It all began when a Matangi couple noticed people stopping at their gate to admire their spectacular cherry trees.
Paul Oulton and Anne Cao are about to host the third annual Waikato Cherry Tree Festival, on September 20-29, at their home on the outskirts of Hamilton.
“We noticed more and more people would stop to have a look and to take photographs, and then they started inviting themselves on to our property,” says Paul.
“And one day we came home and there was a bride and a groom and a professional photographer on the drive!”
They found all the attention ‘quite entertaining,’ and decided the time was right to finally open their place so people could enjoy it ‘without fear of being chased.’ And so, the festival was born.
With a flowering season of just three weeks, the festival is timed for exactly when the trees look their spectacular best.
Visitors walk along the golden stone chip driveway, with a unique thick pink canopy overhead, experiencing ‘that great to be alive feeling’ of nature.
There are 130 cherry trees on the property, including the 40 Awanui cherry trees on the long straight driveway, planted 15 years ago.
“This particular variety is bred in Te Awamutu, and it is a really beautiful one. It is like an apple blossom, a soft pink, and a very romantic colour,” says Paul.
The variety is unique in that leaves appear only when all the blossoms have fallen, giving a stunning display of pink colour when in flower.
Paul says the Waikato is well suited to cherry tree growing due to relatively low wind, and frost-prone winters which helps set the cherry tree bud. They have recently added more cherry trees.
They also open the doors to their stately double-level character home, with was relocated from Auckland to Matangi by previous owners in the late 1980s.
This year, Anne will lead a team that will serve High Tea, using English fine bone china sourced from all over New Zealand.
The expansive garden has a loose English country theme, with one feature being a hand built dry stone wall winding its way through the property, which reminds Paul of England where he grew up.
There are surprises at every turn, including water features, ponds and streams, giant cactus, sculpted buxus, a grove of natives, camelia, an orchard, spring bulbs, primula beds, and freshly planted bluebell woods.
Paul, who has a day job in IT, spends many hours per week in the garden, and has the assistance of a gardener. He has spent the last 23 years developing the gardens on the 5 acre patch of land.
Anne and Paul are the directors of NZ Pure Tour, which promotes the festival as a tourism attraction.
This year they are organising buses from Auckland, as well as numerous smaller groups from retirement villages and community groups. The buses will leave from the Westfield Manukau shopping centre.
They see huge potential for tourism growth and for the wider Waikato region to benefit from the number of visitors. Cherry Tree festivals are huge overseas.
The festival programme includes live entertainment, Japanese drummers, food stalls, pony rides and kids’ entertainment.
Jason Dawson, Chief Executive of Hamilton and Waikato Tourism, describes the festival as a wonderful community event which celebrates a multi-cultural region through performance, experience and food. “Last year, the Waikato Cherry Tree Festival attracted local, domestic and international visitors. Those who travelled from out-of-town also stayed on and experienced other attractions such as Hamilton Gardens.”
Anne used to be a journalist in China. There have been television crews from Asia come and capture some of the beauty of the flowering cherry trees.
She also organises a VIP programme which sees local politicians as well as Ambassadors from foreign countries invited to attend. The first two years were a sell-out.