A 163-year-old bluestone pub in the Victorian town of Port Fairy has recently reopened after a renovation turned the “fairly derelict” building into a bar, cafe and boutique wedding venue.
Builder Blair Robertson, who grew up in the town and moved back four years ago after living in Geelong, put in an offer to buy the hotel – originally called the Royal Oak, but renamed the Oak and Anchor – in 2018 even though it wasn’t on the market.
With a condemned front balcony, the building had been closed to the public with the exception of the bottle shop. Mr Robertson and his wife, Sally, saw an opportunity.
“I just approached [the owner] and said, ‘I’d be happy to buy it off you if you’re just going to leave it sitting there and not do too much’,” he said. “We managed to come to an arrangement and I was lucky enough to get it and put my spin on it.”
Since taking ownership, Mr Robertson worked with designer Chris Steel to fit out the downstairs as a bar and cafe, with lounges, tables and chairs, and an outdoor courtyard and deck.
The upper floor is designed for weddings and events, with spacious guest rooms – named after the Robertsons’ five children Dusty, Lulubelle, Beau, Duke, and Tully – and a bridal suite with balcony.
The pub’s damaged front balcony was removed during the renovation, and the existing rear extension completely replaced.
Mr Robertson looked to historic photos of the Oak and Anchor for inspiration. One image in particular, now framed in the dining area, helped him choose to keep exposed bluestone and original timber lintels in the interior, imagining that was how it might have once looked.
“I would also imagine what would be happening out the back. I tried to put my spin on that, with how it feels, with some cobblestones and a lawn area, and the big bluestone wall, so you could still see what was here originally.”
It’s Mr Robertson’s second bluestone project since returning to Port Fairy. These buildings, he says, are “not the easiest to renovate – they’re a lot of work, and they’re complex in a way,” but having grown up around them in the historic fishing village, he thinks it’s important they are maintained.
“I like to get things back to their natural state and just appreciate them for what they are, and how they were built,” he said.
The Oak and Anchor reopened while Melbourne was contained within its “ring of steel” COVID-19-related restrictions, and interstate travel was severely limited.
“We started off a bit slow and were just doing some takeaway coffees,” Mr Robertson said.
“Our website’s not even finished yet but people are still managing to find us and book in, which is nice.”
While the hotel was completely booked out on the weekend of November 21 and 22, Mr Robertson said opening during the pandemic had had its challenges. “It was a few real sleepless nights,” he said.
“Being a new business, we don’t get to access any of the government incentives like JobKeeper, so we are pushing against it a fair bit. But it is what it is.”
With changing restrictions in Victoria since March, the hotel’s future looked uncertain. “I’ve got a pub and heaps of debt, and was wondering can I open? It was fairly stressful.”
As a popular holiday spot at the end of the Great Ocean Road, roughly 290 kilometres west of Melbourne, tourism is one of Port Fairy’s main industries, attracting visitors with its fishing village atmosphere, Victorian architecture and the annual Port Fairy Folk Festival (cancelled next March due to the pandemic).
Mr Robertson is hoping things go from strength to strength now that Melburnians are free to travel to regional Victoria, but believes the full financial costs of the COVID-19-related restrictions may not be seen for some time.
“We need Melbourne,” he said, “and we need our international travellers as well. Port Fairy gets a lot of international travellers, believe it or not. And we need that to operate.”