Taranaki’s host with the most: Nice Hotel owner Terry Parkes transforms an historic home into a maximalist masterpiece


It’s almost impossible to imagine Terry Parkes as anything other than a restaurateur (which he was) or a hotelier (which he is). He and his sartorial style (here he wears his pipe-band drummer’s jacket) play perfectly into the grandeur of his boutique hotel. 

As the master of ceremonies at his New Plymouth boutique hotel, Terry Parkes is on hand to dish out advice on the city’s top spots and sights. He’s also more than ready to celebrate a marriage — or a well-lived life.

Words: Lee-Anne Duncan  Photos: The Virtue

Terry Parkes’ character is as colourful as the many coats in his closet. He’s also superbly connected and can tell you exactly where to go – in the nicest possible way – which is precisely what’s required in a hotelier.

“I can tell my guests where to find a great coffee, a fresh bagel, the new blue shirt they’ve been shopping for, or which beautiful gardens to visit – even those closed to visitors. I’ve been around here such a long time and know all the stories.”

Terry himself is an integral part of the Taranaki scene. He’s undoubtedly one of the city’s best-known figures, involved as he is in many community projects. Besides being chair of the local Arts in Public Places Trust, Terry supports a long list of projects and endeavours. He’s on the fundraising committee for the restoration of the Taranaki Cathedral Church of St Mary, just across the road from his hotel. He supports school lunches for hungry kids, and contributes to sprucing up the local cemetery – and that’s to tick off but a tiny few.

The décor in New Plymouth’s Nice Hotel nods towards the early 20th century, with its grand dining room open to guests and casual diners. “I get the feeling people want to dress up to come here. Casual restaurants are great, but it’s also nice to make an effort.”

He’s so motivated that in 2017 he received the Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit award for services to the community, business and the arts. It sits nicely alongside his citizen award from the New Plymouth District Council, and his Kiwibank Local Hero medal.

He’s also very much the type to cringe at seeing this all written down, so don’t think for a second Terry does it for the accolades. He does it because this is his city, his community. A question about his links to New Plymouth elicits one of Terry’s multichromatic phrases. “If a cat has kittens in the oven, you don’t call them ‘scones’, do you? I’m from Eltham, really, but a local boy? Yes, I am.”

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Over his life, Terry has worn many mantles. In 1984, he opened an Italian restaurant, Bellissimo, with friends (while also while working in menswear, and at a hotel at night.) Bellissimo heralded his start in hospitality. He later sold the eatery and took over the area’s first vegetarian restaurant, Steps.

“I thought I was a vegetarian, but now I eat meat. I couldn’t live without meat,” he adds in an undertone.

Terry stands in the library, where guests can relax, sip a complimentary sherry, read a book, or gaze out at the Cathedral Church of St Mary across the road.

Terry then opened the first café at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 1996, ESPresso, followed by a juice bar in 1998. “I picked up a lot of things before they were being done in New Zealand. I traveled a lot and saw things in bigger cities I thought would work here.” He’s also written cookbooks and held cooking classes.

Twenty years ago, he opened Nice Hotel with his then-partner, Chris Herlihy, a few sloping city blocks up from New Plymouth’s famous Wind Wand. Terry didn’t need to move far to do it — he was already living in the house, having bought it five years earlier. The two-storeyed wooden home — the city’s largest wooden building — was built in about 1880 as the settlement’s first free-house.

Each room at the Nice Hotel has a theme, but all contain the essentials well-traveled Terry knows a guest wants — a big bathroom and comfortable bed, double glazing, and the latest technology. “I want to be able to walk into a hotel room and not want to change anything,” he says.

Five years later, it was transformed into a hospital for the Red Coats during the New Zealand land wars. Then, at the turn of the 20th century, it became the surgery and residence for Dr George Walker, followed by his son, also Dr George Walker. Terry had long admired it.

 

“I remember being 15 and walking past this place, looking across the street at its two turrets, and thinking, ‘I’ll never afford something like that.’ So being here is a daily ‘pinch yourself’ thing.”

Terry’s roles as celebrant and hotelier complement each other well, with the hotel’s garden and deck behind the 140-year-old building providing the optimal indoor-outdoor venue. “I’ve often thought about enclosing the deck, but I think it would ruin it,” he says. “Having this deck and garden makes us very popular, especially on summer afternoons, although it’s also nice in winter. New Year’s Eve is big here, with a live band.” (And, yes, there are bagpipes.)

After Terry fulfilled that youthful dream in 1992, a doctor continued to rent the rooms that are now the hotel’s dining room and a “New York-style” house bar (many guests share their memories of visiting as patients). The back rooms — now the hotel kitchen and a suite — and upstairs rooms he shared with flatmates and his two sons. Yes, Terry has been married — something he says comes as a surprise to many who don’t know him well.

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“They see all this flamboyance, red jackets and all that, and say, ‘You have two sons? How the hell?’ But yes, I was married — and happily.”

Terry loves to reinvent, so he set about turning the large home into a boutique home-away-from-home. The hotel has six rooms and five suites, named for local attractions, such as Wind Wand, Brooklands, Puke Ariki and Pukekura. They are decorated differently “with little twists”, but all have fabulous wallpapers, fabrics, soft furnishings, as well as “interesting books and play things”.

