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The Hermitage Hotel at Mt Cook celebrates 125 year milestone

Jen Andrews - 29/08/09

There were hugs, laughter and tears of joy at the beginning of June 2009 as 250 people reunited from around the world to celebrate the landmark 125th birthday of a Kiwi icon - the Hermitage Hotel at Mt Cook.

Generations of Aoraki Mount Cook's close-knit community caught up with old friends and workmates at a huge three-day birthday bash on Queen's Birthday weekend.

They were there to pay tribute to The Hermitage Hotel, the 'grand old lady' that holds a special place in the hearts of those who have ever visited or lived in Aoraki Mount Cook Village, located deep in the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and World Heritage area.

From its modest beginnings in 1884 as a 12-bed 'cob' building to the 217-room combined hotel, motel and chalet complex of today, the hotel has played a huge part in New Zealand's pioneering history. It's been a home away from home for climbers like the late Sir Edmund Hillary, and hosted innumerable guests, dignitaries and celebrities from around the world.

However, for past and present Aoraki Mount Cook residents what brought them back to their roots was the sense of community that has forged lifelong links. The Hermitage has not only been the lifeblood of local employment; it's been a hub for the good times and bad - parties, romances, weddings, wetting of babies' heads, mountain rescues and memorial services.

The tiny community is one of the only places in New Zealand where only those who work there are entitled to live there with their families. You can't buy a house (all houses are owned by concession holders) and you can't retire there - a difficult concept to accept for those who fall in love with the place.

The Sir Edmund Hillary Centre

Reunion attendees also enjoyed exploring what's new at Aoraki Mount Cook – not least the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre, which celebrated its official first birthday on the same weekend. For many it brought back personal memories of the man they considered a friend and mentor.

The Centre is designed to educate, entertain, and pay tribute to Sir Ed as a legendary Kiwi, humanitarian, ambassador and one of the world's greatest explorers. The 3D movie, planetarium, museum, and stargazing deck showcase the region and its people, and there's a dedicated Hillary Gallery depicting Sir Ed's longstanding connection with the region and his achievements, expeditions and life's work.

The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre Museum is located adjacent to The Hermitage Hotel in Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village, within the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and World Heritage area.

From trash to treasure - rare Sir Edmund Hillary memorabilia donated to the nation

Rare Sir Edmund Hillary memorabilia unwittingly destined for trash has instead been recognised as priceless national treasure.

Film footage and a radio interview recording of Sir Edmund Hillary, both more than 50 years old, have been unearthed and copies now reside in the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre at Aoraki Mount Cook.

The film footage, shot in 1957-8, shows Sir Edmund boarding the Endeavour and leaving Christchurch for his famous Antarctica expedition.

From left: Ron Webster (CB Norwood), Sir Edmund Hillary, J H Miller (nickname Bob) and John Crampton (CB Norwood) in front of the Endeavour.  Ferguson TEA tractor behind, about to be loaded on the ship.
From left: Ron Webster (CB Norwood), Sir Edmund Hillary, J H Miller (nickname Bob) and John Crampton (CB Norwood) in front of the Endeavour. Ferguson TEA tractor behind, about to be loaded on the ship.
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The original 16mm black and white film was brought to light by CB Norwood, an iconic Kiwi farm machinery company which has been operating for more than 60 years and provided the five Ferguson TEA tractors for the Antarctic expedition.

CB Norwood Media Manager Rob Edwards says it was squirreled away in the loft of its Palmerston North-based offices.

"We were clearing out some junk in the loft and they were nearly thrown out. Thankfully someone thought to check and when we watched the footage I realised we were looking at an amazing piece of history, not just for us but for the world."

"We knew we had to share it with everyone and in the process support Sir Ed's Himalayan Trust, a cause so dear to his heart. That's why we decided to donate a copy to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre at Mount Cook."

"What better way to keep his story alive and inspire future generations?"

The radio recording is believed to be the only copy of a live ABC Australia radio broadcast with Sir Edmund Hillary in early August 1953, not long after he completed his historic Everest climb. It was discovered amongst books and papers purchased from a deceased estate in Sydney, Australia.

Hotel History

The first Hermitage was built in 1884 under the direction of Frank Huddleston from Timaru.

Access was initially by horse-drawn coach service from Fairlie (a two-day 'bone shaker' which now takes a smooth 90 minutes) which later progressed to service cars.

First Hermitage Hotel built in 1884
First Hermitage Hotel built in 1884
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After nearly 30 years, bad weather and floods took its toll on the original Hermitage building and a series of floods destroyed it beyond repair while the second Hermitage was under construction.

By the time it opened in 1914, service car provider The Mount Cook Motor Company was expanding to keep up with visitor demand. Keen to keep The Hermitage open throughout winter, in 1921 it took over the lease and developed camping facilities and package tours.

Second Hermitage opened in 1914
Second Hermitage opened in 1914
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In 1944 the lease expired and The Hermitage was returned to the Government. Disaster struck in September 1957 when the second Hermitage was razed to the ground in a spectacular fire.

The third and current Hermitage was built and operational by May 1958 and was run by the Government-owned THC (Tourist Hotel Corporation).

In 1990 the hotel returned to private ownership and is now jointly owned by Trojan Holdings, a company owned by the Davies family of Queenstown and the Valentine family of Dunedin.

The original accommodation wing, now known as the Mount Cook Wing, still stands today. Numerous additions have been made, notably:

1967 - Glencoe Lodge

1969 - Panorama Restaurant

1973 – Chalets

1975/76 – Motels

1977 – 40-room Wakefield Wing

2001 - $20 million makeover to all public areas and new 60-room Aoraki Wing.

2008 – $10 million Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre opens.

The Hotel today

The Hermitage today
The Hermitage today
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The hotel's range of facilities makes it a popular venue for weddings, conferences and parties, where two restaurants and a café have floor to ceiling views of Aoraki Mount Cook.

Today The Hermitage is an icon of superior accommodation and dining, and a world-renowned tourist destination.

The Hermitage is a spectacular 55km drive from the Lake Pukaki / State Highway 8 turn-off and is four hours from Christchurch (272km) and three hours from Queenstown (330km).

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