In the Backwoods of Blackball, Not Your Typical Hilton

When we set out on this journey, I consciously hoped for authentic experiences that would take our family to offbeat, out-of-the-way places. I wanted us to meet locals, learn about their history and culture, and improve our ability to cope with unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable situations.

A recent 24-hour period gave us that kind of experience in a remote corner of the South Island’s West Coast region — in part because I was gullible enough to fall for a joke.

A vintage advertisement for The Blackball Hilton, "Cheapest In the West" (click to enlarge).

A vintage advertisement for The Blackball Hilton, "Cheapest In the West" (click to enlarge).

Many months ago, when I was mostly ignorant about New Zealand and starting to plan our itinerary here, Morgan and I heard of a mountainous trail race that finished at The Blackball Hilton and decided to sign up. The Hilton was part of the draw. What a treat it would be, I thought, to stay at an upscale, familiar hotel chain after so many budget motels and campgrounds — and convenient, too, since it would be right at the finish line. I can still recall the mental picture I had of a typically plush Hilton lounge and lobby.

Only after we registered for the January 16 race did I google Blackball and discover the “Hilton” is a creaky Victorian inn and pub built in 1909, located way off the main road in a dying mining town with only one general store and a couple hundred residents.

“I would never stay here again,” shouted out one TripAdvisor.com reivew. “The rooms had layers of dust and dirty carpets.” Another detailed, “There are many quirky things about this hotel — the dolls staring at you as you turn round a corner upstairs. The poetry in the toilets and washrooms. The gallery in the middle of the upstairs with the drawings and paintings of ladies of the night. The monkeys looking in at you as you sit on the loo.”

In 1992, the Hilton Corp.’s lawyers demanded that the hotel drop the trademarked Hilton name, and the rebellious innkeepers responded by changing the official name to “Formerly The Blackball Hilton,” which it  has been ever since.

Hmmm, I pondered, more curious than appalled — maybe it was meant to be that we stayed there. Perhaps part of the adventure of running the remote race would be staying in a historic hole in the wall. I contacted the owners, Chris and Viv, about our babysitting quandary (initially I erroneously assumed “the Hilton” would have a kids’ club or childcare to supervise Colly and Kyle while we ran the race), and they told me no worries, they’d keep an eye on the kids and let them have the run of the pub. I took a deep breath and had faith it’d all work out.

One of the dilapidated buildings on Blackball's main street, with the mountain range in the background that our January 16 trail race traversed.

One of the dilapidated buildings on Blackball's main street, with the mountain range in the background that our January 16 trail race traversed.

Driving to Blackball is like driving back in time to the early 1900s, to the kind of one-store mining towns you can still find on back roads of Colorado. There is no cell phone coverage, no Wi-Fi. The Blackball Hilton looks as though it was lifted straight from an old Western flick. When I first looked up at the second-story balcony, I half expected to see a floozy lady of ill repute looking busty in an off-the-shoulder pioneer dress.

Instead, I saw a mix of fit-looking runners and working-class barflies milling about. Newspaper clippings and old photos hung on the walls, detailing Blackball’s colorful history as the proud birthplace of New Zealand’s Labour Party. Coal miners went on a three-month strike here in 1908 for a half-hour lunch break and ultimately prevailed.

Morgan on the balconey of the Blackball Hilton.

Morgan on the balconey of the Blackball Hilton.

Kyle takes notes on the Blackball Hilton's role in the mining town's history as the cradle of the country's Labour Movement.

Kyle takes notes on the Blackball Hilton's role in the mining town's history as the cradle of the country's Labour Movement.

The Blackball Hilton today is a cross between a museum and vintage boarding house, each room sporting a different color theme and wall paintings that look inspired by Romper Room. When I crawled into the creaky, collapsed bed and stepped on the spongy floorboards near the communtal shower and toilet down the hall, I tried not to think about all the people over all all the decades who had used them before me.

I checked out our room and tried to make sense of the sponge-painting art, which resembled mold. "We're sleeping here?"

I checked out our room (lucky number 13) and tried to make sense of the sponge-painting art, which resembled mold. "We're sleeping here?"

