A cowshed in the middle of what felt like nowhere seemed an unlikely place for a cafe and, of course, we had to go there. We ended up staying the night and wishing it could have been longer.
There is a wild beach on the West Coast called Gentle Annie. It’s not far south of Karamea at the end of De Malmanche Road, an enclave with its own microclimate that is bordered by the sea, the mouth of the Mokihinui River, and lashings of native forest.
Up against the sand-and-driftwood beach, we found the Cowshed Cafe and next to it, the Gentle Annie Seaside Campground.
We parked among agapanthus on a landscaped lawn and marvelled at our good fortune in finding the place.
It wouldn’t be hospitable in a westerly wind but the evening we stayed was brisk and calm. A few clouds streaked the skyscape but held no hint of rain.
We were the sole occupants that night and the solitude was immense. Apparently, in peak season, it is choked with motorhomes.
The campground has a history. In 1974, Ellen and Phil Atkins made the Gentle Annie property their home. With Phil’s horticultural training to guide them, the couple established a tomato growing business in a large greenhouse until a twister blew in from the sea and shattered that dream.
They bought an adjacent dairy farm and ran it for two years before turning their attention to tourism. Phil developed a nine-hole golf course. The cowshed was converted into a snack shop. The golf course became too costly to maintain but the cafe and accommodation they’d built alongside it flourished. The campground was added a little later. The complex is now run by their family.
The delightful Cowshed Cafe that, except for a central indoor fish pond, still maintains a distinct bovine ambience, also serves as the camping ground’s lounge and information centre. There are hot showers, a kitchen, a sheltered outdoor courtyard with a pizza oven, and barbecues.
As things go in the off-season on the coast, the cafe was not exactly closed but it wasn’t exactly open. On the serving counter were jars of homemade yoyos and Anzac biscuits with an invitation to help ourselves. These were the only offerings.
Nonetheless, the welcome was warm and the experience worth having. Our night there was one of the many highlights of West Coast wandering.