Throughout its almost 160-year history, Dunedin’s iconic Wains Hotel has had many tales told about it. Built in 1862 by Job Wain during the height of the Otago gold rush, the building stood out on Princes Street with its elaborate, Italianate-style architecture. At one point, it was said to have housed a secret bar, the owners flicking on a light to tell patrons when it was safe to enter.
Though they are blocked now, a network of tunnels is connected to the building, once used to run gold from the former bank down to the waterfront. There are even ghost stories circling around, though I can gladly say I didn’t come across any spectral encounters during my stay.
Re-opened in late 2020, the property is now the five-star boutique hotel Fable Dunedin, and this luxury accommodation option marks a new chapter in the building’s storied life. The refurbishment, which was led by luxury design house Y-6, took almost three years to complete.
The goal was to bring the building into the modern age without losing its Victorian-era elements, according to Y-6 director Suzanne Lear. “We wanted to preserve as many of the beautiful ceiling details, the scotias, the facade and the stairs. The beautiful windows were preserved and we did replace one in the balcony room on level one. This was replaced as closely as possible to the original in timber, and locally made. The building was such a beautiful blank canvas, hiding beneath layers of beige.”
One of the most striking features is the building’s black and white facade. The original ‘Wains Hotel’ is etched across the first floor, with gold accents dotted about, a nod to the gold-mining history. Look closer and you’ll find curious carvings – Neptune with his wife and children, an American eagle and the Prince of Wales feathers, inscribed with ‘qui va la’ (who goes there).
As you step through the glass doors, you’re kindly greeted by a well-dressed concierge attendant and handed a welcome refreshment. The lobby is an elegant blend of classic and contemporary, with modern artwork and lighting fixtures alongside carefully preserved heritage elements, such as the grand staircase.
“Wains Hotel has history intertwined into its very walls. The original lift still runs from the lobby to the Princes Street building,” says Lear. “The past is everywhere in the building.” Bringing this “grand old dame” into the 21st century was incredibly challenging.
“The historic buildings in New Zealand weren’t built with a modern building code in mind. We had many challenges to overcome before we started to paint the picture that is what we now see as Fable Dunedin,” Lear explains. “Nothing is straight. There is a staircase that leads up to what were once the staff quarters in the attic that is on a distinct lean. It has been made perfectly safe and sound, but the lean will always be there!”
The 50 guest rooms and suites are luxuriously appointed, with moulded panelling on the walls and muted tones inviting you to slow down and retreat. Tartan blankets, commissioned from Warwick Fabrics, are a nod to Dunedin’s Scottish roots.
“The concept originally conceived for the hotel was that of the Englishman, Irishman and Scotswoman: Job Wain, who started Wains; Thomas Bracken, who formed The Press Club, and Catherine Wain, Job’s wife,” explains Lear. “We brought in a layer of textiles to represent the three nationalities – the tartan blanket was one of these layers. There is also linen [Irish] and a houndstooth tweed [English].”
Downstairs you’ll find a restaurant and bar that continues the Wains Hotel story. Named after the city’s first literary club, which was formed in the hotel in the 1870s, The Press Club is a sophisticated homage to the famous literary haunt.
The original club was founded by acclaimed poet and author Bracken (who is credited for writing the national anthem), and would host the city’s writers, journalists and publishers for lively debates and discussions. Today, guests can taste dishes inspired by the deep south from acclaimed chef Jinu Abraham, along with an extensive whisky menu and a decadent high tea experience, served daily.
A HISTORICAL TOUR OF DUNEDIN
Located in the heart of the city, FableDunedin is the ideal jumping-off point for exploring historical architecture.
- Olveston Historic Home transports you back to the early half of the 20th century. The lovingly preserved Edwardian home gives visitors a look at life in a different time.
- Take a drive up the scenic Otago peninsula to the only historic castle in New Zealand. Learn about Larnach Castle’s rich history, dating back to 1871.
- Departing Dunedin Railway Station, oneof NZ’s most significant examples ofEdwardian architecture, the historic train winds through the remarkable Taieri Gorge.