Tucked away on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, in Queenstown, New Zealand you will find the Sherwood. The official description, I guess, would be to call it a hotel but once you have stayed here you quickly come to the conclusion that this is so much more. I am EXCITED about the Sherwood, LIKE I’M WRITING IN CAPITALS EXCITED because this is a destination that welcomes all - and I’m not just talking about the folk that have a reservation. This is a community hotel (perhaps the first of it’s kind) who takes the basic ethos of respecting nature and applying it at every level. Spending your dollars here FEELS good, not just because it is the coolest place in town, with the best chef and coziest digs (it actually feels like it could be your home) but because these guys really give a shit about the impact their business is having on the planet and their local surroundings, people included.
What is a sustainable hotel? We find out in this inspiring interview with co-owner Sam Chapman...
Interview by Felicity Bonello
There is a big emphasis on connection at the Sherwood; to the environment, the people that work there, the integration between the landscape and the hotel itself. What motivated connection?
We just feel it’s our job – you come to a place to get an understanding of it. Well most people do, that’s why we travel and what travel’s about, and through that, if you understand your own place in the world, you might be a bit better at the end of it or at least appreciate what you would call home. And, I guess, we feel it’s our job to give people the best understanding of this place on any given day and that goes from the types of products we use, to the types of experiences we create, just by working with local people that are the best that we can find at what they do.
Whether it’s a workshop or whether it’s a wellbeing class or it’s a touring band staying for a couple of days – that’s what we do and mostly that’s what people trust us to provide for them and what they come here for.
What led you to this project? Why sustainable?
The core founding value for the first part - was people. The second (really simplified) was respect for nature. One of the reasons people come to visit is the landscape; the natural beauty of the environment and that gives us our social license to operate. So, seeing that as a privilege and given the fact that our industry is entirely based on consumption, we thought ‘how can we do this in a way that has respect for nature?’
It started out at quite a simple level during refurbishment: at that scale it can be a really wasteful process so just tried to make choices based on how can we do this in a way that creates the least amount of waste and has the least amount of environmental impact - so that was in what we chose ‘not’ to take out. We took a life cycle approach to what we did, which also aligned with being reasonably realistic about this – we had a quite a small budget in the scheme of probably how most hotels would approach a large scale renovation.
We had a look, from a really pragmatic sense, at what the biggest impacts the business had and they were energy and waste; so because of the scale of the place and because of the architecture we had no shortage of roofs so we started there – with as much solar as we could put on the roofs. I think, at the time, it was the largest private install in the country, I think it’s been eclipsed by now but at the time it was significant. Originally, we were trying to have 100% renewable energy on site but the reality is, in summer and winter in the sunlight hours, we probably get to about 50% - it will only get better.
When it came to waste beyond the refurbishment we went through how could reduce as much operational waste as possible; and that was really picked up by staff. Our F&B (Food and beverage) side of the business is now down to half a bin per week that goes to landfill from a restaurant that does 100-150 meals a night. It’s amazing. It started with a conversation with our biggest supplier asking, “what would it take to have our produce delivered not in plastic?” – you kind of go through a few tests and then things like that instantly halve the amount of plastic we were receiving. Then, we would literally empty our bins, see what was in there and we realized that 50% of what was going in there didn’t need to.
Now, literally every organic scrap of matter goes back into the garden and all the rest is, largely, a process of elimination.
A grand irony of operating down here is that we’re one of the best wine growing regions in NZ and yet, because our wine program is largely natural wine - so no preservatives with very little winemaker interference - the wider New Zealand market for that particular product is quite small. We approached our local producers, a couple that we really admired and asked if we could guarantee a certain volume to underwrite would they be prepared to make wine in bulk, so we could bottle it on site here. That started out in the first year as a fairly limited program and now, three years in, it’s 60% of the beverage sales and the wine makers are literally making wine to be drunk and this is the only place in the world where you can get it – plus it’s from some of the best wine makers in the country.
We’ve been in a process of discovery as we’ve gone on and those things that work tend to really work and I guess we’re figuring out the areas perhaps not to focus on; we’re trying to pick those things that have the biggest impact.
Sitting on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, with views of the Remarkables Mountain Range, Sherwood is a one-of-a-kind destination. Throughout the reno phase, how important was it to work in with the existing natural environment? How did it influence the decisions you made?
In terms of the built environment it’s a funny old thing; when we first started talking about the idea of doing a hotel, we were, well I was, idealistic and imagined something mid-century modern with great architectural boots. So when presented with a 1980s Mock Tudor, it’s probably even a double mock by the time that style arrived in New Zealand, my first reaction was you’ve got to be joking.
In terms of the context in which we operate, we’re bloody lucky, so I guess our approach here is quite simple: it’s in planting as many native trees as possible and that will gradually limit the impact of the built environment and connect us more strongly with the natural environment. Unfortunately Mock Tudor is never going to be anything else, it is what it is and we started from the outside and tried to make things more healthy because it hadn’t been touched for 30 years; we tried to create a healthy, cozy and highly functional space and gradually layer it with more and more good stuff.
There’s something nice about Mock Tudor though, it has a familiarity to it...
