The Southernmost Castle in the World

One freezing morning in Dunedin, I had a day to kill and plenty of adventure left in me (even after the Rakiura Slog just days prior). As I investigated, I soon discovered that, high upon that rugged Otago peninsula outside of town, there are many activities to take part in. I was immediately sold on the penguin colony tour (I happened to see a super-rare species of penguin, and luckily I wasn’t in any position where I might accidentally kill one – did I mention I nearly killed a penguin before?) and Pukekura was a great place to spot seals, but hidden in plain sight amongst the forests and hills is a grand estate called “Larnach Castle”. I scoffed – a castle? Sure, Aotearoa New Zealand is known as the land of hobbits and magic, but no way somebody built an actual castle here ...right?

The music room – there are pianos behind the camera. There was no reason for it to reek of smoke.

Okay, I’ll admit it, it’s not really a castle, but that’s what everyone calls it anyway, so the title’s not clickbait!

This “castle” has a colourful and morbid history associated with it. It was built in 1871 as the home of the eccentric (and tragic, as we’ll soon discover) William James Mudie Larnach. Born in Australia, he travelled to Dunedin during the Otago goldrush in the 1860s. He was to become an incredibly successful businessman and used his hard-earned money to build a house for his family – fairly standard stuff. The house he was building, however, was anything but standard. It was ludicrously expensive since it not only used expensive construction material like marble, but much of the material was imported from all over the world – glass from Venice, slate from Wales, bricks from Glasgow, and cobble from Marseilles, just to name a few. It also looks like a little castle with its central tower complete with crenels and merlons (the “up and down bits” on a castle wall, respectively) that rose out the top of the building. So locals started calling it “Larnach’s Castle” and the name stuck. Enjoying his new-found notoriety, Larnach entered politics and represented the local area on and off for close to two decades.

However, Larnach’s life was to enter a tailspin that lasted about as long as his political career. When the economy started to falter, land and timber prices fell, which is where a lot of his finances were tied up. He became insolvent, but the Castle was in his wife’s name so he didn’t lose it. However, she died soon after (he ‘inherited’ the Castle). Nevertheless, he got his money troubles sorted and was back on his feet. But not for long: the Colonial Bank of New Zealand collapsed in 1894, of which Larnach was a shareholder, so his money woes began afresh. His second wife also passed away. Further compounding his grief was the death of his eldest daughter Kate, whom he doted upon (for her 21st birthday, he built a ballroom for her. I didn’t get a bloody ballroom for my 21st. I’m not bitter, I swear…). Unsurprisingly, he reportedly became a heavy drinker and chain smoker, and with his other kids either grown up and out of home or away in England securing an education, he was to become a miserable recluse within his Castle.

That straw on the proverbial camel’s back came in 1898. Apparently, his third wife was shacking up with his son – yikes. He caused a media frenzy (to put it mildly) when he locked himself in a room in Parliament House in Wellington and committed suicide. Since he died outside Otago, there were legal issues that compounded inheritance (I’m not sure why, since I’m not an expert on 19th century Kiwi inheritance law), and the family was unable to come to a compromise over who got what, including the Castle. After nearly a decade of intense and bitter argument, the castle was sold, along with all its furniture. Regarding Larnach’s body, he still managed to be interred in an impressive mausoleum in Dunedin Cemetery, which happens to be a scale replica of the First Church in Dunedin, which in itself is a majestic house of God just outside the Octagon in the centre of town. William Larnach was larger than life, even in death, it seems.

Larnach family tomb in Dunedin, the most prominent edifice in the cemetery. Fun fact: I was wearing socks but no shoes when I took this photo. It had been raining and my socks were drenched…It’s a really long story, okay?

