Sitting down to a candle-lit table set beneath the dim light of a Victorian-era chandelier, it was once just men who filled this room drinking whisky, smoking cigars and playing cards. The ladies sat in the drawing room opposite drinking tea and embroidering. Vogel, Stout, Seddon and Ward – four of New Zealand’s former Prime Ministers – have all been entertained in this very room.
Dining in the library of Larnach Castle, perched in the heart of Dunedin’s Otago Peninsula, it is even more enchanting by night than it is by day. With the fireplace to my right, I’m surrounded by delicate golden-framed Victorian paintings and rows of old books. While dinner is usually served in the traditional dining room down the hall, this unique experience of the castle by night is exclusive to Larnach accommodation guests.
New Zealand’s only standing castle – the other is but a shell of its former glory – Larnach Castle has undergone a lengthy revival spanning more than 35 years. Climbing up and down the carpeted spiral staircase disguised behind Venetian glass panels, it feels like nothing ever changed.
From the master bedroom to the music room and the stunning detail of the entrance foyer, 20 per cent of the trinkets and antique furniture are originals from the Larnach residence. In display cabinets, 19th-century guns, costumes and jewellery provide a personal touch of insight.
Started in 1871, it took 200 men three years to build the extravagant home and another 12 years for European craftsmen to embellish the interior. Four levels high, don’t miss the small spiral staircase that leads from the top floor up to the castle tower for a birds eye view across the entire estate.
Looking at the gothic revival style from the front, I couldn’t quite pinpoint what seemed so peculiar until someone remarked on the Queenslander-style verandah wrapping around it. While the original blueprint has no such feature, William Larnach insisted on it.
An Australian who made his money as a banker in the goldfields of Bendigo, Larnach moved to Dunedin as the first president of the Bank of Otago. In a land full of Maori names, places of significance and intriguing stories, the Larnach legacy reveals much about a different side of New Zealand’s history.
A colonial pioneer, Larnach was a Member of Parliament, a farmer and a businessman. As a politician he was on the Board of Directors that coordinated the first shipment of meat to England – the nation’s biggest industry to this day. He also raised the funds to build New Zealand’s first railway. An extraordinary man at the time, his personal life was just as intriguing.
Spanning three wives and six children, questionable family ties, controversy, deaths and suicides wind and weave a story that resembles a 19th-century Kardashian plot. A lot of drama and tragedy unfolded here. After taking his own life with a single pistol shot to the head in a committee room of the House of Parliament, William’s prized castle was sold to the government.
It was then transformed into a mental asylum, a retreat for nuns, a hospital for shell-shocked WWI soldiers, and then a lookout for the American military at the beginning of WWII. If only these walls could talk.
But it’s not all doom and drama. The Barker family brought the castle back to life from ruins after purchasing it in 1967, including the overgrown castle grounds. Many people come here just to see the impressive gardens, which have been crowned a ‘Garden of International Significance’.
In the process of restoring the gardens closest to the castle, a 1930s rock garden was rediscovered along with the original raised lawn set around a marble fountain hailing from Pisa in Italy.
Surrounding the entire castle, themed gardens emphasise the native flora, from delicately designed flowerbeds to fashioned hedges and tall unruly rainforest. Wandering the grounds guided by a map, I was completely flabbergasted at the view from the South Seas Garden.
Set on a hill overlooking the sparkling blue Otago Harbour, sprawling panoramas reach all the way to the Pacific Ocean over perfect green peaks.
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Passing Margaret Barker passionately working away at the top of the garden, it’s refreshing to know that the Barkers still live in the bottom level of the castle, originally the workers’ quarters. Seeing themselves as the guardians of the castle, they recently commissioned a historian to create a conservation plan, ensuring that ongoing changes are completed to best heritage practice.
One of the very first restorations they made was to the original ballroom. Restoring it back to its former splendour and adding a café for visitors, it was these funds that fuelled the start of the overhaul.
Now more than just a castle, Larnach Castle offers three accommodation types so everyone can feel like a true prince or princess. Just metres away, the budget-friendly Larnach Stable Stay was converted from the coach house, while Larnach Lodge is the middle-range option with the same panoramic views as the South Seas Garden.
Tonight I’m staying at Camp Estate, the glamorous new manor house just 500 metres up the road. Standing on land that was originally part of the Larnach estate, the Barkers bought back the land as part of their vision to preserve and enhance the castle experience for future generations.
With not a neighbour in sight – except for sheep grazing pastures on the hills out the back – Camp Estate offers privacy and luxury complete with highly attentive hosts. Margaret herself uniquely decorated each of the five rooms in the art deco neo-classic style. It’s obvious not a detail has been spared.
The fireplace in the lounge downstairs is the perfect place to warm up and relax, particularly around 6pm when guests mingle over complimentary canapés and drinks. Come breakfast and leaving is so difficult – less than a day around the castle estate feels like much longer.
It’s peaceful and rejuvenating, from the historic castle walls to the serenity of the gardens and the exquisite overnight stay. Taking the recommended walk into the hills behind Camp Estate for more amazing views of the peninsula, I spot the castle tower poking out of the tree line, a single flag flapping in the wind.
New Zealand’s last-standing castle is purely magical, whichever way you look at it.
Air New Zealand offers connections to Dunedin through Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington. Dunedin is a four-hour drive south of Christchurch.
Larnach Castle offers three accommodation types. Larnach Stable Stay has shared bathroom facilities and a guest lounge. Larnach Lodge offers 12 themed 4-star rooms, all with private ensuites, fridges and modern amenities. Camp Estate is a luxury Country House complete with five exquisitely designed rooms featuring fireplaces and all the mod cons you could possibly want.
Dinner in the castle is reserved exclusively for guests of all three accommodation types. The menu includes a range of delicious entrees, mains and desserts, along with New Zealand wines from the castle cellar. Menu choices must be made by 5pm on the day.