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Jo Ferris discovers the enchanting whimsy of Akaroa’s garden and towering artwork at The Giant’s House . . .

Given the theory that a picture says a thousand words, this feature should need few words. Nowhere do pictures tell the story better than for The Giant's House in Akaroa. It does need some background, however. Part of Akaroa's folklore, it is truly a spectacular place. More importantly, it is testimony to one woman's creative talent, tenacity and unfathomable energy.

To even devise such magic is one thing. To pull it off — almost single-handed — is another thing altogether.

Included in New Zealand Gardens Trust as one of international significance and with six-star status, it has attracted visitors from around the world. Awards have followed, pictorial features have appeared in numerous magazines, while TV shows both in New Zealand and overseas have also showcased this magical wonderland.

Its creator, painter and sculptor, Josie Martin, trained in horticulture and art; travelling frequently and extensively overseas for more than 40 years, studying and teaching. The recipient of numerous awards and scholarships, Josie has attended art residences in Italy, the US, France, Spain, Turkey, India, Mexico and China. Extraordinarily gifted and with a sense of quirky whimsy, Josie has combined her two passions throughout her home and garden.

The tale of this garden couldn't begin any better than with: “Once upon a time”. Because once, there was no garden.

Josie bought this grand, but slightly sad, old villa on a hillside behind Akaroa's village many moons ago. Boasting beautiful views across the water to the hills around Banks Peninsula, the house dates back to 1880, built mostly from totara and kauri.

Alongside restoring the villa — in her inimitable and colourful way — Josie began planning and creating the garden. Doing the work herself, Josie found buried shards of old china, too beautiful to throw away. She decided to try mosaics, starting with the front steps to the house.

Combining the old pieces with tiles she had bought on her travels, one thing led to another, and Josie moved to the floor of the conservatory, before stepping outside to create a massive sculpture at the top of the drive now named “Place des Amis”.

Art and whimsy

More than a quarter of a century on, the garden — and house — are a living work of art, whimsy, fancy and mystery.

Josie has had help with some major pieces – frames constructed with reinforcing steel and concrete. Other than that, she designs, forms and finishes each piece with colours and mosaics — the ultimate recycling of tiles, broken china, glass and mirrors.

The works are giant size and each piece or ensemble of pieces is a narration of the story behind them. Eccentric, flamboyant and seriously playful, they celebrate life, laughter and the innocence of fairy tales.

A wander through the terraces and meandering paths in the garden is a journey through time and fantasy. While the focus shines a spotlight on the magic of the artwork itself, it's easy to overlook the masterful design of the actual garden. The exquisite beauty of the plants and colour intertwines with Josie's mythical creatures and characters. It is pure theatre.

Open certain times of the year, The Giant's House combines a contemporary art gallery of Josie's other works, including a video presentation and background of her journey and how the garden evolved. There is an outdoor café corner where delicacies and drinks served from the kitchen window. Josie has also been known to run workshops here. And where better to entertain her friends than amid the colourful whimsy of her garden.

Covid put a halt to her eternal adventurous spirit for a while. While always mindful of the larger world and other ways of looking at life, one can but only wonder at Josie's direction, when – and if - life returns to a new normal. The world certainly is better for her perception of it in creating such an enchanting sanctuary.

For the record, The Giant's House didn't earn its name because of the giants in the garden.

The story goes that a small girl looking up at the house from the valley below, said it was so big, it had to be the house of a giant. Fitting really; for it is certainly a giant amid mortality – in all its surreal and kaleidoscopic glory. Once upon a time.

HAPPY TOGETHER: Colourful characters form one of Josie's largest pieces, Place des Amis — the place of friends. All pictures by Jo Ferris
NEW LIFE: Josie Martin bought this grand old villa at Akaroa and set about restoring it to its former glory.
NOT MOSAIC: The only piece of garden not finished in mosaics is an incredible piece Josie sculpted and had cast overseas in China. Titled Bella Vita, it represents the balance of nurture and worldliness.
A toast to: Artist, sculptor and creator of The Giants House garden, Josie Martin.
Angel stairs: Flanking the red mosaic steps at The Giant's House are these blue angels with white wings. A jester awaits at the top.
TICKLING THE IVORIES: Visitors to The Giants House can't resist trying their hand on the mosaic piano.