Monday, May 17, 2004

What's Happening at The Hermitage?

When one thinks of The Hermitage Hotel at Mt Cook visions of luxury and grandeur are what spring to mind. How unfortunate it is when the reality does not meet expectations. Unfortunately that was my experience on a recent overnight stay there. My partner and I had chosen to visit Mount Cook as the last stop on a 2000 kilometre trip around the South Island. Because it was our last destination before heading for home we decided to treat ourselves and shell out that little bit extra so we could stay in an establishment we’d normally avoid for reasons of cost. As it transpired it was a decision we later regretted.

Getting a room was simplicity itself as it appeared to be the low season (May) and vacant rooms were available. Even though the Hotel wasn’t jammed it seemed to be doing good business with a substantial number of Asian tourists about. The desk service was good with staff friendly and helpful but that’s where the positives end. For just a tad over $300 we got a double room with ensuite. It would have been more than what we were prepared to pay normally but with dinner and breakfast thrown in we decided to give it a try. The reputation of The Hermitage was such that we were looking forward to the cuisine with keen anticipation.

The problems began when we got to the room. The view from room 443 in the Wakefield Wing was spectacular, however the state of the room was less satisfying. The bathroom was quite frankly a complete disgrace. The bath had at some stage been cracked and subjected to what can only be described as sub-standard repairs. Traces of mould were clearly evident between the bath tiles and a crude attempt to make the bath non-stick had been made with rough strips of roughened tape laid crookedly along the bottom of the bath. It is the Kiwi nature not to complain (part of our British Heritage perhaps) but in this case I have to go against all my instincts. The night before we’d stayed at the Radford Alpine View Motel in Te Anau and for the price of $130 we’d got a double room with fully modern (and clean!) bathroom complete with spa-bath. It is a little disappointing when a motel can quite comfortably outstrip what’s regarded as a premier hotel in such a basic area. In a nutshell The Hermitage’s $300 plus room left a lot to be desired. Nevertheless my partner and I chose to shrug off our initial disappointment. Surely, we reasoned, the dinner that awaited us would make up for it. How wrong we were.

Our expectations of the dinner were partially based on my past experience at The Hermitage. Well over a decade ago, during part of my varied and diverse career path, I worked in the hotel’s kitchen for a period of a few months. While the years have possibly left a rosy haze over my recollections I do emphatically recall the extremely high standard to which the kitchen operated. Different areas of the menu had their own specialist chefs. The level of expertise was high and the attention to detail and quality was extreme. The kitchen did have a large turnover in staff (mainly kitchen-hands and the lower trained) but the chefs were exceedingly competent in their craft. So imagine our disappointment when we went into the Alpine Restaurant and were confronted with a buffet service. The quality of food on display was roughly equivalent to that one might experience at Sequoia 88 or Valentines, not what you’d expect of The Hermitage. In fact I have to apologise to the aforementioned establishments and say while I’ve only dined at them very infrequently I’ve never known their chicken to be undercooked. Not only was the chicken pink but also the lamb was tough and the King Prawns appeared very near their use by date. Most of the food was either tired, poorly presented, or just not that appetising. It was not just the mains that weren’t up to par, the dessert, normally the highlight and most looked forward to part of the meal, proved less than satisfactory. The fruit tarts were bland and the melon slices were so hard one risked bending a spoon while attempting to dismember them. I don’t know what changes, if any, have been made in the kitchens since I worked there. Nor can I speak for the quality of food is in the hotel’s Panorama Restaurant. But what I can say is this; it was a distinctly forgettable meal.

Disheartened and very disappointed, and not a little upset, my partner and I then retired to our room to soothe ourselves with a hot chocolate before turning in for the night. Even this seemingly simple pleasure was quite literally soured. Upon sipping the beverage it just tasted wrong, something my girlfriend also remarked on. It turned out the milk left in the room’s fridge was one day short of its expiry date and the fridge it was in hadn’t been turned on so it had gone off. The milk was sour and so too was our opinion of The Hermitage.

The problem is simple. For the money we paid the experience simply wasn’t good enough. Such shortcomings shouldn’t be present in any hotel let alone one that has such a prominent reputation. With thousands of overseas tourists coming through its door every year what sort of impressions are they taking away? While costs and value are a relative thing if what we saw was the norm it’d be fair to say those frequenting the Hermitage are not getting value for their money. Location alone cannot be used as an excuse for its tariffs when it falls down in so many areas. I’ll happily accept a buffet service is an appropriate option. But surely if guests are paying $300 a night it makes sense to make it an exceptional buffet, and not something any local budget restaurant can achieve. If one was to write a report card for The Hermitage the concluding comment wouldn’t be “can do better”, it’d be “should be doing better”. I hope that will be the case in the not too distant future.

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