SOUTHERN PUB CRAWL

With the summer tourist season in full swing, I thought a blog on pubs would be timely. Some of the oldest and most interesting pubs are found in Otago. This is due to the gold rush of the 1860s when hundreds of hotels were opened to cater to the thousands of miners who swarmed over the Otago landscape at that time.

I have selected 5 of the most fascinating pubs in the district. I have been to them all and have stayed at a few of them and I can say the unique atmosphere and location has established each one as a special gem and tourist magnet.

THE VULCAN AT ST. BATHANS

I have already written about St. Bathans in a previous blog but I want to focus on the village’s most famous building. In fact, the Vulcan Hotel is the reason St. Bathans still exists.

There used to be 19 hotels lining the main street. The Vulcan is the only survivor and is one of the best known buildings in the South Island. This quaint little hotel is regarded as ‘New Zealand’s most haunted pub’ and is famous for the presence of the ghost of ‘Rose’. She was thought to be a prostitute who was murdered in bedroom number one by a jealous customer who was not happy with her ‘entertaining’ other miners in town. To this day, her ghost causes guests to have sleepless nights in that room. I have stayed in the Vulcan on a number of occasions but never in room one. On one stay, a member of our crew who didn’t believe in the supernatural opted for the small haunted bedroom. In the morning, he blurted, wide eyed, to us that he felt a chill pass through the room in the dead of night and on waking, he noticed the framed picture on the wall was upside down.  It has been noted that ‘Rose’ only haunts men. Over the years, guests have reported hearing groaning in the hallway. Kettles have boiled without being turned on, and doors lock themselves. On one of my visits, the barman reported a full bottle of whisky crashing off a top shelf. A transparent form surrounded by a white mist has also been seen reclining on a couch in the dining room.

Vulcan Hotel

Originally called the Ballarat Hotel, the Vulcan was built of mud brick in 1882 and when I last stayed there, it had only four guest rooms. During the 1960s and 70s, the historic hotel was a popular lunch stop for commercial travelers working in Central Otago. With the development of the nearby Otago Central Rail Trail in the 1990s, the Vulcan has become more popular than ever. The shamrock that can be seen on the front of the hotel was painted there by the Irish miners who lived in the town as a statement of pride to the Welsh miners who lived in the nearby mining settlement of Cambrian, which no longer exists.

It was a lonely life for the various publicans who ran the hotel over the later part of last century. With poor roads servicing the town, there were few guests staying and there was little else to do in the tiny town, except drink! It has been a sad fact that more than one publican has been carried away from the hotel in an alcoholic coma. That’s all changed. There is now a steady flow of patrons. I think it’s a pity the old bar has been ‘updated’ to cope with the increase in business. I remember it in its original condition with a small, wooden bar with slightly grubby spirit bottles randomly displayed on shelves and the whole bar smelt of the dusty hessian that covered the walls.

DANSEYS PASS HOTEL

Danseys Pass is one of those magic roads hidden away in the remoteness of the central South Island. This is one of my favourite New Zealand roads and sees little traffic. It was originally built by brothers, Alan and John McLean who were wealthy runholders in Canterbury. The road is still unsealed as it winds its way over the Kakanui Mountain Range with its highest point being 920 metres above sea level. In recent years, it has become popular for bike rallies. Because of the remote location, the road is often closed by snow in the winter. The pub came into existence as the quickest route between Central Otago and the Waitaki Valley. When gold was discovered in the area, a Coach Inn was built in 1862 halfway along this road to provide accommodation and feed traders on the wagon trains from the Waitaki Valley that used the road to supply miners on the more remote prospecting areas of Central Otago.

Danseys Pass Coach Inn

The Danseys Pass Coach Inn was constructed by “Happy Bill”. This mason’s remuneration was in beer, and he received one pint for every schist boulder shaped and laid. The nearby Kyeburn Diggings had close to 2000 miners searching for gold and these were the men who made the hotel a viable business. When the diggings closed, the area was deserted but fortunately the pub survived and today it is a wonderful gift from this period of Otago’s colourful history.

Danseys Pass Coach Inn

I have stayed in this hotel on a couple of occasions and the stillness was the thing that I remember.  There is a large tree beside the hotel which I was told was haunted. After having dinner in the dining room heated by a roaring fire, I stepped out into the perfectly still, silent night and sat on a swing hung from one of the branches. I swear I heard a mumbling sound coming from the cluster of branches above me.

