January 2013

  • Porae tossed in salt, pepper and flour, grilled on hotplate with peppadews, capers and olives, served with toast and garden fresh salad.
  • Split crayfish barbecued and seared with butter, cilantro and lemon, with freshly dug new potatoes, grilled tomatoes, avocado and vinaigrette.
  • Smoked red moki with pasta in a lemon zest, caper and Kaitaia Fire cream sauce, with salad greens and olives.
  • Whole snapper and kahawai wrapped in beet leaves and baked in a sweet chilli lemon sauce, with vinegar-infused sushi rice.

Sound lousy? These are the meals I’ve served up for family friends on Great Barrier Island over the last few days, kayak caught, speared or gathered by snorkel from the reefs just down the road.

We bought a valley on the island nearly ten years ago, on a romantic whim while living in Thailand. The real estate agent who had shown us property a few weeks earlier during a brief trip home, rang on my mobile while stuck in a Bangkok traffic jam. We took it as an omen and signed up.

A couple of years later we moved in daunted by the reality of going cold turkey, from international ex-pat life with home help for 4,5 and 8 year olds to stay-home Dad, re-training Mum, and maintenance of a 75 acre property with off-grid house.

Great Barrier is 90 km north-east of Auckland, a 30 minute flight or a 4.5 hour car ferry ride: far enough to be out of commuter territory and to breed an independent-spirited bunch of 600 permanent residents.

Fifteen months living on the island was a crash course in alternative power systems, property maintenance, roading issues, gardening principles, kayak fishing and bread baking in a Rayburn wood stove.

I worked harder than I ever had, lost a lot a weight, discovered the crayfish holes on the local reefs, watched my youngest daughter graduate from the play centre to the primary school, both at the end of the drive, and the older two children absorb the laid-back lore of the island.

When we returned to the mainland to pursue ‘sensible’ jobs and schooling, it was with a apprenticeship in practicality and an empathy with weather and tide.

Now six years on, we return to our island home from Auckland every holidays, counting down the school term weeks until we are on the car ferry, the kids talking excitedly about surfing, catching a grand daddy snapper, or who will be master of the table tennis table.

I wonder whether any other vagabond families are interested in sharing this resource?

Sited in a private valley behind Kaitoke Beach (Google 57 Kaitoke Lane), a kilometre up a rugged driveway, is a sheltered bush clearing with our three-bedroom (minus one for the ping pong table) farmhouse-style homestead and a self-contained guest cottage.

The lights work off solar, there’s gas-fired hot water caliphonts, hobs and a fridge and a spring-fed water supply.

I have a work desk set up in an upstairs bedroom overlooking the garden and an outside bath tub, linked up to broadband internet, where I can work part-time. I’m yet to write the next great Kiwi novel, but it seems to be the place that would lend itself to one.

If you are interested in a family sabbatical on Great Barrier let us know. We could rent the cottage and/or the house for 3, 6 or 12 month stints, or even look at sharing the property in the longer term with like-mined people.

The play centre and primary school at the end of the drive (want to ride a bike or pony to school?) would welcome new enrolments.

Having travelled widely around the world I think Kaitoke – with its wide white sand, rock pools, productive reefs and islets – is the best beach anywhere and most days you won’t see a soul on it.

Contact [email protected] for more information. We can meet families in Auckland ahead of their island adventure.

By Tim Higham

Further information:

When we decided to take our children on a six-month family sabbatical, we knew we’d have a lot to do to get ready. What we didn’t realize is how the entire planning process leading up to the journey was a learning experience every bit as much as the actual time away has become.

We set our intention on living this dream. We researched, we planned, and we listed out all the reasons this would be a great idea for our family. The 10,000 reasons we shouldn’t do it paled in comparison when we nailed down the few compelling reasons we should.

Here’s how we did it:

Recognise it’s our life

When we decided to live our dream of long-term travel, our friends and family didn’t get it. When we mentioned our intention to move to another country for a six-month family sabbatical from ‘regular life,’ people snorted, looked uncomfortable, or otherwise let us know they thought we were crazy. Most were too polite to say this in so many words, but it was clear in the way they wouldn’t make eye contact and asked disbelieving questions.