There are dazzling chandeliers and fresh flowers, crystal decanters and glasses, a cosy lamp-lit library, and elegant cabinets and tasselled brocades, all suggestive of belle époque opulence.

Terry’s apartment, built above the restaurant, is a modern and relatively minimalist counterpoint to his hotel.

It’s a style Terry loves for the hotel, but his apartment (which he built above the hotel, accessed via a narrow flight of stairs) is in a more modern style — Terry’s “real taste”. What his apartment does share with the hotel, however, is a considerable display of New Zealand art. “I’ve collected art for years. I’m a big collector of local artists, like Don Driver and Tom Kreisler.”

Landscape designer Mike Mansvelt brings the lush outdoors into his New Plymouth home

Nice Hotel also has a fine-dining restaurant that caters to house guests alongside many a local looking for a great night out — eating “local and honest food, where you can taste your steak and fish, rather than have it smeared in sauce”, says Terry. “The original plan for the hotel was to have a small restaurant for house guests only, and I would do the cooking. But it took on its own life. Now I have five chefs, including three working full-time.”

“My personal style is contemporary, slick and clean. Maybe it’s from years of being around the hotel. The fringed brocade curtains and chandeliers work well in the hotel, but not up here.” His closet is full of colour, however, with a jacket or hat close at hand for any occasion. “I wear tails a lot, or my airforce dinner jacket, or pipe-band jacket — ringmaster stuff. I often wear a kilt. It’s all part of the package.”

While it appears a rarefied way to live — putting aside the 24/7 graft of a hotelier — Terry is quick to say he loves the simple life.

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“Some of my best times have been in a shack having mince on toast. I like to eat comfort food — roasts and mince. I love to be at the beach in a Kiwi-style bach, sitting on a sofa with its innards falling out, eating from a chipped plate and drinking from a cracked teacup. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m a snob, because I’m not.”

But he is a wonderful host. Although he has staff, Terry is usually nearby. He’ll be replete with tails, or a red master of ceremonies jacket or similar, possibly kilted, ready to mix a cocktail, pour wine, offer local knowledge, share a story, and always, always entertain. “When people come here, they’re looking for an experience. Maybe I’ve turned myself into a bit of a performing monkey, which can be tiring,” he says with a smile and a that’s-how-it-goes shrug.

Tiring also, perhaps, because for the past eight years Terry has had yet another call on his hosting/master of ceremonies talents. He’s a celebrant, rejoicing as he joins couples together in a new life, and respectfully commemorating the dearly departed.

He may live above the hotel, but Terry maintains he has all the separation he needs from his all-consuming job. “One day I went up on the roof above the restaurant, looked at the view and thought, ‘I could live up here.’ So, I built on, with just enough room for my two sons and their four children to visit. Sometimes I get up here, look out towards the Tasman Sea and feel like I’m the captain of a ship, with it all operating below me.”

“I’ve probably married about 60 couples, with about three-quarters being straight and a quarter gay. I do a lot of funerals, too, and they give me so much satisfaction. It’s an honour to be involved in the final stage of someone’s life. And quite often there’s some dissension in the ranks, so I’ve become a counselor by proxy. There’s a lot of joy in getting a family talking, brokering peace when something isn’t working. My hotel skills help — being able to talk to people and work with them. Funerals certainly make you look at your mortality differently.”

The outdoor bath-cum-spa pool on the balcony is a great place to have a glass of bubbles during a thunderstorm or a sunset.

With these strings to his bow and his community connections, Terry is living a grand life at his Nice Hotel. “I have my dream, although I didn’t plan this to be my dream. It’s happened naturally, and I love it. I love getting up every day and coming down to cook breakfast for guests, which is an excellent way to talk to them and tell them what’s going on in town.

“When this started, I had delusions of grandeur and imagined putting in chandeliers and a grand piano and having a butler and chefs and living the life of Riley. Instead, it backfired on me, and I ended up being the butler and the cook and playing the grand piano. But I’m having a great time.”

ALL THINGS NICE

Terry generally puts in an extremely long day, popping down early to cook breakfast or chat to hotel guests, working hard throughout the day, then mixing martinis for guests at cocktail hour.

“It is getting harder as I get older, and I do have to pace myself these days,” he says. “I have learned after all these years to sneak away in the middle of a cocktail party and retire. Otherwise, there’s nothing left for me. Luckily I only have to go upstairs.”

The décor of Terry’s roof-top apartment is fresh and contemporary, while the hotel below is decorated in early 20th-century splendour. “I’m a bit fanatical; very fussy. I’m always picking up things from my travels and changing things around here. Everything has to be just right.”

As for the future, Terry has no plans to move out when the hotel out-paces him. “In 10 years, I wouldn’t mind getting a few mates in and turning the hotel into apartments. Ideally, I’d keep on a chef and a housekeeper — certainly a bar — and reinstall the grand piano. That’s how I see the future here.” nicehotel.co.nz

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NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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