We weren’t very well organised for the last bank holiday weekend so it was Sunday morning before one of the Boyfriend’s friends and his girlfriend came over and we tried to figure out where to go for the night. Despite fears that all accommodation would be booked solid for the weekend, a quick scoot through the Rough Guide to New Zealand and a few calls later and we had rooms for the night at Formerly The Blackball Hilton in the wee town of Blackball on the South Island’s West Coast.
The historic hotel – it dates back to the early part of the last century – used to be known simply as The Blackball Hilton but, when the representatives of a certain Hilton hotel chain discovered the place, it wasn’t long before lawyer’s letters started flying Blackball direction. Showing a healthy disregard for American bullsh*t, the owners put a Formerly in front of their name and carried on as before. I’m not sure how long they’ll get away with it but their stand is a typical West Coast one.
After a long afternoon spent in the car and waiting for the Boyfriends to finish their climbing on Castle Hill, the road to Blackball seemed to take forever but we were no sooner in the town than we came across the large looming presence of Formerly The Blackball Hilton. Through the front door we came to a large entrance hall, papered on one side with lots of local notices and flyers for events in the district – evidentially Formerly The Blackball Hilton is a popular place with the locals, always a good sign. Collecting our room keys from the bar, we went upstairs to discover just how strange and quirky the place was.
The rooms were all colour-coordinated in a very strange way. Ours was purple and a particularly lurid green, complete with family-type pictures on the walls and dressing gowns in case you felt the need to wander down the corridor to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Once you switched off the main light and turned on the bedside lamp, thereby tuning down the alarming colours, the room was cosy, clean and, most importantly in New Zealand at this time of the year, warm.
As most of our party were hungry, we went downstairs to the pub, which was warmed by a roaring fire, and got ourselves a seat in one of the booths on the side of the room, settling ourselves at a table covered with a cheerful red and white gingham tablecloth. I wasn’t hungry but the food ordered by the other three – Blackball Salami Company sausages and mash, fish and chips, roast of the day – seemed to go down well, and I have to say that I had no complaints about the rather strong gin and tonics that arrived from the bar.
Breakfast, which the men were already eyeing up at dinnertime, was a star turn from this odd little place. One of our group had enjoyed sausages from the Blackball Salami Company the previous night and we were delighted to see that company’s sausages and black pudding featured on the breakfast plate along with bacon, tomatoes and scrambled egg. The egg, as is the case every where I’ve had scramble for breakfast, was overdone and rather solid but copious amounts of wholemeal toast and my own cafetiere of good strong coffee ensured that I wasn’t complaining. The fact that it was a one-woman show – waitressing, cooking and totting up the bills – meant that there wouldn’t be any point either.Breakfast was accompanied by the hotel terrier, who sat at our feet and sometimes on our laps, and beautiful silver-grey cat who jumped onto the seat behind us to look over our shoulders. It didn’t bother us – in fact we welcomed the attention – but I could not see it going down well with anyone worried overmuch about germs.In an effort to settle the huge breakfast, and because it was dark when we arrived, we went for a wander around Blackball by daylight. This is rugged mining country and the working class village was a coal mining community in the early part of the century, but the mine ceased production in the 1960s. Blackball is also noted for being one of the early hotbeds of socialism – and wouldn’t you know there was an Irishman involved. In 1908, first generation Irish immigrant Pat Hickey led the famous Blackball coal miner’s strike. Formerly The Blackball Hilton has a formidable supply of books and newspaper cuttings on the history of the town – something to get stuck in to if the weather on the West Coast is as wet as generally advertised.We had hoped to visit the award-winning Blackball Salami Company factory but, this being a Bank Holiday Monday, the doors were firmly shut. Fortunately the owner of the hotel had a couple of salami in the fridge so we didn’t come away with our hands hanging. We took the Original Garlic, a delicious non-fatty, richly flavoured salami, and have been enjoying it in sandwiches, on crackers and with pasta ever since.Besides the historic aspect to the area, there’s not much to see in the town itself but Formerly The Blackball Hilton is well worth a detour if you are travelling down New Zealand’s West Coast. It is also worth making sure that the Blackball Salami Company is open when you visit. Otherwise, ask the lady behind the bar – she may even have a few to sell herself!Formerly the Blackball Hilton is in Blackball. Phone: 03 732 4705 or 0800 4 BLACKBALL