Standing by our convictions to live this adventure was difficult in the face of naysayers. This was our life. If we didn’t march to the beat of our own drum, we wouldn’t be living true to who we were as people. And what’s the point of living at all if you’re only living someone else’s reality?

Facing the negative attitudes was a challenge. But we faced them, regardless, and came out knowing our own minds. Traveling away from home for a significant portion of time was something we knew in our gut was good for all of us. We learned to ignore the criticism.

Name our fears

The second struggle came in naming our fears and working through the possible outcomes.

Okay, so we were taking our 11-year-old, 10-year-old, and 7-year-old out of the private, Catholic school they’d attended since preschool. What if people were right and we WERE handicapping them educationally?

We dealt with this fear by researching the options, making a decision and sticking with it, and realizing we could always pull them out of any bad situation and homeschool. Or… just go home!

We took a good hard look at the school options in the countries we were considering (Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize). Belize, the country we ultimately decided on, was probably the least quality school option. But it was the best choice as far as immersing our kids in a totally different culture. Here our children attend one of the poorest schools in Belize in a town of 300, Monkey River Village. They sit next to kids whose parents head out at 3 a.m. to pick bananas and citrus or work as tour guides or fisherman. Some of the kids can’t read in English. Some have no plans of attending school beyond the 6th grade before they begin the work their parents do. We decided that the lessons they would learn about culture, human nature, cause and effect, tolerance, and compassion would well be worth taking a hit on math and science.

Another fear was that something would go wrong with the business we were leaving back home.

We own and rent residential housing and rely on the income from this for our livelihood. Up until six months from our departure, my husband handled every little detail himself. He was doing the work of five people and had the high blood pressure to prove it. He started the business but found himself spinning his wheels as he tried to take on too much. Slowly, he began replacing himself with skilled people who could take on the details of the business, placing himself in the position of manager and overseer. This not only freed his schedule and took away some layers of stress, but it also gave him the opportunity to look at the larger picture and see more clearly where he wants to go next professionally.

So, what could happen? The people working for us could fall down and need replaced. The business could take a hit financially. A tenant could flame out, a building could burn down, a roof could need replaced. The thing is, any of these things could happen if we were home, and Kevin was managing the whole thing from his home office in Pennsylvania. Very few problems exist that can’t be handled via email, Google voice, phone, or text. And, if it came down to it, a flight home for Kevin wouldn’t be out of the question if he had to give the business necessary face time.

And, failing all that, we could simply change our tickets and… go home.

The last fear was that we wouldn’t be able to hack it, personally. That we would miss our life back home to such a degree that we had a terrible experience and would want to quit early. So what if that happened? We’d quit early. Where’s the problem in that?

One by one, we faced the fears and realized none of them were insurmountable. None would kill us. We could take each day at a time. And, even if something brought the experience to an abrupt end, we’d still have more of an adventure than if we didn’t try it at all.

Plan as much as possible …

In working through all the details of this six months away, we were as thorough as anybody could be. The first thing we did was to give ourselves a deadline. We knew we’d never make this trip happen if we weren’t serious about scheduling it into our life. Although we originally planned it for January 2013, we ended up pulling it into November 2012 when a house sitting opportunity came available.

We talked to teachers about our plans and determined what areas we should supplement, in case we felt the kids were getting behind in key subjects. We arranged with my brother and his wife to rent our house while we were gone. This was something that fell into place seamlessly since they were ready for a move and plan to take their own sabbatical when we return from this one in the spring. Of course my husband had work to do in prepping the business for his departure. Mostly he did this by training his independent contractors to do the tasks he’d hired them to do – and to do them well.

And then just let go

Once we prepared as much as we could, it was just time to take the leap. No amount of planning can totally prepare you to leave your home, your routine, and everyone you know. Just like skydiving, which we did for the first time in October, we learned that we just had to get to the edge of our former life and – jump!

