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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