One of the fanciful dorm-style rooms at The Blackball Hilton. Notice how some are old hospital beds.

One of the fanciful dorm-style rooms at The Blackball Hilton. Notice how some are old hospital beds.

Overall, though, it wasn’t so bad. We had a great meal (veggie lentil burger for me, chicken curry for Morgan, burgers for the kids — yum) with friendly service, and we got to chat with some of the other visitors from throughout New Zealand who were there for the trail run. The kids thought it was cool and made themselves at home. The following morning, while we gutted out the trail run, they played in the pub and garden with other kids hanging out at the finish line.

The Blackball Hilton's pub is rarely empty like this. Each piece of memorabilia on the walls has a story behind it.

The Blackball Hilton's pub is rarely empty like this. Each piece of memorabilia on the walls has a story behind it.

As for the race? Well, we survived and my time was a PW, which is short for “personal worst.” I wrote a race report for my running blog with details. (Here’s an excerpt: “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, no question about it,” Morgan said matter-of-factly as we shuffled along. His eyes looked sunken, and dried sweat and sunscreen gave his face a ghostly pallor. Did my husband really age 20 years in about four hours?)

Most people reading this will never find themselves near Blackball, off of Highway 7 on the South Island, and I wouldn’t recommend an overnight there — though it is worth a stop for lunch or dinner. What I do recommend, though, is seizing opportunities to stay in unexpected, unfamiliar and even uncomfortable surroundings. Our overnight at The Blackball Hilton, coupled with the strenuous trail race, goes down as one of the strangest and most challenging days of this trip. Getting to know this weirdly wonderful and gritty corner of New Zealand definitely deepened our understanding of the region and its people, and it made us more seasoned as travelers.

I’ll never stay in a real Hilton without remembering the one in Blackball and reminding myself that creature comforts are luxuries, not essentials, and sometimes the most memorable learning and living takes place when stripped of them.

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  1. Pingback: Race Report: New Zealand’s Crazy Croesus Crossing | Sarah Lavender Smith on February 6, 2010

13 Comments

  1. Martha Howard, January 21, 2010:

    wow. Did you actually get any sleep there? I don’t even want to think about bugs and germs… Bet you’re glad to move on from this leg of your journey!

    Love you -

    M.

  2. David W. Lavender, January 21, 2010:

    I love the carpet in room 13! (Being able to zoom in on these pictures is a real treat when there is so much cool clutter in the background to examine). The labor (“labour”) history sounds fascinating–probably with a lot of parallels to the turn-of-the-century mine strikes here in Telluride. Glad to see Kyle in his researcher’s pose. Hope you learn lots while enjoying your stay!

    It was fun to see you all looking so summery as well. We’re under a blizzard watch today through tomorrow night (2-3 feet predicted by Friday evening). Needless to say, we’re stoked!

  3. Sarah, January 21, 2010:

    I love how I can always count on my sister and brother to read and comment on my blog! I forgot to tell you guys one of the funniest things about the Blackball Hilton: When we walked into our room, Kyle said, “We all get Whoopie cushions!” He was referring to the rubber hot water bottles that came with each bed, which do sort of look like whoopie cushions. The kids had never seen a hot water bottle before and didn’t know what it was for. We explained that this is what the hotel provides for warmth, since there are signs posted on every rusted-out heater: “Do not use!” and “Do not put anything on this – Fire Danger!” Fortunately it was a warm night and we didn’t have to fill those bottles and slip them between the sheets. (And anyway, I slept fully clothed, with a hood over my head, so has not to get too close to that bedding.)
    love,
    Sarah

  4. Kelly Valen, January 21, 2010:

    Sarah, this is hilarious, right down to Lucky Room 13. You are such a wonderful writer. I am so glad you went with it, if even for a night! What a great story. Kind of reminds me of our adventure at the Madonna Inn in the Tack Room, which ended up being bordello-style with red leather and naugahyde everywhere (even bedspread). My kids loved it – but the whole time I kept trying NOT to imagine who had stayed in there before us – and what went on. Yikes! Keep up the writing. I sure wish you were coming to BKK!

