Word first trickled down on the South Pacific Dead-Beat backpackers’ circuit- a shrine confirmed in reputation by a Kiwi friend known only as “Trash Bin.” Hardly a lead, but the mystique had been solidified- “don’t miss the Cardrona Hotel, Mick…”
As every season has its memorable sights and smells, so too does every culture have its drinking traditions, patterns that are as ingrained as holidays. Ski culture inhabits its own niche in the world of storied watering holes regaled with the memory of drunken buffoonery. Mention the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, and those in the know will shudder or smile at their respective memories, but nevertheless retain tales of saddles, wind-chapped skin, and deep powder. Step inside The Londoner in Kitzbuhel and find yourself face-to-face with the beating heart of the Austrian ski culture, a yang to the day’s yin embodied by the local ski-hill of equally notorious artifact.
…But the Cardrona hotel is something different entirely. Maybe it is the change in hemispheres, but something inside is upside down. It is every bit as rough and antiquated, and yet as proper as the South Island that it calls home. Situated on the crest of the Crown Range Road, one of three roads that New Zealand rental car companies won’t let you drive on, the Hotel rests stubbornly at the foot of the Cardrona Ski Fields.
We have no rental car. The backpacker’s budget is one of thrift, and we must economize. Fortunately a bus runs regularly from Queenstown to the ski fields. Even more fortuitous, the bus driver is a South Islander Kiwi who will not pass up on his own opportunity to patronize (and, per his pitch, “localize us to”) the Cardrona Hotel apres-ski tradition.
It is difficult to summarize a tidy explanation of why this old pub is so extraordinary. A few communal thoughts at day’s end bursting to be shared perhaps. The clapboard siding and rusted car out front. Sun sets over the Crown Range… all skiers from the fields stop in to revel in the age-old tradition of post-shralp mellow and bragging rights. And why shouldn’t they? The Hotel is a warm fire for the wayward souls who inhabit these mountains, for fun or otherwise, around which to huddle.
Upon entry you are greeted with a mug of infamous mulled wine, and a rural Kiwi handshake. Crowds gather at old tables and around fire pits, indoor and out. The wooden floors creak an endearing warmth, reflecting the memories of generations of boots, both of skiers and miners. The feeling is not unlike some pleasant fairy tale.
Then there are the Southern Alps. This entire place is a dreamland of large peaks, treeless ski terrain, steep fjords, and pastoral glory. Find yourself in New Zealand, and chances are that you are already in search of something wonderful. Make that trip a winter vacation, and new secrets reveal themselves.
Looking back on the experience now, I wonder if its memory has grown fonder with time. I realize that true transcendential experiences do, in part, deserve these lofty exultations. The time in my life and inability to visit the Hotel often do not hurt in my deifying of Cardrona, and subconsciously a standard has been set to which all apres gathering places must be measured. Not particularly fair to other worthy pubs, but these are life’s rules, and my mind just plays along.
So if you find yourself in Otago state, on a treacherous mountain road bypassing the more visited NZ highways, do me a favor and say Hi to an old friend, a legend, and the warm fire by which all of my dirt-bag backpacker memories are stoked- and don’t miss the friendly “g’day” and a mulled wine. There’s a bit of all of us who have gone before mulled into the fabric of the Cardrona Hotel, the stories, smells, and sounds… and there always will be.