It’s not long before dawn on a frosty morning in Geraldine with the layers of ice on my car’s windscreen thicker than Jacinda Adern’s vowels and matched only by the layers of clothing required on this kind of bracing Kiwi winter’s day.

I’m up early, with the sun straining above this quaint town a wee bit over 90 minutes’ drive south-west of Christchurch on the South Island, to meet Michael Barker, heir to New Zealand’s eponymous jam fortune.

I’ve stayed overnight at the Barkers’ boutique guesthouse, The Vicarage, and by rights I should still be tucked into my super-king bed in my deluxe room inside the historic and imposing two-storey, six-room boutique accommodation. But there is so much more to do and see than meets the weary eye.

The Vicarage Geraldine

After half-a-century or so, Barker’s family factory is still going strong on a section of the original family farm, about eight kilometres from Geraldine in the rich South Canterbury region food bowl. Providing employment for about 170 locals, Barker’s, founded in 1991 by Michael’s late father Anthony, produces jams, chutneys, syrups and condiments.

Bought by Michael and his wife Brigette in 2017, the couple have painstakingly and tastefully restored the building on the main street of Geraldine. It finally opened to paying guests in 2019.True to its name, for decades it was the grand timber-clad residence of the local vicar before it fell into disrepair, though the Anglican church next door, St Mary’s, is in apparent good condition and still operational.

You could be forgiven for thinking that in his supposed semi-retirement, that this jam baron is, well, spreading himself a little thin since he’s also built the rather flash and modern Foodstore & Eatery at the rear of The Vicarage.

They’re both really quite something and should it all succeed this could literally be money for jam (I’m sure the Barkers have heard that one before).

Featuring seemingly every single Barker’s line, the Foodstore & Eatery opened at around the same time as The Vicarage. Barker’s particularly proud of the self-service area where customers can pour and mix one of the company’s extensive choice of fruit syrups for a free tasting.

“We think Geraldine is the perfect place for international travellers to chill out after or prior to a day of travel,” Barker says over a warming caffe latte. “It is a real New Zealand town in the centre of a diverse farming hinterland with stunning mountain landscapes and lush green foothills.”

Geraldine, with a population of under 3000, is on the route to the spectacular Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, where New Zealand’s tallest peak rises to 3274 metres. It’s also a popular stop on on the newly marketed “Powder Highway”, designed to entice Australian skiers and snowboarders to drive between Christchurch and Queenstown rather than fly.

Tourists on the almost 500-kilometre journey have the snowy Southern Alps as a constant companion for most of the route. But it pays to break the trip with a pit-stop at Geraldine or a night at Lake Tekapo.

The Foodstore & Eatery at the rear of The Vicarage. Photo: Marina Mathews

The Foodstore & Eatery overlooks the river where Barker and the local community are hard at work on yet another project — a riverside walk that incorporates a sculpture trail, another move to try and snare the “artistic foodie” market.

“I love breathing life into new ideas and we are currently working on the development of Geraldine as a vibrant visitor destination,” he says. “And, yes, my wife is encouraging me to slow down and of course I’m learning to listen.”

The town, originally called Talbot Forest, was renamed FitzGerald in 1857 in honour of the first superintendent of the Canterbury Provincial Council, James Edward FitzGerald. But it was later changed to Geraldine, the Irish clan name of the FitzGeralds.

All of the above is a necessary roundabout way of leading to the main reason I’m meeting Barker so early. He’s persuaded me to squeeze in another of his fledgling entrepreneurial tourism ventures — farming tours guided by retired Kiwi farmers from the local area. And so I head out with my guide, Evan Thatcher, a 73-year-old, khaki beanie-clad retired Geraldine farmer, for a half-day farm tour. Thatcher ran deer, sheep and cattle in his day and still helps his son on the family property several days each week

Barker, who himself retired from executive roles at Barker’s in 2017, tags along as a keen observer, with the farm tours still in their infancy.

For me, it’s a chance to connect with rural New Zealand, learn about the livestock around Geraldine as well as its agricultural history and how the local environment is being managed sustainably. In this company, you crack a sheep joke at your own risk.

“We’re offering the farm tours because Geraldine is the centre of a large and prosperous farming area between the sea and the Southern Alps,” says Barker.

“Visitors seldom have the opportunity to experience the real New Zealand, to talk with a local farmer and be shown around the farms. The scenery is stunning as we traverse many styles of farming from cropping to sheep, dairy, deer, beef and we visit the historic buildings on an iconic high country station.”

Geraldine is a pretty enough town but it’s not until we head outside of it on the farm tour to an elevated point above it that you realise it’s enveloped by majestic scenery. The dominant feature is the Four Peaks mountain range, rising to 1351 metres and set beside Te Moana River which in turn is surrounded by jade green pastures dotted intermittently with deer and sheep.

On the tour, we visit tiny, mid-19th century St Anne’s, the area’s oldest church, tucked away at the aptly-named Pleasant Valley. We taste deer milk cheese, feed some sheep (of course) and visit heritage protected farm buildings at a classic Orari Gorge Station for which Barker has special access for tour participants.

I also get to handle a velveted deer antler sample, proffered by Evan over morning tea — another local export industry. 

But the real highlight, aside from that astonishing mountain and rural scenery, is the infectious, good-humoured enthusiasm and passion of Barker and Thatcher for their own slices of bucolic heaven.

It’s been a lightning though thoroughly enlightening visit to Geraldine and, as it eventuates, well worth the rudely early start.

Now if only there had been enough time to squeeze in a sample of the gratis squeezed New Zealand blackcurrant and raspberry fruit syrup back at the Foodstore & Eatery.



Deluxe rooms with king beds and ensuite bathrooms at The Vicarage from $NZ268. See Combine a stay at The Vicarage with a few nights at The Observatory in Christchurch where rooms start from $NZ289 per night. See


Farming tours cost $NZ338 for two people and include a three-and-a-half hour tour with a local farming guide and morning tea included. A package of two nights at The Vicarage including a tour with a local farming guide as well as breakfast, morning tea and lunch costs $NZ1450.


Air New Zealand operates regular direct and non-direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne Christchurch, the nearest city to Geraldine.



Anthony Dennis visited as a guest of Tourism New Zealand, Air New Zealand and ChristchurchNZ.

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