  5. Martha Howard, January 22, 2010:

    ha ha ha Kyle! He says the best things!!

  6. George, January 22, 2010:

    Looks like a scene out of Psycho. Next you are going to tell me the owner is related to Norman Bates. Whatever you do, do not take a shower!!

  7. Mimi, January 22, 2010:

    What a PW place to sleep. I’m glad it was warm or the radiators probably would have made noise all night. Yes Kyle it was fun seeing you recording notes like a real home town reporter. Who got the hospital beds? Were they squeeky?

  8. Katrina, May 30, 2010:

    I have just read the comments about the Blackball Hilton hotel. I have stayed at this hotel a number of times supporting my partner in endurance events.
    I stayed the night of the croesus track run and spent the day waiting for my partner at the Hilton.
    I saw a lot of your children that day and was amazed at how much attention the owners gave to them in the form of child-minding, feeding and also bringing out a box of stationery for them to make a congratulations card for each of you. All of this while they catered for over 100 people who completed the race.
    The hotel has hot water bottles because the fear of fire in such an old hotel is very real so every precaution is taken. The signs on the heaters were so that people did not put wet clothes on top to dry. The heaters are in perfect working order (the fire safety checks NZ has ensure this). The sheets and blankets in the rooms I have stayed in were satisfactory. The rooms have been kept to their original design to show people how these hotels were in the 1900′s. Many hotels have been modernised to the point of losing their history.
    I agree the bathrooms could do with a makeover, however, you will notice that the price of $55.00 pp per night (including a cooked breakfast) was indeed very worthwhile.

    I think it is very sad that for a couple who were cared for so well in an historic town and put their children in the care of complete strangers could write such terrible things about their hotel is appalling. Not to mention the negative comments about New Zealand’s culture of small rural historic villages that are still alive and kicking. Thank god we still have them so our children’s children can experience real history.

  9. Sarah, May 30, 2010:

    Hello Katrina – thank you for your feedback, and I’m sorry you took my blog post to be such a negative assessment on the Blackball Hilton. On the contrary, I tried to portray it as a historically fascinating place, and we were grateful for the experience to stay there. The joke is that it is the antithesis of a real Hilton, and the joke was on me :-). As mentioned in the post, the owners were very friendly and their food is terrific. (We thanked them profusely in person for watching the kids that morning.) But there’s no denying it is a rough and dusty place with very worn furnishings and bedding, adorned with odd and fanciful art (as the quotes from the two other Trip Advisor reviews support). Going there and running the Croesus Crossing event was one of the highlights of our South Island tour; I loved the place and the people. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  10. Ray Spring, June 17, 2010:

    You have stayed at one of the wonderful old pubs of NZ. An historic experience, with good food and great company. What more could you want. It was New Zealand. As we were only 60 years ago.

  11. Michael S., November 19, 2010:

    I stayed at the Blackball Hilton in 1986–when it was not “Formerly”. A young Kiwi couple were the only other guests the nights I was there; I remember it well and fondly—from the hike along the old mining trails when the young couple were walking up as I was waling down–the female had removed her top, thinking no one else would be on the trail–to the Moari shearer I helped catch a sheep which had not been shorn in a year or more, but my entire 5 months in NZ were filled with fond memories.

  12. Libby, October 1, 2011:

    I live in Blackball. I have been here for two years, I moved over from christchurch. Its quite funny to see visitors perspectives of the place. I can assure you that although we have a mixed of locals here, there are also young professionals, creatives, and most of them are all very successful in their chosen field. There is cell phone coverage, and broadband internet. I love living in Blackball, although not sure i could do it without my Mac and wifi keeping me up to date with friends and family :)

  13. Pete, November 19, 2012:

    Very well written and belly full of laughs.
    Well done for taking the time out of the USA and seeing the rest of the world, especially here NZ. More Americans need to doi what you have done, as I believe if they did and had a better understanding of the ‘rest of the world’ we’d all be better off.
    The West Coast is my favourite part of NZ, as the people there are in my opinion, the most genuine.
    Am considering moving there myself from Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty.

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