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An island apart

The revamped Rotoroa Island in the Hauraki Gulf is open to the public for the first time in 100 years.

By Sarah Heeringa

One of four gorgeous beaches on the island, Ladies Bay was for women and children only, with men swimming at the adjacent Men’s Bay 

What to do with society’s inebriates? Early last century, the solution was to isolate chronic drunkards in an island rehab facility. Now in new hands, the revamped Rotoroa in the Hauraki Gulf is open to the public for the first time in 100 years.

The Sally Army has over the years earned the respect of many a hardened cynic for their long-term commitment to helping alcoholic sufferers and their families. In just one example, in 1907 they bought Rotoroa Island from the Ruthe family so they could set to up an alcohol (and later drug) rehabilitation retreat. Rotoroa was where chronic alcoholics went to dry-out and it was off limits to all but staff and those for treatment. The first patient committed to The Army’s care was from Invercargill and before Rotorua’s Hamner Springs was established, the island attracted more than 12,000 voluntary and involuntary committals from all over the country. In its day, the island was almost completely self-sufficient in terms of feeding its population, even exporting products such as wool to Auckland. The Army recognised that working on the land helped give people new skills and keep them busy, so inhabitants caught fish, kept herds of cattle and sheep, made their own dairy products and cultivated orchards and huge veggie fields for vegetables, fresh fruit and jam. As well as a place to battle the demon drink by dint of the island’s isolation it also became an early model of self-sustainability.

Tournament shields are displayed in Rotorua’s exhibition centre; holiday home serenity featuring decorative croquet mallets from a collection of sporting equipment 

In 2005, The Salvation Army dis-established Rotoroa in order to focus on its nationwide community Bridge programme. It’s at this point that the island might have been snaffled into private ownership by some big spending celeb wanting an island retreat – but thanks to the generosity of philanthropists Neal and Annette Plowman and their Rotoroa Island Trust, the Island has instead been restored as a public arts and heritage estate for all to enjoy.

A new exhibition centre tells the island’s story and heritage buildings such as the jail, chapel and schoolhouse have been restored. Around 20,000 pine trees have been felled and chipped and replaced with nearly 400,000 plants propagated from local seed. New changing sheds, showers, toilets, barbeques and walking trails have all been added, and a predator eradication programme is now underway.

Even better, not only can you now visit the island as a day trip, since late 2011, you can also stay overnight. The island’s 1960s and 70s style homes and have restored to modern standards of comfort but decorated using furniture and collectables from the island’s store rooms. Original Salvation Army equipment (mostly 1970s vintage and onwards) including newly trendy crockery, cutlery, teapots and glasses, has all been put back into service. And when fitting out the island’s new accommodation, interior designer Gill Warren went through the island’s a treasure trove of old signs, maps, tournament shields and stencils as well as scouring second hand dealers to find bits and pieces to re-use. The result is a decorative style that’s authentically Kiwi as well as remaining true to the islands unique history.

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