When I think of castles, images of the Loire Valley and the English countryside pop into my head. Not New Zealand. Larnach Castle, dubbed the only castle in New Zealand is just another one of those slack-jawed surprises that awaits unknowing visitors. Hidden amongst the serene natural beauty just outside the town of Dunedin, it is the perfect starting point for a day on the Otago Peninsula.
A bit of history.
The castle’s visionary and namesake, William Larnach, was a gold rush transplant who arrived in 1867. Australian by birth, and Scottish by heritage, Larnach came to Dunedin to manage its branch of the Bank of Otago. Beyond banking he had a long and prosperous career spanning many different industries – banking, shipping, farming, landholding, politics and speculation.
Larnach Castle began construction in 1871. As Richard Hammond might say, he spared no expense. It took more than 200 workmen three years to build the Castle shell and master European craftsmen spent a further 12 years embellishing the interior, featuring the finest materials from around the world.¹ This is evident all across the building and grounds and rivals some of the European homes dating to the same period. Intricate details abound, from the hand-carved wooden paneling in the dining room to the intricate stone masonry on the facade.
A tragic turn of events.
Larnach’s first wife, for whom he built the beautiful home, died at the age of 38, when their youngest was still just an infant. He soon remarried, but 5 years later, his second wife also died. Larnach remarried a third time and things seemed to settle down, until his oldest daughter died in her twenties. Larnach never seemed to fully recover from these consecutive tragedies. With the remainder of his 6 children being educated in faraway England, he chose to take his own life in 1898. After this, his assets were torn apart in legal battles between family members. The castle was sold in 1906.
Then to now.
From the time of its selling to modern day, the castle has had many different owners and uses. Some of which include a mental asylum and housing for shell-shocked soldiers. However, since 1967 it has been privately owned and lovingly restored by the Barker family.
Decades have been spent on the Castle’s restoration, with the family taking great pains to restore empty buildings from ruin. An absolute highlight is the attention they’ve paid to assembling such a large collection of original New Zealand period furniture and antiques. This living collection showcases the craftsmanship and spirt of New Zealand in a way that cannot be experienced anywhere else in the country.
We arrived in the morning, shortly after the doors opened and began our walk through time. The lower floor is now used to display information covering the history of the castle as well as some interesting period artefacts. Next we were allowed to wander on our own all throughout the house. Beautiful light flooded the veranda and the floorboards creaked pleasantly beneath our feet, happy to be welcoming visitors. The tragedy of the Larnach family melted away and all that remained was the hard work and joy that the Barker’s so lovingly put into this place.
Every proceeding room blossomed into more beauty to be seen. Antique furnishings, century old craftsmanship and a few special touches – the dried flowers laid in the chair – all create an atmosphere of another time and place. Altogether unexpected in this adrenaline soaked corner of the globe.
I could have spent the entire afternoon exploring the grounds. We were able to explore a few connecting gardens just to the left of the main house, as well as take in a spectacular view out over the harbor before turning back. It would be an easy place to spend an entire day. If time and budget allow, I recommend spending the night in one of accommodations on the grounds. Departing the following morning is an easy start for exploring the rest of the peninsula.
I have always loved visiting old homes. It is such a different perspective of history. So much more experiential than seeing period furniture in museums or reading about how life used to be in novels or history books. I cherish the artistry of the past and am thankful for people like the Barker’s who take up the restoration of such a place upon themselves.
Plan your visit.
Larnach Castle is open daily from 9am to 5pm. During the summer months – Oct 1 to Mar 31 – Garden hours are extended to 7pm.
A regular adult fare is $31 for entrance to the castle and grounds. There is a cafe in the Ballroom which is open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm. High Tea is served in the Ballroom daily at 3pm.
If you fancy to stay overnight on the castle grounds, you can book into one of three different accommodations here. While you cannot sleep in the castle, it is possible to dine in the castle’s dining room. This can also be booked from the aforementioned link.
If you’ll be hitting up Dunedin while in New Zealand, Larnach Castle is a must.