It’s kind of humble. It’s vernacular architecture. It’s got a personality and, at the end of the day, it is about the people; if we can create a place that feels like a great place to be, I think that’s the most valuable experience we can provide. It’s been a great stepping-stone for us. We’re really lucky that it has scale and space to do things that are really rare in hotels. Having a place that has a variety of buildings and a bit of space allowed us the flexibility with what we could do and we could create something that didn’t actually just feel like a hotel.
What eco-friendly elements can be found in your guest rooms?
I guess starting with the room fabric itself, through the refurbishment we tried wherever possible to use materials that were really low impact starting with gyp; we chose this two dimensional product, you could put some paint on it or wall paper on it. A healthy part of that was trying to keep the room’s dry, warm, well insulated and also to have good acoustic properties.
We found, out of Portugal, this amazing recycled cork compound, which has got a beautiful sort of texture and really great warm, cozy colour so we lined as many of our walls as possible with that - which has got great insulative and acoustic properties as well. The carpets have been replaced with tiles so that, occasionally, if you spill a glass of wine, which happens, you can replace a tile rather than having to throw the whole thing out. And then it just so happened that the best carpet we could find was around 90% fishnets - so it was recycled fibre in them.
All the furnishings we had manufactured using recycled metal. When using timber we just tried to use timbers that were renewable; then through to the lighting we found an LED with a light quality that was cozy and had a heritage feel. In terms of soft furnishings we used up cycling where we could, and in trying to get really good curtains we found a lot of French military blankets that were beautiful and heavy wool which make great blackout curtains if you want to sleep in. We took recycled saris and sewed edging on them, we use great sustainable New Zealand suppliers for the mini bar, the toilet paper, we make our own soaps so again we’re not using packaging…
It’s been fun and that’s the nature of the producers you end up speaking with, they’re really interesting people. They’re real businesses, they’re like-minded. We’ve probably just kept on going cause it’s satisfying and it tends to for the most part deliver the best results. It’s got to be good business though. It’s actually got to give a better result because otherwise it’s just too much work just to make yourself feel better; it’s got to actually make a difference.
Are we bringing our kids to Sherwood or is it more of an adult stay?
Absolutely, we’ve all got children and the place is pretty geared for kids and we encourage them. I guess, as well, we come from a place where kids aren’t packed away in kids club, we set up the dynamic that you’ve got to be grown ups at the same time though; so we don’t give kids a ‘kids menu’ so to speak but hopefully we’re flexible enough we can create something simpler. All our staff know enough to create food for kids of all ages and then with the activities, hopefully you can enjoy these as much with your kids.
Lets talk about The Sherwood’s food offering. Can you tell me about your resident chef?
Kane Bambery is… Well, part of it is the maturation of New Zealand culturally, we’re now getting to a place where we know enough about ourselves and we have enough confidence to start to tell our story through food – but Kane’s unique in that he’s got a really amazing classical grounding in cookery. He has been taught the deep traditions of classical French and European cookery which is then underpinned by his Maori heritage - he has a lot of the same core values as what our business is built on – he looks at how to provide people with a sense of place and time through food and aligns that with sustainability.
Kane is great at building relationships and also, through his own Maori heritage, there’s a confidence to be able to use some of those forgotten ingredients, that aren’t traditional ingredients, that can only be found through foraging. I guess you need a deep understanding of flavour and how to use them appropriately too.
Kane connects us, as well, through tribal relationships to other producers we may not have had access to before so we have some of the more interesting seafood, some of the more interesting herbs. Additionally, kind of almost by accident as it was never part of the original brief, health became a part of our food. Kane has also picked that up and worked that into his food in a really interesting way. It does feel really progressive in a sense.
Sustainable practices and a respect for nature lay at the heart of the hotel. How can guests make the most of their stay at Sherwood?
I really hope just by talking to us. Make yourself known. Let us know what you’re interested in. And we’ll do our very best to pull everything we’ve got together to create a good experience for you. I guess it’s just engage with us. Hotel experiences can be funny things and sometimes you do just feel like vanilla un-demanding experiences – a room with a TV where you can switch off – as I said, there’s loads of places that do a really good job of that but I just don’t think it’d be sensible to compete with that.
I hope what we can be good at doing is trying to create the best experience and most enjoyable experience while you’re here. Yeah, take a moment to have a chat with us and let us know what you enjoy. Come out of the room. We’re really blessed with having some really interesting people starting to call us home now whether they’re working here or living in the local community and use this as their local.
You can meet some really great people while you’re here and hopefully between all those things, we can tell you all the spots to go to that don’t actually cost you any money – where you can take a great picnic to or catch a great sunset or have a swim in a waterfall. There’s loads of stuff here and a huge percentage happens to not be in town - and also happens to be not a paying activity.
Can we expect another Sherwood to pop up somewhere?
We definitely hope so. That’s the end goal. We’re working on another project at the moment; it’s fascinating, we’ll probably know in another two months whether it’s going to come off. It’s quite different. It’s to do with living and there’ll be an eco-tourism aspect to it. It’s all about timing – but we’ll let you know more about that soon…