The early days of the Tuakau Hotel

A tale of Tuakau

A restored hotel is once again the heart of this small community, writes Jill Malcolm.

For the curious mind, New Zealand never stops turning up stories. If I dig around, places that seem to hold little of note at first nearly always come up with something surprising. A few weeks ago, I focused on a small rural town in Franklin, a few kilometres north of the Waikato River, that hitherto I hadn’t thought worthy of notice.

Driving into Tuakau’s main street, I spotted an interesting building lodged behind a row of palm trees, and I wasn’t surprised to learn it had once been the heart of the town for over 100 years. Tuakau Hotel is one of those old taverns that provided locals and travellers with places to gather, drink and eat, back in the 1800s – they were the social hubs of most rural communities. Many of those old wooden buildings did not survive, succumbing to fire, neglect or development. But those that were saved still lend character and context to the communities they have served for so long.

A liquor licence was granted for the Tuakau Tavern, as it was then known, in 1875. The building has survived, but neglect and the ravages of time gradually took their toll. By 1978, it had fallen into disrepair. In that year, 103 years after it was opened and then owned by DB Breweries, the doors were finally closed.

Then in 2011, a local couple, Neil Young and Dee Bond, bought the old pub with what must have been a leap of faith. Passionate about the fortunes of the town, they were determined to rescue the building and reinstate it as the town’s social centre. And 10 years later, when I discovered it, they had obviously succeeded.

Destinations: Te Urewera National Park
NZMCD Entrance of the Tuakau Hotel as it is as it is today
Entrance of the Tuakau Hotel as it is as it is today

The modernised Tuakau Hotel has a four-and-a-half star rating and is once again the main attraction of the town. The way the couple has elevated its status while maintaining its original character must have been challenging at times, and the financial input would have been substantial, but the result is impressive.

Through the main entrance, a sunny terrace leads into an extensive main bar and lounge, which centres around a large fireplace and displays several strategically placed television screens. One of them caters for racing enthusiasts and stretches the length of one wall. Tuakau is a short drive from Pukekohe Park, a horse and motor racing venue, and locals and visitors keenly follow those sports, if not in reality then on screen. The dining room and bar serve hearty and reasonably priced pub meals such as roasted chicken breasts, pork belly and lamb shanks, followed by desserts including cheesecake and lemon meringue pie.

Photographs of the hotel in the early days add interest to the dining room. Among them is an incongruous image of a New Zealand five-dollar note depicting Sir Edmund Hillary. The hills of Tuakau were fields of dreams for Ed when he was growing up. His father was the publisher of the local newspaper, and Ed went to Tuakau Primary School before commuting by train to Auckland Grammar School. He’d probably spent time at the old hotel, and there is no doubt about the celebration in the bar when in 1953, news came through that the man from Tuakau had made it to the top of the world. Then in 2008, another gathering in the now modernised bar/lounge would have watched a TV broadcast announcing that their local hero had died.

Discovering McKenzie Country
NZMCD View over the Waikato river and the Tuakau Bridge Holiday Park
View over the Waikato river and the Tuakau Bridge Holiday Park

Ed’s town, however, is very much alive.

“It’s a great little town and has a wonderful community,” says the hotel manager, Tasha Foley, who has been there eight years and doesn’t intend to leave. “There are a lot of large and small businesses close by, and others are developing.”

One is the Tuakau Bridge Holiday Park, another enterprise developed by Neil and Dee, the saviours of the hotel. It’s a lovely spot on the banks of the swirling Waikato River where it rushes to meet the Tasman Sea at Port Waikato. There are several cabins, facilities and 10 fully developed hard-stand and powered sites for CSC RVs; more are planned.

“Our community has a bright future,” says Tasha. “Tuakau is one of those places that stayed quiet for a while but is now up and coming.”

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