And once you do, oh! the exhilaration! Nothing compares to living intentionally. Nothing compares to living your dreams.

We could have spent inordinate amounts of time planning for medical emergencies or a bad school situation or financial problems. We could plan down to the last detail and still need to change the plan when the time came. So… why plan that much in the first place? Why not just get there and see?

Living a dream takes courage but mostly it takes setting your intention on a goal. And getting started. Once you decide to move in a certain direction and take the first step, the other steps become easier to imagine taking. Before you know it, you’re at the top of the staircase and your whole beautiful life opens up in front of you. If you never try – if you never take the first step in the first place – you’ll never know what could have happened.

The one outcome we hadn’t counted on was the newly-formed idea that we would want to do this again… and again and again. We realize now that it’s possible to travel as a family on a long-term basis. We’ve met many families who have chosen this way of life. And, now that we’ve tried it, we can see the many benefits. So, now that we’ve made this dream of traveling for six months with our family happen, our only question now is… how do we make it happen again? 

We are just an average American family. We live in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood. We have the requisite two cars (one being a mini-van), mortgage on a house too big for us, and a busy kids’ schedule. Up until recently, we even had the dumb, happy dog to go along with our happy, perfect life.

But something was missing. Something was imperfect in suburbia.

In 2010, we lost two parents (my mom and my husband’s dad) to the monster of cancer. Both were diagnosed within weeks of each other. Both were dead within ten months. It was a terrible year and a terrible ordeal. 

When the haze of grief finally faded, my husband Kevin and I had many long talks. We talked about our parents and how their lives were cruelly cut short. They did everything right and enjoyed good living but, at 65, they surely left before they could accomplish all their dreams. We talked about the brevity of life and what we wanted to do, see, and experience before our hours on earth were up. He wanted to achieve certain business goals. I wanted to write a book. We both wanted to travel.

We stopped listening to the 10,000 reasons we shouldn’t live the life of our dreams and started focusing on the few intensely compelling reasons we should. This new mindset helped us tap into a well of energy we didn’t know we had. Life became exciting and fresh. 

Last November, the universe sent us a sign – in the form of a Travelzoo flight deal to Costa Rica. We looked at each other, he and I, and said simultaneously, “Let’s book it!”

The ten days in Nosara, Costa Rica were magical, simple, and freeing. Suddenly, our eyes were opened to a whole new world, one that wasn’t stuck on consumerism, busy schedules, and the endless cycle of earning and spending.

During that trip, a small spark of thought started to take shape in my head. 

Over the next couple of months, we got sucked into the commercialization of Christmas along with our fellow Americans. One thing we did that was unusual was to order a subscription to International Living Magazine. When the first issue came, right after Christmas, we were in the week-between-Christmas-and-New-Year’s relaxation mode. The kids were off school. The snow was falling. I had nothing else to do but sit back with my new reading material.

As I read about foreign vistas and people who were moving to them, the idea sprung from infancy to toddlerhood in an instant. I wanted to travel but not on another 10-day vacation. This time, I wanted to go, LONGED to go, for a long-term period. And I wanted to take my family.

I wanted to take time away from our home, our schedule, and our culture. I wanted to take our kids, take our suitcases, and take a break. I wanted to write about the whole experience, as well as build up my experience as a travel writer.

Immediately, doubts crept in. We owned a real estate business in our hometown. The kids had school. We had a house, two cars, a dog. How could we possibly…? Wait, could we…? 

We had many discussions, Kevin and I. They started off sounding like this:

         Me: “Hey, I have an idea…”

         Him, groaning: “Oh no…”

         Me: “What if we hired some people for the business, found someone to rent our house, sold both cars, weeded out a lot of the junk we don’t want anymore…”

         Him: “I see where this is going…” [groans again]

         Me: “… And travel somewhere like Costa Rica or a similar place! We could take a six-month or a year-long break from our lives, gain a critical distance from our own culture, get out of our comfort zone, and come back to our lives stronger than ever before.”


