Don Kavanagh: Going down the country

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Provincial pubs serve up a wealth of character and laughter with the ale and food, finds Don Kavanagh.

The wonderfully bizarre interior of Smash Palace Bar in Gisborne. Photo / Alan Gibson
The wonderfully bizarre interior of Smash Palace Bar in Gisborne. Photo / Alan Gibson

"Down the line", as Aucklanders refer to pretty much everywhere else in New Zealand, is truly a different country.

Despite Wellington's excellent cultural attributes and great nightlife, Christchurch's earthquake-interrupted pleasures and the charms of Dunedin, Aucklanders still seem to think that the rest of the country is hopelessly substandard.

It isn't, of course, it's just different.

South of the Bombays is a strange, sometimes dangerous, place for city types, but it has its own charms, as anyone who is visiting foreign climes during the Rugby World Cup will realise.

I spent a decade in what is widely regarded as the armpit of New Zealand - Palmerston North. I'm not ashamed to admit I loved the place, too. Sure, it has some of the country's - and possibly the world's - vilest architecture. Busloads of Albanian tourists would pass the city council building marvelling at its heroic ugliness.

But the city was redeemed by the people and the presence of one of the greatest pubs in New Zealand, The Celtic Inn. I was back there recently and I was delighted to see the Celtic was still as great - and as different - as ever.

This is the joy of "down the line" - finding unheralded gems in the unlikeliest of places. Wherever you go out of Auckland there are similar treasures - the Sunshine Brewery in Gisborne, the Whakatane Hotel, the Duke of Wellington in Dunedin and Arrowtown's Blue Door, the country abounds in drinking taonga.

They tend to do things differently there.

On a weekend in Awakino we decided to go to the local for lunch. Upon seeing strangers, a local engaged me in conversation. Noting I was sitting out on the deck with the womenfolk, he said he'd come and say hello. He did. Trousers around his ankles, he shuffled out, his odd gait explained by his having a large dinner plate wedged between his buttocks.

"Since there were ladies here, I thought I'd bring a plate," he announced, dissolving into laughter.

They aren't all like that in the vast hinterland. So I hope that when you get away for a break you enjoy the wealth of culture this country offers. If you're lucky, someone might even bring a plate.

* Don Kavanagh has been involved in the hospitality trade for more than 25 years and is the editor of Hospitality magazine.

- Herald on Sunday

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