Famous. Infamous. Curious. Haunted. Unmissable.
Lots of words have been used to describe Formerly The Blackball Hilton. They’re probably all a little bit true. All we can say is: it’s iconic.
Originally built in 1910, the hotel-pub-and-restaurant’s rise to prominence has paralleled that of the place it’s part of – Blackball. A mining town about 30kms inland from Greymouth, Blackball is famous for its rich and rebellious history, in which locals have regularly proven the power of collective action.
It’s a beautiful place, full of wonderful people. And at the heart and soul of it all is Formerly The Blackball Hilton. A one-of-a-kind institution, it is a symbol of this place and the people who live here. It’s Blackball in a nutshell.
Originally ‘The Blackball Hilton’, its name was always meant to be a piss-take of the hyper-luxurious Hilton hotels. It seemed someone didn’t quite get it though, and in 1992, a cease and desist letter arrived from the global Hilton headquarters.
True to the spirit of Blackball, the owners at the time weren’t just going to roll over. A legal battle ensued, until eventually the Hilton crowd decided they couldn’t match it with the West Coasters, and an undisclosed sum was offered in exchange for a name change. The owners took the money, and again, in true Blackball spirit, simple added ‘Formerly’ to the – thereby keeping the piss-take well and truly alive.
Step inside and you’ll see why it’s talked about with such awe and enthusiasm. There’s local characters telling tales of legendary parties and having robust political discussions. There’s quirky toilets, history books, dress-up boxes, an intentionally craft-beer-free drinks menu… and even the odd ghost.
Current owner Cynthia Robins is coy when asked about rumours that the place is haunted. “Depends who you talk to,” says Cynthia. “Ghosts don’t necessarily stay in one place, do they?”
It’s also not uncommon to spot the odd Swanndri inside. Fashion here in Blackball focuses on the practical aspects of comfort, protection, durability and versatility. Why buy two jackets – one for the farm and one for the pub – when a Swanndri can be both?
Cynthia, coincidentally, has a black Swanndri jacket that she wears all the time for exactly that reason. She’s inside and outside a lot, so needs gear that blurs that boundary between rugged and refined. “It’s bloody cold out back, but the bar’s really warm, so I just keep my Swanndri on.”
She tells us the story of an old boy at the pub who, just the other day, brought in an old Swanndri that he’d “grown out of” (we reckon the epic meals here might have something to do with that) and gave it to another grateful punter.
For us, it was a nice example of the spirit of this place – and perhaps why Swanndri gear goes down well here. It’s a hardworking and generous community. Sure, there’s gold in the hills and pounamu in the rivers. But the real treasures are found at Formerly The Blackball Hilton. The good characters and great yarns. The genuine hospitality and hearty food. The down-to-earth attitude and extraordinary spirit of people who are not afraid to stand up to the big guys – and who will always have a laugh while they’re at it.