This conversation slowly evolved, to where we started to knock the fears down, one-by-one. Kevin saw the sense in hiring out a lot of his workload, since he’d been doing about five jobs himself, as many small business owners do. He now hires a bookkeeper, maintenance people, and people to take phone calls. All of these tasks were pressing on him 24/7 and not allowing him to get a breath of fresh air. He knew he wanted to take his professional pursuits in a new direction, but he didn’t have the time or space to even consider which direction that would be.

He started to realize that a sabbatical from ‘regular life’ would give him time for creative thought and brainstorming about his future business plans. He also knew that I wanted to jump into the saddle of my writing career and ride.

I began writing for International Living. I started talking about following dreams, living your own personal truth, and travel on my blog,

In my research about destinations, I met a couple online who was originally from England who now lived in Belize. They seemed so knowledgeable about Belize so I asked their advice on whether this country would be appropriate for a young family like ours. Upon first glance, Belize seemed so remote and exotic.

They gave me a ton of advice. They didn’t sugar-coat anything. They told me that life in Belize is sometimes rugged, especially where they lived in an off-the-grid property in a remote location of southern Belize. But they also pointed out the strengths of their adopted country, which they obviously loved very much: it is simple, authentic, natural, and friendly. Belize is an English-speaking country with a stable government and is relatively safe compared to some of its Central American counterparts.

We also had many long discussions about how their way of life is a great way to teach us and our kids about sustainability, appreciation for natural resources, and awareness. About how getting away from the chatter of America would give a family like ours a paradigm-shifting adventure not possible in our regular lives.

Throughout all of this discussion, I asked them if I could profile them for International Living.

After writing the article, I kept in touch with my new friends in Belize, keeping them abreast of where we were in our planning process. Kevin and I took another 10-day trip, this time to Panama, to scout out a location to hang our hats for six months.

We loved Panama. We found two awesome towns that would have been perfect. But, even so, when we returned home, we started to get cold feet once again. Now that the idea was becoming more and more real, all the old concerns began to pop up. What if something blew up with the business while we were gone, and my husband wasn’t able to manage it remotely? What if I couldn’t get my writing off the ground and the whole idea didn’t work toward my professional goals, as planned? What if the kids fell too far behind in school? What would our friends and family say? What if we wasted six months of our lives on a lackluster experience? 

The Universe was working in our corner again. Shortly after we returned from Panama, my new friends from Belize emailed to say they were planning to move on to their next venture, a sustainable farm. Their house by the sea was on the market. The house hadn’t sold and they were getting itchy to start their farm. 

They asked us if we would house sit for their property.

Here was a chance for them to have the freedom to move on to their next dream while ensuring their house was well cared for, and here was our chance to have a beautiful location for our family sabbatical! 

After some thought and a lot of faith, we agreed. This was a time in our lives where we had to let instinct dictate. We had to let go of expectations and take a chance on an idea that spoke to our soul.

Besides, we knew our kids were at exactly the right age for this adventure. At 11, 10, 7, and 2, we felt they were still at the point in their childhood where 1) they want to spend all kinds of time with their parents; and 2) they wouldn’t miss a significant year in school, academically or socially.

We arranged to visit the couple in July at their home in Belize to make sure the arrangement would work for everyone. 

It did.

So now it’s January and we just celebrated the new year in our (borrowed) seafront house in Belize. The kids take a school boat to their temporary school in a tiny town called Monkey River Village.

We’ve met so many cool and like-minded people down here. Some I’ve interviewed for articles and a book I’m writing. I have more work on my desk, in fact, than I can do. I’ve hit a state of professional flow.

We chose not to have TV. We don’t have sports schedules. We spend our days doing the things we love: talking, writing, playing, laughing, cooking, chopping coconuts, kayaking, swimming, building things. We have a million hours a day to spend with our kids and they’re blossoming under our undivided attention. 

They’ve made Christmas presents for each other, from materials they found in the jungle, instead of shopping for gifts at the mall.

We know, intuitively, that this was the right decision for our family. A whole new way of life has opened up to us. And so now I ask the Universe… what’s next??