For sixty years, the grandiose Castle lay abandoned, falling into significant disrepair and disappearing from the memories of the locals. No wonder it’s supposedly one of the most haunted locations in Aotearoa New Zealand. There have been reports of the strong stench of alcohol and tobacco in various rooms and sighting the ghost Larnach himself wandering about. Apparently, he is not a very happy ghost (shock horror), pushing visitors, tripping them up and generally causing trouble on purpose. Personally, I copped a strong whiff of tobacco smoke walking into the music room, despite no cigarettes anywhere nearby. I can’t say for sure if it was my mind playing tricks on me, but I didn’t find out about the hauntings until afterwards, as is usually the case when I go to haunted places and experience something paranormal. Also, regardless of your stance on supernatural phenomena, one of the bedrooms is downright creepy, – all sorts of bad juju going on in there. Not somewhere you’d want to spend time in during the day, let alone all night.

Anyway, the Castle had brief stints as a mental hospital and a US army base during WWII, but it wasn’t treated with much dignity or respect. That is, until 1967, when it was bought by a couple who have since then spent all their time restoring it. It used to look like Fry’s house from Futurama, but you’d never guess it by how well maintained it is today. The glass that encapsulates the external verandah (because, let’s be honest, Dunedin weather is pretty shocking at the best of times) has been replaced, the central staircase restored and the gardens replanted, now featuring flora from all over Aotearoa New Zealand (and some from other parts of the world too). The couple have even gone to painstaking efforts to track down and purchase the original furniture owned by Larnach himself. That’s dedication and passion, and definitely something to appreciate as you wander around the Castle.

Needless to say, its reconstruction attracted a lot of attention, just like its initial construction turned plenty of heads a century before. People wanted to visit and the couple wanted to share their efforts with the public, so it was fitting to open the property up for visits from the public. It quickly became popular, and renovation and restoration works have been funded by tourism ever since. There are now regular tours, in-house events and even accomodation on the grounds – not in the castle itself, although the birthday ballroom has been converted into a nice café. As a side note, I got a really gnarly fork that I was expected to use to eat my cake. The sticky caramel and creamy goodness make me forget about the utensil I was using, but I had an extra walk through the gardens to stay healthy (as if 15 minutes of sauntering was gonna burn off all that sugar!).

It doesn’t take too long to explore the entirety of the Castle – it’s smaller than you expect- but there’s something in every single room for you to marvel at and enjoy (except that one bedroom, screw that bedroom). Sometimes when walking outside the Castle you immediately feel like you’ve teleported to some faraway land, where you’re trespassing in an abandoned jungle ruin. Make sure you navigate the gardens once you’ve explored the castle. There are magnificent views and a serene stillness as you can feel the salty ocean air cling to your skin, which is refreshing even in Winter when its 5 degrees. There are fantastic artworks for you to enjoy, or just have a leisurely stroll and ignore – I’m not your dad, do whatever.

If you want to visit the Castle, you’ll have to drive there, and I’ll warn you that Aotearoa New Zealand roads are pretty shocking once you leave major urban areas. To be fair, they are paved and maintained, but the ‘highways’ on South Island are just overglorified country roads; they’re narrow, steep and windy out of necessity (South Island is incredibly bumpy, especially the West Coast). The upside is that you’ll always be enamoured by the pristine natural landscapes you’re travelling through, but make sure you keep your eye on the road – there’s always a steep drop waiting for you! Regardless, Larnach Castle is definitely worth twenty minutes of crummy roads, especially once you climb up the tower and look over the trees and across the rolling hills towards the bay, where sightings of albatrosses, penguins, seals and dolphins are not unheard of. It also feels incredibly humbling, which is odd given its eccentricity and extravagance. Maybe because you understand that it was built to be a man’s home and not as part of a strategic line of defense in case prithee an ænemy approacheth. Maybe it’s because you can see the passion that’s been poured into the place for over half a century (it was never done for profit, but rather purely out of love). Or maybe it’s because it’s quite well hidden and not “in your face” as some other magnificent old buildings are, meaning you had to seek it out on your own volition instead of being reminded of its existence every day.

William Larnach may not have enjoyed his time in his castle, but maybe you can.

Bonus: Look at this fork – What is this!? The cake tasted great though.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: