Bar legend’s Queenstown bolthole

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Holidaying in Canada last September, Philip Chandler ran into genial Kiwi expat Martin McSkimming at his Toronto watering hole, then again had a chinwag with him – and another beer – at his Queenstown holiday pad three weeks ago

Queenstown’s been an enduring holiday destination for a successful Canadian-based Kiwi expat.

In the ’50s, Martin McSkimming, who owns North America’s best-known Kiwi (and Aussie) bar, holidayed in a hut his father built in near-deserted Frankton.

Nowadays, the 75-year-old holidays in a flash four-bedroom pad he owns on Queenstown Hill.

‘Enduring’ is also an apt word for McSkimming’s business career, as this year, remarkably, he celebrates 40 years’ ownership of Toronto institution, Hemingway’s.

He and his then-wife discovered Canada on an OE in the early ’70s.

He’d hoped to get into the States, but that was difficult so he chose Canada and Toronto, specifically, as it was closer to Europe than Vancouver.

After emigrating for a two-year working holiday, he decided to stay on, as he’d made new friends – “I was divorced shortly thereafter”.

He initially put his accountancy training to work, but wasn’t happy so he decided instead to get into the restaurant business as he liked entertaining people and wanted to be his own boss.

He and his original partner bought a former Italian joint in what had been a hippie area of Toronto.

That partner came up with the name Hemingway’s – “we thought that would be good”.

He had the name trademarked in Canada, but says he still has ongoing battles with the estate of the famous American author, Ernest Hemingway.

McSkimming says he later found out people thought he’d only last three months “‘cos they knew I had no experience”.

The first 15 to 20 years were “hard yakka”, often working 80- to 90-hour weeks “because you had to, to survive”.

He’s admitted at one point the banks nearly pushed him over.

Now, however, he says “we do some serious business, and have done for years”.

Originally licensed for 80 people, Hemingway’s can now take 504, spread over several bar areas and three floors, and it’s nowadays handily located in a ritzy CBD area right by a subway.

Early on, McSkimming decided to theme the bar to attract Kiwis and Aussies.

One area’s the Shotover Bar, named after Queenstown’s Shotover River – “a lot of Canadians think it’s something to do with having shots”.

As to why he’s hung on, he says “when it’s working well, why wouldn’t you carry on?”

He’s now, however, selling to another Kiwi, but will stay on for the next two years – conveniently, he bought the freehold some time ago.

McSkimming says he’ll probably spend more time in Queenstown, where two of his serious cars – a Corvette Z06 and a Ford GT – are garaged, but as his partner’s Canadian, “she mightn’t like to live down here [permanently]”.

One of his favourite hobbies is skiing – he’s currently on a skiing holiday in Sun Valley, Idaho, in the United States.

“You drink a few beers, you need to keep active,” he explains.

Asked about his trademark ponytail, McSkimming says about 30 years ago many of his male staff had long hair and ponytails “and it drove me crackers”.

“Then I thought, I’ll grow mine too – and then they all cut theirs off.

“I used to walk into the bank and back out so they didn’t see the ponytail, because a lot of people didn’t accept it.

“But I’ve just had it ever since, and today young guys are growing their hair long again.”

scoop@scene.co.nz