Tophouse Historic Hotel


Set beside a quiet gravel country road, just 7 kms from St Arnaud village in the Nelson Lakes National Park, the Tophouse historic hotel has a lot of stories hidden in its thick cob walls. Built in 1887 (which is very old for a New Zealand building) it has been an accommodation stop and local bar almost continuously since that time.

Sitting out on the sunny verandah, overlooking rolling valleys of farmland and native forest, listening to the hum of bees on the roses and the crowing of distant roosters, there is no reason to think that anything has changed in the last 130 years. But inside, the espresso machine, the wifi and soft comfortable beds bring us back in to the 21st century.

There's history here, layers of local history, as the surrounding area has been slowly cleared for farming, or protected as national park. There are two nearby ski areas in winter, lots of holiday accommodation and a vast network of low and high country walking tracks around the lake and through the high mountains surrounding it. This is serious alpine country and many of the tracks require a level of hiking experience. All require vigilance as the weather can change quickly.

But back to Tophouse. Current owners, Miles and Helen, have been here a few years now and can tell many stories about the long and colourful history this place has seen. The current building is the third Tophouse, the initial one being built in 1846 on the first sheep station in the Wairau Valley, towards Blenheim. The second was built in 1859, higher up the valley towards the pass.

The third, and current one, was built in the 1880s by Ned James, a master of cob construction, and it still stands strongly today. In 1895 its history was marked by a tragic shooting, with the bullet holes still evident in the cob front wall of the house. Various owners followed with a major restoration through the 1980s and 90s. A small bar, the smallest in New Zealand so they say, was added in the 1930s and, until the Licensing Commission cancelled their licence in a bureaucratic purge in the 1970s, it held the longest running liquour licence in the country. This has since been reinstated and the beer is flowing.

Accommodation at Tophouse is simple but comfortable. The B&B portion of the house is still in the traditional style of accommodation with private bedrooms and shared bathroom facilities. A full breakfast is served each morning at the long shared table. Four self-contained cottages sit out back, with an extensive view of the mountains surrounding the lake.

Tophouse is a magic spot, laced with history and blessed with a beautiful setting, while being close to a stunning natural environment. Hiking, boating, skiing (in winter), fly fishing for wild trout, and good old-fashioned relaxation, make it an ideal stop on the road between Blenheim and the West Coast, or from Nelson.

Over the years the stories of this place have gathered in layers like the well-laid cob of the walls. Its history and timeless feel make for a gentle relaxing stay, in one of the oldest accommodation houses in New Zealand.

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© Sue Farley