After establishing one of the region’s well known venues and dividing their time between the Yarra Valley and Melbourne this couple have found their forever home.
Sean Lee and John Kroll are best known in our region as the proprietors of Mt Rael, a restaurant with boutique accommodation in Healesville. They took this wonderful property on 11 years ago in order to take a break from their hectic lives in Melbourne. Running numerous restaurants and holiday rentals they thought selling up and moving to Healesville would offer them a better lifestyle. It offered the lifestyle, but as Sean is a big dream kind of guy and John enjoys fleshing out the plans and seeing them come into reality, relaxing is not how you’d describe their last decade. Successful, enriching and exciting, yes, but relaxing… not so much. With Mt Rael changing hands to become someone else’s dream, their new house in Launching Place may just provide the long awaited rest these boys have been craving. “We’re exhausted. Again! We just want some time in a home of our own to relax and put down some roots for a change. Eleven years of couch surfing has been enough. In all our time out here this is the first property we’ve bought to actually use as our home. We’ve slept on the floor in the restaurant and rooms in Mt Rael depending on what was booked. We’ve stayed with family and slept in hotel rooms elsewhere. We’re so excited to not have to do that again. A forever home! We just love it,” said Sean.
Eleven years of hard work at the iconic Mt Rael seems to have faded away and Sean and John are looking relaxed and truly at home. That this partnership has endured over the decades with all they have achieved and all the work and sacrifice it’s taken to do that, is testament to how exceptional these two men are.
Sean chats and reflects on his family history in New Zealand. The good fortune he feels from having been surrounded by so much love and support, the richness of his heritage and how it has so strongly informed who he is today. We start to talk about the wonderful sense of openness in their house and he immediately refers to his grandmother. “My grandmother on my dad’s side, Lorna, was creative on so many levels. One of her creative outlets was interiors and she did all the interior design for her husband’s property developments. We would rearrange the over-sized lounge room on our Saturday’s together. We were never allowed to touch my grandfather’s chair or the TV but everything else would get a redesign. Lorna would then alternate between baking and sewing for hours while I flicked through her enormous collection of magazines.”
“My mum’s family were of Maori decent and all about nurturing and caring for family. Mum is one of 11 children so gatherings were enormous. My weekends with Nanny Louie were all about gathering produce from local farms on Saturdays, cooking and baking all afternoon in preparation for our Sunday feast after church at my grandparents. We spent the whole day eating and bonding as a family. The table sat twelve and we actually filled it four times to accommodate everyone there. The first sitting was for all the young kids. I managed to avoid this and sometimes the second sitting also, as I was Nanny’s helper. The second was for all the teenagers and the third was for the adults. This seemed to go on for hours. By the time they finished all the kids were hungry again so the table was loaded one more time for the kids and any other hungry bellies. When it was time to leave, my nanny and I would load up boxes of food for all the families to take home to see them through the week,” remembers Sean.
Listening to these stories, it is no wonder Sean ended up in hospitality, but it also highlights how special home must be to him and what a joy it must be to have a space to share once again. On the occasions I visited the house there were family and long term family friends each time. His mother Gail helped out at Mt Rael for 18 months at one stage and today she’s visiting, eating a home cooked breakfast and flicking through an old 1970s Women’s Weekly in the morning sun.
A highlight of their new home are the beautiful grounds, with a sprawling, natural bush feel. Each corner you turn opens up to another opportunity to find a secluded space to rest amongst native bush, sometimes accented by well selected introduced trees. Tables arranged for guests eating and laughing over lunch is what comes to mind. In other areas chairs are positioned for contemplation. The stream fed by the natural spring on Mt Tooblewong gurgles along beside us. Apparently even in drought this place never runs out of fresh water. It feels an inherently generous and accommodating part of the world. As we walk through the grounds John talks incessantly about the different plants, what they are and what he wants to plant more of. “I get a lot of creative energy, peace and joy from being amongst nature. It’s nature that truly grounds me and makes me feel fully at home. Growing up around here, it’s something about this region; it becomes part of what you need and who you are,” said John.
John spent most of his time at Mt Rael in the kitchen creating fabulous food but he has other passionate creative interests. He set up and ran the Artspace Gallery for a time in Healesville. That was a great platform to explore his love of art and learn more about the local scene. As we walk around the house he tells me the name of all the people who made the different art pieces in their extensive collection. It is obvious he knows what he is talking about and his heart is in this collection.
Of course we all want to know what they are going to do next but they keep coming back to “rest” being what they most need now. Sean will go and do some meditation, John will rejuvenate in his garden and both will restore themselves. I ask John if he thinks Sean is capable of relaxing for long, “Sean is a true visionary. So much so that it often takes me a while to catch up with his train of thought! He possesses ambition and drive in spades, but for the moment we are both in contemplation mode.”
They have decided to call the property, ‘Papatuanuku’, which means ‘mother earth’ in Maori. The suggestion came from Gail. When she explains she mentions the boys had been looking through books for names, “I don’t get that,” she said shaking her head, “That doesn’t mean anything to me. Papatuanuku means something”. In traditional Maori stories the word has meanings pertaining to mutual support. Look after Mother Earth and she will look after you. It cannot go unnoticed that Sean and John have a partnership that seems to embody that meaning. Their house has a natural benevolence about it with family already flying across the sea and or interstate to be a welcome part of it. This is definitely the forever home they were looking for.
WORDS and PHOTOGRAPHS Brook Powell