For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

Reefton’s Renaissance

It’s not just one of New Zealand’s most storied townships, but arguably one of the most under-appreciated. For travellers heading to the West Coast from Nelson or North Canterbury, pint-sized Reefton heralds your arrival into the heritage-laden region of gold, coal and wilderness. But thanks to the entrepreneurial zeal of a wave of recent newcomers, this characterful town is on a roll, blending heritage glory, with soft adventure and artisanal verve. Not to mention, it’s main street movie-set good looks.

Nicknamed the Town of Light, Reefton not only enjoys the distinction of being the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to have electric street lighting, but it was also the fifth settlement in the world to distribute electricity to the public. The original street lamps are still standing in town (although no longer in use), but the first light to be powered by electricity in 1888 still shines nightly on the Oddfellows Hall, on Bridge Street. For history-hounds, the original Reefton Powerhouse can be seen along the Bottled Lightning Powerhouse Walk (40-minute loop.) Cross the swingbridge from State Highway 7 towards Christchurch, just as you exit Reefton, to access the walk.

Back in the day, Reefton was named Quartzopolis, in deference to its huge gold mining industry. You can still pan for gold in the rivers or talk to The Bearded Miners on Broadway. Entry is by donation to check out the relics of Reefton’s mining days, where a bearded old-timer will introduce you to the different rocks, precious metals and gold found in the area – and how to pan for gold.
Just 3km south of Reefton on State Highway 7, the satellite village of Blacks Point is equally wreathed in mining history, with a slew of hiking and biking trails on offer, like the fabulous Murray Creek Track. The gnarly old swingbridge, draped across the Inangahua River, is a cracker.

This once flourishing gold-mining town, now a cosy hamlet of historic cottages, cottage gardens and meandering lanes is also synonymous with one of our Olympic legends, Jack Lovelock. Blacks Point’s most famous son is immortalised in the local museum, housed in the former Methodist Church which was built in 1876.
Reefton is also a mountain biking mecca, with 15 named trails in the area varying in length and difficulty. Get a dose of the wilderness riding through luxuriant beech forests, spiked with an historic twist. Ride along old tram lines and pack tracks formed by New Zealand’s early adventurers, encounter old mining sites and the vestiges of huge machinery once used to extract gold. In-the-know skaters rever Reefton, ranking their Roller Park as one of New Zealand’s best – if not the best. You’ve got to see it to believe it!

Over the past four years, the renaissance of Reefton and its quest to be a tourist honey-pot has been immeasurably powered by John Bougen, who made his fortune co-founding Dress Smart. Falling heads over heels with Reefton’s heritage and future potential, John has purchased and restored a dozen town buildings, including the stunning old court, the School of Mines, the art gallery and jail.

All restorations strictly keep the faith with heritage colour design. The two grand old bank buildings, dating back to the 1870s, look equally resplendent, directly across the road from the radiant The Future Dough Company Broadway Tearooms, where the charming owner Ian Thomas and his lip-smacking delights beckon. John’s current project entails developing a 5-star luxury boutique accommodation offering.

But the latest head-turner in town, and veritable traffic-stopper, is the Reefton Distilling Company. It was the brainchild of Patsy Bass, who was born in Reefton, and shifted back home from Christchurch three years ago. Patsy told me that she was inspired to embark upon establishing the distillery, after chatting to tourists who would frequently bemoan the lack of anything uniquely Reefton to take back home with them. “A dreamcatcher from a main-street gift store doesn’t it cut it,” she rightly told me. To cut a long story short, Patsy and her business partner established the venture, securing well over 100 investors, including John Bougen.

This charming distillery is breathing new life into the original Haralds general store from the 1870s, which has been meticulously restored to house the working distillery, tasting bar and retail store. Opened since October, it’s proven to be an instant hit. With ambitious but prudent expansion plans, the premium small batch distilled spirits are crafted on-site by West Coast distiller, Nick Secker. And the distillery lovingly salutes Reefton’s swash-buckling heritage, natural beauty and local characters. Producing gin, vodka, whisky and seasonal fruit liqueurs, their Little Biddy range of gins honours Bridget Goodwin, the pipe-smoking, gin-toting, 4-foot-tall goldminer who travelled from Ireland to the West Coast to prospect for gold in the 1860s, fleeing from her abusive husband.

George Fairweather Moonlight was the first to discover Moonlight Creek, famed for where some of the largest gold nuggets were ever found in New Zealand. Moonlight Creek is also a source of ultra-pure water, located just 40 minutes from the distillery. Be sure to try the Wild Rain Vodka, and over summer, the Tayberry Liqueur is another insatiably hot-seller, unbelievably delicious when poured over ice-cream.
But it’s The Little Biddy Gin, bursting with locally sourced and selected botanicals, like Douglas Fir tips, which is the runaway taste sensation.

When I called into the January in mid-January, it was literally flying off the shelves and log-jamming the online ordering system. Patsy showed me through the working operations of the distillery, where all of the bottles are labelled by hand. Accentuating the brand’s narrative, its celebratory embrace of its sense of place, are the sightseeing tours operated from the distiller. The ‘Biddy’s Backyard’ Premium Tour delivers authentic and indelible insights into Reefton’s heart and soul. The tours are led by two of the town’s local legends, Nigel and Steffan MacKay.

The twin brothers have just turned 70 and you could not wish for a more entertaining double-act. Not only do these lads seem to have come straight out of central casting, but they should be on stage. Unstoppably engaging and always dressed in identical clothing, they regaled me with local anecdotes and nuggets of history, throughout the tour, as we hop-scotched around town, taking in sights like Biddy’s grave. They will also take you foraging for the ingredients that go into the spirits, in the same verdant West Coast rainforest where Little Biddy once prospected for gold.

And they’ll enlighten you with an array of historic gems, like how Reefton’s main-street was originally The Strand, where the skatepark is. However, after a major flood, many of the historic buildings were carted one street back from the river, to Broadway. You can still see the bolts on the back of some of those buildings, from when they were relocated. Reefton Distilling Co’s Little Biddy range of gins, Wild Rain vodka and seasonal fruit liqueurs are now available via their cellar door, through selected outlets nationwide and through their website.

Reefton Distilling Co is a must-see, must-sample and must-buy. It’s a powerfully seductive reason why what was once a drive-through and stop-for-a-pie town, deserves an overnight stayover. The more you explore Reefton and its manifold charms, the more you come to appreciate the countless ranks of unsung heroes and tireless volunteers who personify true community spirit and civic pride. They are the critical cogs who are helping Reefton chart are bright path forward on the tourist map, underpinned by the entrepreneurial zeal of people like Patsy Bass, who are daring to dream big. Reefton is on a roll.