Irish Charm in Kaikoura

By: Jill Malcolm, Photography by: Jill Malcolm


Jill Malcolm shares her latest adventures and experiences from the road; this time stopping in at the cozy Donegal House in Kaikoura

Irish Charm Reflections of an Irish past.jpg
Reflections of an Irish past

Like many others in the 1860s, Davy and Richard Boyd left their homeland to seek their fortunes in the goldfields of Australia and New Zealand. Years later the Irish brothers settled in the lowlands of Kaikōura and carved from that wild landscape a large and profitable farm of lush pastureland. They urged other members of their family to emigrate, and today their many descendants and the name Boyd are closely connected to the Kaikōura region.

When Davy and Richard first spotted Kaikōura in 1896 they must have thought they’d come full circle. The mountainous landscape and rugged coastline bore a strong resemblance to their home in Donegal county. And when we first came across the Donegal House hotel settled snuggly in the shadow of Mount Fyffe, I too was transported for a moment to that Gaelic Island on the other side of the world.

Irish Charm Photographs of earlier times adorn the walls.jpg
Photographs of earlier times adorn the walls of the hotel bar

This charming replica of an Irish cottage (only one exterior door is authentic) was built by Davy Boyd’s great grandson, Murray Boyd. In 2015 Murray, who has also published a book recording the family’s fascinating family history, developed an RV campground adjacent to the hotel and its landscaped lake and grounds. Stay there and it would be almost impossible to avoid an evening at the hotel where locals and visitors mix and find fun, music, Guinness and good food.

A large fire roared in the grate on the frosty winter’s night we arrived. The ambience inside the hotel’s bar and restaurant was warm, friendly, and comforting in contrast to the nippy world outside. Irish jigs and songs played on two large screens, the walls were plastered with evocative images of old Donegal and everyone was in good spirits as they mingled over drinks before sitting down to dinner. The food was just as warming, Irish but with Kiwi accents, such as crayfish chowder, pan-cooked salmon, and blue cod with chips. The bangers and mash, braised lamb shanks with carrots and peas, or rib eye steak accompanied with a glass or two of Marlborough wine were also an antidote to the big freeze alfresco. The brave finished off with sticky date pudding, Guinness brownies or Irish whiskey liqueur ice cream.

The warming interior of the Donegal House bar and restaurant
The warming interior of the Donegal House bar and restaurant

We had a marvellous night. In such a congenial setting it was easy to start up conversations with other guests. There were about 20 RVers in the park that night and it was unlikely any of them kept to themselves. Post-lockdown it was also, no doubt, a welcoming sight to the hotel’s staff to see so many visitors turning up to fill not only themselves but the management coffers.

We met locals, hotel guests up for the weekend from Christchurch, and RVers from all over the country – from Taranaki, Whakatāne, Dunedin, Greymouth, Nelson, Wellington and ourselves from Auckland. Such a gathering was a good illustration of how many New Zealanders there were on the move.

Irish Charm Leaving the camp ground at Donegal house.jpg
Leaving the camp ground at Donegal House

Our host enjoys mingling with his guests. At one point he disengaged from the bar to play on his accordion a jingling rendition of Happy Birthday to a celebrating guest. Such was the atmosphere, I half expected an Irish fiddler to come out of the woodwork to accompany him. Murray told me that his greatest passion, apart from his Irish connections, is his horses. He is a well-known breeder-owner of standardbreds and has enjoyed some great successes. All his horses are named with the prefix Donegal.
The walk back to the motorhome was filled with the magic of the night. Coolness spilled out of the moonlight that washed across the lake and gardens. Mount Fyffe wore a glistening shawl of snow and the sky glittered with a myriad stars. On a night like this it was easy to see why many descendants of the Boyd family have never wanted to leave this remote spot on the east coast of the South Island. Neither did I.

A place to stay

Donegal House Kaikōura and the sizeable adjacent campground for self-contained vehicles is set at the end of a long driveway off Schoolhouse Road. The fee for a powered site is $30 a night and owner Murray currently offers NZMCA members a discounted fee of $20 per night.

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