Holiday park leaps ahead

Tucked away at the very edge of the Clutha District, nestled in the Catlins forest, is a holiday-maker's dream getaway, run by Paul and Lynn Bridson.

The couple run the McLean Falls Eco Motel and Holiday Park, and the Whistling Frog Cafe and Bar, in the Chaslands, about an hour's drive south of Balclutha.

The complex in the Catlins Forest Park has the beautiful McLean Falls at its doorstep. The 22m on the Tautuku River descend a number of steep dropoffs and terraces. They are often described as the most spectacular in the region.

The complex is now in its sixth year, but the going was never easy, Mr Bridson said.

Twelve years ago, the Bridsons bought a farm in the Chaslands, and spent three years toying with the idea of creating a holiday park.

Work began on the project in 2006, when the couple began buying old buildings from around Otago and Southland.

''Everyone thought we were off our rocker. They said it would never work,'' Mr Bridson said.

The couple bought Bellbird cottage from Wyndham, 12 shacks from Te Anau, and the ablution block from Karitane.

''We wanted to recycle old buildings, and it became a bit of a theme for the park,'' he said.

The buildings showed evidence they had been through all types of weather, and had clearly seen better days.

It took a year for the Bridsons to build the holiday park - restoring the buildings, and putting the infrastructure in place.

''There's a lot of infrastructure involved with a holiday park. Having the farm gave us the room for expansion.''

The Bridsons own about 350ha, but 100ha of that is native bush, and the holiday park and cafe only take up 6ha.

The park provides a range of accommodation, from camper van sites to basic one-roomed cabins, motel rooms, and chalets.

The couple live nearby on the farm, and employ 10 staff - including three full-time chefs working at the cafe.

Head chef Robin Martin, of Methven, is in his fourth season at the Whistling Frog Cafe and Bar.

He said the isolated location did not faze him, but offered a challenge.

''I like the surroundings, the beauty, and the team here. The location just means I have to be creative.''

The holiday park is commonly known as the Whistling Frog, taking on the same name as the cafe.

The idea for the ''Whistling Frog'' brand came from the small brown frogs found living around the area.

The couple were searching for a name for their business, and looked up the internet for information on the frogs.

''I found they were called the brown frog, but it also said they were commonly known as the whistling frog, and I thought: 'Bingo! we have our name','' Mr Bridson said.

The business mascot, Whistlewood, might be green, but also features an orange belly - just like that of the brown frog.

The couple have embraced the frog theme, having a pond filled with tadpoles at the entrance to the cafe, and various frog-themed signs and artwork dotted both inside and out.

They worked hard to give the park a relaxed feel, and visitors are welcome to bring their dogs with them - joining the Bridson's Maltese terrier Sonic.

Mrs Bridson said several visitors had returned to the park after several years and remarked on how far things had come.

''They are amazed with what we have here,'' she said.

''This little space here is so unique, so special. There's bush on all sides, very few neighbours, and so many attractions.''

The entrance to the area's biggest attraction - the McLean Falls River Walk - is 3km from the Whistling Frog. The 2km walk follows an easy grade along the Tautuku River valley with views of the river and bush.

The walk car park and track ares maintained by the Department of Conservation (Doc), and were recently upgraded.

Doc Coastal Otago visitor and historic assets programme manager Dave Winterburn said the ageing toilet block was replaced, and sections of the track were repaired.

The McLean Falls River Walk was closed for several months last year, after rockfall damaged parts of the track. It reopened just before Christmas.

Mr Winterburn said between 25,000 and 30,000 people visited McLean Falls each year.

Mr Bridson said Doc maintained the McLean Falls area well, and the recent work was fantastic.

While McLean Falls is the nearest tourist attraction, the holiday park is also close to the popular Cathedral Caves, Lake Wilkie, Tautuku Bay, and is about 15 minutes from the seaside township of Papatowai.

Mrs Bridson said many of their guests used the park as a hub for their sightseeing in the Catlins, spending several days based there while they explored the surrounding area's attractions.

The couple still have plans for the Whistling Frog, and hope to clear access on their farm to allow guests to walk to the Tautuku River and enjoy the swimming holes there.

The park is proving to be very popular, and was booked solid over Christmas and New Year.

Mr Bridson said the business had reached a point where it was no longer trying to establish itself.

Last year he set up high-speed internet access on site, also offering free internet access to neighbouring farms.

''Five years is the critical point. You have to get through these very serious milestones. The business is now viable and the community is right on board with us.

''I don't want to get too much bigger. This is about right.''

- helena.dereus@odt.co.nz