Alex & Lesley Stone discover a boatie’s paradise, the Catherine Cove Wilderness Resort on D’Urville Island, while cruising the South Island.

Imagine grilling and serving platters of fresh crayfish, 20, 30 at a time! This is a regular occurrence and just part of the work at the Catherine Cove Wilderness Resort on D’Urville Island in the outer Marlborough Sounds.

Imagine running an accommodation business, with restaurant, where your nearest supply store is two-and-a-half hours away by car over winding dirt roads. And that’s only after a half-hour boat trip across one of the most notorious bits of water in New Zealand – the remarkable French Pass, where the tide can run at up to nine knots in a kind of horizontal waterfall across a line of rocks.

Craig Tatnell with bags belonging to guests who elected to be dropped off at Kapowai Point so they could walk the last few kilometres to the resort.

Imagine being part of a semi-community of only 60 souls in one of the most remote, most splendid locations in New Zealand. And remember too, that even in such a small community, social get-togethers are only possible a few times a year. One is a famous Christmas bash at the lodge.

And imagine doing all of this through the Covid years, which struck only a year after you bought the business.

This is the life of Cathy George and Craig Tatnell, proprietors of the Lodge in the eponymous cove.

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It’s a good thing their combined skill set is well-suited to the tasks: Cathy is an experienced chef, while Craig is a mechanic able to figure out and fix just about any practical problem. She’s no-nonsense, straight-talking; they both have a fine sense of humour.

The couple bought the business from old friends, the Andressons, as well as a powerful aluminium boat, Manta Ray, which does service as a supply ship, water taxi and rescue boat. It’s fast and seaworthy enough to negotiate French Pass in most tides – for Craig, there’s no need to wait for the exact moment of slack tide, as all cruising yachts should do.

Manta Ray on Craig’s mooring in the cove

On occasions when they must both go to Nelson, one of three towns equidistant from them (Picton and Blenheim are the others), Cathy can see the small dot of Manta Ray moving SW along Current Basin from her vantage on the road that runs along the ridge of Saddle Hill. Craig, in the boat, beats her into town by half an hour. They usually spend a night in Nelson with whanau before stocking up for the return journey. Otherwise, they’re effectively working seven days a week. All recycling is taken off-island on Manta Ray.

Cathy does an amazing job at this. The menu at The Lodge’s restaurant is surprisingly diverse and affordable. A mains meal for $25. The same amount also buys a ‘cook your catch’ deal, served as a smorgasbord with salads and chips supplied.

The night we were there, that was the case with the big platters of crayfish. The clients were a group from a Wellington-based fishing charter company. The skippers of their boats are regular at Catherine Cove, and they know the operation well enough to help Cathy and Craig in the kitchen. We mistakenly thought they had a bunch of staff, but it was the fishing guides helping out! Still, Cathy and Craig were flat-tack. Which is why she wasn’t answering the cellphone or VHF when we called ahead.

Alex Stone.

No matter: she immediately offered us the safety of one of their moorings in the bay (the cove can throw up contrary winds for anchoring) and went back to grilling trays of crays amid the superlative aroma of her kitchen.

We had more time to talk the next morning, when the extraordinary circumstance and challenges of their working life were further revealed.

Cathy said that in the first year of Covid restrictions, they lost $65,000 worth of bookings through cancellations. But since the lockdowns have eased, they have been “really busy.”

“This is the closest thing to an overseas destination,” Cathy says. And looking around, I reckon she’s right. It’s a different world. D’Urville is New Zealand’s eighth-largest island and crossing Cook Strait on your own or a charter vessel, or leaving from the little village at French Pass on Manta Ray, gives it the special edge of arrival.

My Happiness anchored off Catherine Cove’s Wilderness Resort. The Knysna 50 catamaran was part of the Island Cruising Club’s South Island Rally.

There’s a lot of native bush around the lodge, with streams and waterfalls, so some guests ask Craig to drop them off at Kapowai Point so they can walk the last few miles in. As we were chatting with Cathy, Craig arrived after doing exactly that, bearing bags. Then he flopped down with a grin for a self-made coffee, and a brief moment’s respite.

This is a boatie’s best stop. With the Marlborough Sounds just there, Tasman Bay on the other side of French Pass, good fishing, superlative sailing, it’s an all-round perfect package for cruising – or just chillin’ at the Cove.

Cathy’s info that the winter is the busy time for fishing charter groups surprised us. Their ‘downtime’ is September-October, before the summer sets in and visiting yachties and family groups arrive. And when we were there, a Russian couple had come on impulse and jumped aboard Manta Ray when she was loading others at French Pass. Craig obliged.

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The lodge can accommodate 50 people in a variety of separate units. It also has camping sites. Though Cathy and Craig are careful not to take too many campers, relying on the safety factor of always being able to put them indoors should the weather turn crook, Cathy says the campers “bring a good vibe. They’re laid back.”

Catherine Cove at dusk.

She also praises the fishing folk on the charters. “We meet a lot of really interesting people. Well-read, not a stereotype at all. Mostly they’re smart people. They’re fishing because they love it. They love the outdoors.

“Most of our guests are already pretty capable and self reliant people.”

Speaking of reading, there’s a fascinating book displayed on a restaurant table. Angelina, by Kiwi author Gerald Hindmarsh, is the epic tale of his grandmother, who came all the way from the Italian island of Stromboli to marry her love, who was working as a farmhand on D’Urville.

“The film rights have been sold for the book,” says Cathy with gleam in her eye, thinking naturally of accommodating a film crew for the duration of the shoot. But that’s all in the future. Perhaps.

Craig Tatnell and Cathy George, owners of Catherine Cove Wilderness Resort, D’Urville Island

She has less time for sailing folk on tight budgets. “Wind-bludgers” she calls them and decries their habit of expecting to use the loos and toilet paper, without stopping to buy a drink or a meal. Be warned.

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Another type of guest are the ones who come with tour groups who board vans that tour the island, using the lodge as a base. They usually come in May-June and spend three to five days on the island. But they were mostly international visitors. “Covid has put everyone in a holding pattern,” Cathy observes. Though the uptake in local visitors appears a boon right now.

One of their big challenges in the business, says Cathy, is compliance. “Although just about everything is different here, we still must comply with all New Zealand standards – serving alcohol, food, gas, safe workplace. We employ Johnson’s Barges to service the moorings. Otherwise, we do everything ourselves.”

My Happiness makes it way through French Pass.

Across the way, looking out from the lodge between Anatakapu and Stewart (Takuru Kuru) Islands, there’s the incongruous sight of a giant oil rig temporarily parked in Admiralty Bay. Complete with an escort of coppers, in case of a threatened Greenpeace action – which hadn’t yet happened. Cathy is happy to take their business, serving meals and drinks, but loathe to venture into the political controversy of it all.

Cathy spends much time working on the D’Urville Island Wilderness Resort Facebook page. “I like to keep it real.”

And she sure succeeds at that. The fishing group, heading out again, tummies full of fresh-grilled crayfish, the family group playing soccer on the lawn, or the Russian couple trying out the stand-up paddleboards, would all agree. So did we. BNZ