other.
How romantic, and with nary a bouquet in sight. (Have patience, the flowers will come.)
After parking our car, we are welcomed at the small gift shop cum café (their reception area, we reckon) by Jessica Zeestraten. With a big smile, she tells that she and her husband Tim are taking care of the farm while her parents-in-law Corry and Jan2 are away.
Built in 1990, the 3.5 hectare farm includes a large show garden, commercial lavender crops and a distillery. There is a shed with a jovial-looking scarecrow; on its walls, farming implements such as scythes double as décor.
We hear the sound of another vehicle; it’s Tim returning from surfboarding. He takes over from his wife who goes for a run. We share a look that says, Why don’t we exercise as much as they do? We could easily fault the Kiwis for being a hardier, sportier nation but really, we’re to be blamed for our own indolence.
Pushing any fantasies of an outdoor life aside, we enter 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.
Our timing couldn’t be better; there’s no one else visiting at this hour. We have the entire lavender fields to ourselves. To caress the tight buds, leaving their head scent on our finger tips. To play hide and seek between the endless rows. To get lost in the purple haze and, on occasion, catch each other looking without realising.
How romantic – though we’d be the first to deny this, of course – and what a lovely surprise for our honeymoon.
All the beauty that surrounds us didn’t come to be on its own, of course. This isn’t wild lavender3.
Vibrantly violet blooms stretch before us
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 (as no pesticides are used) to pruning and removing dead flowers.
What a labour of love — and such love among lavender!
Harvesting typically happens in the morning when the flowers are dry but before it gets too hot. Drop by at this time and we 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.
We’ve only seen essential oil being made once before, at another lavender farm (in Furano, on the island of Hokkaido), but the process still feels like a mystery, a mix of alchemy and art.
Tim tells us up to 25kg 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.
Not unlike the journey of love, with different cycles and seasons, full periods and fallow ones. But over time, the lavender grows stronger, through flowering and falling and flowering again. Like love. Just like love, we remind each other.
I recall these lines from TS Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages” —
Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.
— and pray we will never leave any page unturned, that we will sing every chance we have to celebrate in song.
I’m getting a tad sunburnt from all the time spent outside in the lavender gardens. (Time stands still here, or feels that way, but rest assured, the hours pass all the same.) There’s no better respite than hiding in the gift shop, where it’s not only cooler but my skin is soothed by some balm made from the lavender oil they produce4.
It’s not only my skin that benefits from the flower’s inimitable fragrance – here I can also have my lavender and eat it too! Besides lavender honey and lavender chocolate truffles, the Zeestratens make a delicious lavender and honey ice cream, perfect for summer days.
As we bid goodbye, 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. We’re on a road trip, after all, where there are no set plans, only the winding road ahead. Anything, we tell ourselves, is possible.
Lavendyl Lavender Farm
268 Postmans Rd, Kaikoura, New Zealand
- The name Kaikoura is Maori for “meal of crayfish.”
- The Zeestratens have since sold the farm which is still open under new ownership.
- There is, in fact, wild lavender. Harvested where they grow, wild plants are smaller than the cultivated ones and will have greater variety.
- Lavender oil being the only (as far as we know) essential oil one can apply neat onto the skin directly without diluting. The farm produces other lavender-based skincare products include bottled essential oils, massage creams, bath oils and salts, handmade soaps and perfumes.