Stars in their Eyes

FullSizeRenderWhen Freda Du Faur partied at The Hermitage in 1909, they moved the piano into the dining room, rolled back the rugs and everyone danced. By Christmas that summer, The Hermitage overflowed with mountaineers, adventurers and artists. One year later, Freda was the first woman to reach the summit Aoraki/Mt Cook.)

These days The Hermitage Hotel is more likely to see Asian bus tourists stretched back in chairs, ensconced in a 360 degree cinematic experience – viewing the night sky in its Digital Dome Planetarium: See the night sky like never before. Leave Earth. Fly to the edge of our galaxy and far beyond to the reaches of our known universe. So the promo goes.

Lake Tekapo in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky ReserveStars and the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – the largest dark sky reserve in the world, stretching over 4,300 square kilometres, taking in Mt Cook Village and Tekapo. And one hundred kilometres down the road from The Hermitage, Tekapo has its eyes on the stars.

John McCrone recently wrote in The Press about ‘Tekapo’s Big Bang Moment’ – how this area could be the new icon of Asian tourism…. Tekapo’s waterfront is already being carved up for commercial development: restaurants, shops and offices and an Earth and Sky star-gazing tourist attraction – they already have the Mt John Observatory. On top of that, John McCrone adds, not one, but two, luxury hotels are to be built by a developer with his finger on the pulse of the Asian market.

Unlike Tekapo’s recent wide-eyed moment, The Hermitage since 1884, has responded to the vagaries of tourism. American tour groups were once the flavour of month and the present 164 bedroom, five storey hotel is light years away from the night Freda Du Faur danced in the single storey cottage.

When I visited The Hermitage as a child sometime in the 1960s, great log fires burned in the foyer and in the lounge. Ginormous paintings of New Zealand landscapes hung above the wooden fire surrounds. The lounge’s entire front window, picture-framed Mt Cook. And around the walls, sepia and black and white photos, told marvellous stories of climbs in the surrounding mountains. But most of all I remember the tartan carpet.

In 2001 its decor adopted a Hotel-Anywhere feel when its USA South Pacific Hotels Corporation’s owners had it undergo a $15m refit. The Hermitage is now owned by Trojan Holdings, a Kiwi company. A few months ago when in the area, and always having had a soft spot for The Hermitage, I called in, to see how she was doing.

The main entrance lobby greeted us with its granite like floor, and grey fake fire. In the Panorama Lounge a half drawn curtain blocked the Mt Cook view and in front of the curtain an Asian man snoozed.

In the Alpine Restaurant pale pink chairs filled a room that must seat hundreds. Next door, the Panorama Restaurant had stacked up tables and bare walls. In the utilitarian-like café, (‘I’m sorry; we’ve run out of rice.”) And a proposed $20 visit to Sir Edmund Hilary Alpine Centre, met with “I’m sorry we’re not open. We only open when the planetarium exhibition is showing.” Ah, the stars….

But wait. Is there another star in the wings?

What about the décor of The Hermitage, as a showcase for New Zealand culture? Wow guests with high end contemporary artists as well as the iconic painters who danced with Freda Du Faur. Welcome them with open fires and with wooden floors scattered with contemporary carpets. Spoil guests with armchairs covered in fine merino. Impress them with glorious art work designed by Maori.

Throw open The Hermitage with panache, to international and independent Kiwi travellers.

It could be the star of the show.

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Janet Hart

Janet Hart lives in Nelson, where she taught English in secondary schools for nearly 30 years, before dabbling in a little historical New Zealand Art. In 2012 she took up Magazine Journalism, which now consumes her.