For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

Great Stays: South Island Historic Pubs

They are keepers of the past and bridges to the present. Likes abiding sirens to our pioneering history, of heady gold rushes, farming trail-blazers and the development of new settlements, why not treat yourself to a flavourful stay at one of the South’s finest historic pubs?

In the very deep South, cross Foveaux Strait on the one hour ferry from Bluff to pint-sized Oban on Stewart Island. The iconic South Sea Hotel anchors Oban, enjoying a dress-circle perch overlooking the seductive curve of Halfmoon Bay, just a two minute doddle from the ferry terminal.

Needless to say, the establishment’s mojo has been rekindled with the shift to Level 2, the island’s social hub is pulsing with vitality once again. Complementing the fully licenced restaurant and bar, the South Sea offers modern studio units in addition to the original hotel rooms. It’s Kiwi classic, where retired travellers, perky millennials and grizzled fishermen all converge. Salute proceedings with a Roaring Forties Golden Ale.

For show-stopping West Coast hospitality experience, luxuriate for a night at the resplendently restored Theatre Royal Hotel in Kumara. Handily located half way between Greymouth and Hokitika, this grand old hotel first opened its doors in in 1876, at the start of the Kumara gold rush.

Even Richard John Seddon was known to take to the stage and sing. Within the hotel, there are six artfully themed rooms, styled in honour of local characters, blending timeless elegance and vintage pieces with all the expected mod-cons.  I loved the Barbara Weldon Room. During the restoration, workers discovered sawdust in the wall linings, a primitive form of sound-proofing. Dancing girls were employed to “dance” with the miners – although this room took it to a horizontal level. Across the road, a cluster of authentic cottages and the Old Bank of New Zealand have been transformed into accommodation suites and rooms.

Also on the West Coast, before resting your head, enjoy great kai and a hearty yarn with the locals at two other inimitable historic inns. Formerly The Blackball Hilton is located at the foot of the Paparoa ranges, just 29km from Greymouth. 110 years old this year, Formerly the Blackball Hilton has a long and fascinating history, in the town that gave birth to the Labour Party. The ‘old school’ style pub sports its history lustily on its walls, while the hotel’s rustic architectural character has been faithfully maintained. Under Level 3, it added a fresh page to Blackball history, opening up the town’s first ever drive-through, with takeaway pub meals a smash-hit. Alongside the legendary pub fare, the hotel has reinstated Bed and Breakfast deals.

The Historic Empire Hotel, Ross: Nostalgia wafts from every brightly painted beam of the mustard-yellow and navy-blue wooden hotel. Since 1866, West Coasters have huddled inside the pub, which was rebuilt in 1908,  amid yellowing photographs and dusty antiques, to spin yarns and swap gossip about whitebaiting locations. Breathe in the authenticity, along with a whiff of woodsmoke, over a pint and some fresh whitebait fritters. It exudes an atmosphere you can’t design or buy, like a hoarder’s goldmine of badges, photos, knick-knacks and vintage memorabilia. Great-value in-house accommodation is the cherry on top.

If you know your Otago gold rush history, the mighty Maniototo’s northernmost settlement of Kyeburn Diggings is now largely ghost town with one notable exception – the sole old rush survivor, Dansey’s Pass Coach Inn. Offering hearty fare, boutique accommodation and a superb bar packed with curios, the back-of-beyond frontier charm is unmistakable. The long and low-slung hotel, first built in 1862, still beckons like a roadside refuge.

As you’d expect with such an atmospheric inn, open wood fires, wooden floors and exposed beams feature prominently in the lounge and dining rooms. Accommodations are elegantly furnished and magnificently appointed with plenty of heritage elements, like wooden joinery, brass fittings and copper piping. This historic coach inn is an alpine treasure, accentuating the raw drama of a dalliance with Dansey’s Pass and the Kakanui Mountains. They’re offering some great winter deals.

Central Otago is spoilt when it comes to heritage pubs, and another striking Maniototo ghost town boasts a soul-stirring hospitality treasure, the Vulcan Hotel. From SH85, turn off onto the lonely looping gravel road to reach St. Bathans.  At last count, there are only six living inhabitants left – but no shortage of reported ghosts. “Stay the night at the irresistible Vulcan Hotel, the only surviving pub in St. Bathans and one of the oldest mud brick adobe buildings left standing in New Zealand. Room 1 is apparently home to “The Rose”, who was strangled in the pub in 1880. Some guests vow and declare they felt grabbed and held down in the night – particularly male guests. Nocturnal visitations included? You never know your luck.

Finally, my all-time favourite. It’s movie-set-perfect good looks have made the award-winning Cardrona Hotel a perennial Instagram darling. Situated in the Cardrona Valley, many Crown Range travellers, zipping between Queenstown and Wanaka, will breeze by this 1863 sweetheart, fleetingly stopping for a photo-op with its famous façade before rushing on. Don’t sell yourself short, it’s a cracker place to spend a night. Echoes of the gold-rush proudly ring from its rafters, while the en-suite accommodations are top notch.

There’s an expansive heritage garden, roaring open fires, a Stoked hot tub and superb dining.  You might plump for the blue cod, gourmet burgers, hearty soups and stew – but be sure to sample their cult-like signatures – their fried chicken and frickles, Canadian-style crumbed and deep-fried dill pickles. Bliss! The menu does a fine job in highlighting locally sourced products from Cardrona Valley honey and locally grown venison and lamb, to the gourmet cheeses and Cardrona Pinot Noir.