CARDRONA HOTEL

The Cardrona Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in New Zealand still in operation. The iconic hotel was built in the mining town of the same name in 1863 along with 4 other hotels. Like others from the gold rush days, it started to decay when miners abandoned the area. However, in 1926, James Patterson bought the old hotel and for 35 years he remained its fussy publican and was a local legend until his death at the age of 91. The hotel is located on the Crown Range, a dangerous road to negotiate with its hairpin bends and steep gradients. It is also the highest road in New Zealand. Jimmy had an interest in his patrons and became known for limiting the amount of drink they consumed as he knew how treacherous the driving could be on the road especially in the colder months. To those on their way to Queenstown, which involved the most difficult part of the road, he would only sell them one drink while those on their way to Wanaka could have two. He didn’t like selling alcohol to females as he considered it a male tradition.

After Jimmy’s death the hotel was closed down and it seemed it would pass into history but in the 1980s, a local couple saw potential in the quaint old building and with tourism on the increase in the area, they undertook a major restoration and by 1983, a restaurant had been added to feed the skiers who arrived to experience the new ski field built nearby. I visited this pub before the restaurant was added and at that time, only sandwiches were served from the bar. The atmosphere was similar to the other hotels from the gold rush era but today, it has a more cosmopolitan feel but at least the lovely old hotel survives.

It has been a popular rumour that Jimmy Patterson still watches over his beloved hotel. Doors have been known to open and close unaided by human hands. Bottles have moved on their own accord. Chairs have also moved unaided. All this paranormal activity has taken place in the bar at the hotel indicating Jimmy’s involvement. After all, this bar was the major part of his adult life so I guess he still wants to make sure it is being run to his satisfaction.

STANLEYS HOTEL

Built in 1882, Stanleys Hotel in Macraes Flat is located in the centre of a barren plain. The settlement of Macraes with a current population of 55 is little known to most Kiwis. However, New Zealand’s largest gold mine close by has brought new life to the area and has been responsible for the survival of the little pub. The local school is still operating and along with the pub, is the focal point of Macraes which officially altered its name from Macraes Flat to differentiate it from the wider area.

Stanleys Hotel

I visited this pub on a cold July day when the southerly wind blasted through the town. The little pub lacks warmth in its décor with linoleum on the floor and, at the time of my visit, there were a few uncomfortable chairs in the bar. I stopped for something to eat but only a few dry bread rolls were on offer, along with pies kept in a warmer. However, there is something unique about this pub. Its solid grey brick walls reminded me of a country pub in Scotland. The cold wind only added to this Scottish feeling. Because of the isolation and bleakness of the surroundings, it has been difficult to keep publicans. However, to try and fill a recent vacancy that stayed open for a long time, the job was offered with a free lease for 3 years. The ad attracted 24 people and a mother and daughter were given the job. They moved in and were then told about a mysterious female voice and noises coming from the historic pub at night. It wouldn’t be an historic southern pub without a ghost!

WHITE HORSE HOTEL

The old White Horse Hotel at Becks in Central Otago was once the hub of the small town. When a new one was built over the road, the abandoned pub soon fell into disrepair and Central Otago risked losing a valuable piece of its history.

Old White Horse Hotel

New White Horse Hotel publican Karen George and husband Gary host Otago Central Rail Trail cyclists at their hotel and have placed a donation box there to help with the restoration of the old pub. They encourage their guests to cross the road to see the work in progress. Most return amazed at the effort that has been put in to it. As well as fixing up the exterior, one room has been relined, as close to the original as possible. The plan is to slowly reconstruct other rooms so the charming old pub will eventually be ready to once again sleep visitors, and to provide company for a ghost which I’m sure haunts this old southern hotel too.

The first White Horse Hotel was commissioned in 1864 by John Nixon Beck as a Cobb and Co stagecoach stop.  There was a pub every five miles because the horses were rested every five miles. Mrs Fisher was the publican for many years which was quite unusual back then having a woman in the job. She raised 12 children in the tiny hotel while also catering for up to 14 guests at a time – all with no power or running water.  The hotel is one of 10 of its era still standing in New Zealand and is the only one to be still standing in a town where a new one has been built. The old White Horse Hotel has an assured future as it is on the popular Otago Central Rail Trail with increasing numbers of cyclists from all over the world flocking to experience the beauty and magic of this part of the South Island.

Ceidrik Heward

Comments

  1. Angela Stevenson says:

    A truly fascinating blog, I found it very interesting indeed

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