Route 52 between Weber and Pongaroa wound on and on. There was paddock after paddock, sheep, lots of sheep, flowering broom, the occasional farm house (rare but we did see one or two), very few other cars on the road (make that three), and no shops, no service stations, no cafes, no hotels, nothing.
Tummies were rumbling, mouths were salivating, and remarks were made about large, no forget that, huge appetites. As for me, I felt a little sick – not car sick – oh, no, the driving was too good for that. It was the sort of internal flip-flopping that occurs when you realise you might have mucked up – big time.
You see, although my inside info (Facebook conversation with our cousin who lives in Pongaroa) was that the Pongaroa Hotel would be open and that servings are generous, I hadn’t thought to book.
Perhaps I’ve been listening to too many stories about there being no room at the inn, after all it’s that time of the year, but I was worried. If a plan “B” was required it wouldn’t be as easy to execute, or as simple as driving on to the next country pub, like it is from Onga Onga to Tikokino. We had to do that back in August.
Pongaroa is about three hours drive from Napier, forty-five minutes from Pahiatua, and an hour and a half from Palmerston North. It’s a long, long way off our beaten track.
My companions grew quiet. “We know the hotel’s open,” I said, attempting a positive note. “At the very least we’ll be able to have a beer and a packet of chips.”
“Or a pie, maybe?” I said.
The silence deepened. Eventually, our driver said, “And you’ll be paying.”
Imagine my relief when we discovered this:
Not only could they seat us but that blackboard menu is a small sampling of the full menu.
The ambience was warm, welcoming, and friendly. The locals were keen to chat. And they were proud of their hotel. With good reason.
There’s a display on the back wall of Pongaroa historical highlights, including a piece of the original sarking with the carpenter’s signature.
The building was at first a BNZ bank and then a private residence. It was converted to a hotel in 1948. An old window from the bank is on display in the dining room.
“H”, our cousin, was right about the portion size. There are three fillets of very fresh fish beneath those farm eggs.
There’s a down side to all this plenty: no-one had room for dessert. We still remember our Mangatera lesson and the car trip home, more than a year ago now, when rumbling stomachs were replaced by long and loud groaning.
We opted for Irish coffees instead. And I discovered that chocolate fish and whiskey is a delicious combination – who knew.
We scored our meals. Shameful, perhaps, but there you are, we’re like that.
My companions, when challenged about the less than perfect score they each dealt out, said the following:
Companion A, eater of the huge fish meal, which he scoffed in its entirety: “There was just a tiny something missing”.
Me: “What exactly?”
Him: “I don’t know, but I’ll know when I find it.”
Companion B, eater of the hot chicken salad which she described as delicious and which, I observed, she ate quickly and without offering a taste test to anyone, scored her meal 9/10.
Me: Why only 9/10?
Companion B, a little defensively, “Look! A ten has to be perfect.” Apparently, there’s only one place she’s ever given a ten and that’s a restaurant in Auckland. It specialises in Kiwi Fusion. I don’t actually know what that is but it sounds fancy.
Companion C, eater of the largest hamburger you have ever seen in your life, scored his meal a 9/10 as well. Why? He wanted salad. (Personally, I think that’s taking the health message of 5+ a day a tad too far.)
As for me, eater of the lady’s steak burger. It had a free range egg that was probably laid the same day I ate it, the yolk oozed through the meal, the steak was melt in my mouth tender, the burger bun was perfectly, lightly toasted. It was the best burger of my life, ever! Yessirree – it was a definite and well-deserved 10/10 from me.
A Bonus – actually three bonuses
Bonus number one: Did you know that Maurice Wilkins, one of the lead scientists in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA was from Pongaroa. And he won the Nobel prize!
Bonus number two: It was chance that lead to Pongaroa being so far off the beaten track. Back in the early days there were plans afoot for the Masterton to Napier railway to run through Pongaroa. The engineering difficulties getting across the main divide prevented that and the township remained a farming community.
Bonus number three (and the best bonus): A visit and a long chat with our cuzzie. She’s a laugh a minute. And she makes a brilliant cup of tea. She also drives the school bus, the ambulance, helps occasionally in the kitchen at the pub, loves all things Christmassy, and has inherited our grandmother’s talent for gardening. The climate in Pongaroa has its challenges. It’s known to be windy and it was yesterday. She reckons her pea straw has blown all the way to Hastings. Nonetheless her garden’s thriving.
How did we rate our likely return?
Keen as (You bet!)
Good idea Maybe Could be talked in to it Not if I’m paying
You read it here first, folks. Pongaroa Hotel is our new favourite. Yes, it supplants the Duke, and let me tell you that’s saying something! This is a country hotel that has the recipe right. At a time when ten percent of country hotels close each year, the Pongaroa is where the locals come for a coffee, for a meal, to chat, and maybe to enjoy a drink.
During our drive home we were busy planning our return. In fact we’ve planned a bit of a pub crawl. It’ll take several days. From Porangahau, to Wimbledon, to Pongaroa. And I’ve discovered that when it comes to Pongaroa we haven’t scratched the surface. There’s a menu we all want to work our way through, a beach at Akitio, waterfalls at Mangatiti and Waihi, and a four day walk across farmland.
Our problem is fitting everything in and I’m not talking only about the food.
What about you? Where’s your favourite country hotel?