Historic TopHouse enters new era

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 13:00 28/12/2012

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After a career in the European travel industry, a small St Arnaud guesthouse with a rich history is giving Jennifer Sloots her next challenge.

Ms Sloots has taken over TopHouse, the 19th century, 10-bed guesthouse a few kilometres from the St Arnaud township. It's been a traveller's stop for decades, and now Ms Sloots intends to make it a destination in its own right.

She's given it a new name, TopHouse Historic Guesthouse - with a new capital H to distinguish it from the Tophouse settlement - and is planning a new focus for the former inn.

It's all part of what Ms Sloots envisages as a healthier economic future for rural tourism in the region, which is ideally placed to capture people from Murchison, Blenheim and Nelson, all about the same distance away.

"There's so much history in the place that is still connected to today," she says. "I had someone in just the other day and his great-grandfather had run the telegraph office in the early 1890s."

Some of that history is infamously grisly; the veranda roof still bears the blast holes from a double murder-suicide that happened there in 1894. But Ms Sloots intends to build on those old stories to create a more boutique experience than the former drover's rest has offered before.

Ms Sloots grew up in Christchurch, and first visited the Nelson Lakes region in about 2000. She loved the look of the place; like a European lakeside town "without discos and pensiones [boarding houses] and no traffic jams".

"It amazes me how many people in Nelson don't know the lake," she says. "St Arnaud is the South Island's best-kept secret."

Her experience in the tourism industry began with a sojourn to Europe at the age of 21; that trip turned into 25 years of running tours and special incentive packages for corporate employees, giving them "the experience factor".

"I was paid to take people on holiday," she laughs. She's developed a sense of what people want when they're travelling and plans to put that to good use at TopHouse.

When she returned from Europe she lived nearby, in the Howard Valley, and had already been helping out at the inn before she took it over. She saw the potential in the place then. "It's not just a cafe to me; it has so much potential."

She took the business over in October, and has made several small changes so far; introducing high teas to the menu, and turning a small room off the main dining area into a shop selling local crafts such as children's bags, hats and artwork. But her main focus is on what TopHouse and the rest of the area can offer people in the future.

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She's pitching the guesthouse at groups holding events such as corporate retreats and hen's nights. "TopHouse can be a retreat but on the other hand it can be the place where you can have a massive party and no-one can worry about it," she says. The place is fully licensed and the bar is still New Zealand's smallest, apparently, though she points out that TopHouse is also a great place to bring kids. "I want this to be a family-friendly property."

For families and backpackers, there is self-catering chalet accommodation with four beds each, and she has been busy developing a few different attractions and local tourism connections, including gold-panning and "Funky Farmer's Golf" - giant golf balls and clubs included. She envisages people skiing for a day at St Arnaud and spending the night at TopHouse, relaxing by the fire with mulled wine, instead of driving all the way back to Nelson; a European apres-ski experience without the crowds.

She'd also like to create a space for locals to hold workshops in craft, healing, art, gardening, cooking, fitness, and other skills.

To this end she has set up a company called CountryLife reTreats. "Being out in the countryside is a totally different experience," she says. "Fantastic landscape, perfect for doing outdoor activities, and a different feel to just having a workshop in town."

She also wants to help encourage local business - there is no doctor or hairdresser in the town, for example. "In order to have a healthy community we have to have healthy businesses."

- The Nelson Mail

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