Seahorse Inn, NSW Sapphire Coast: A beautiful place with a horrible history

Well before the infamous shonks of the 1980s business world, colonial Australia fell under the spell of a wealthy and charismatic fraudster named Benjamin Boyd. Labelled an "entrepreneur" by the Australian Dictionary of Biography, this 45-year-old Scotsman arrived in Sydney to great fanfare in 1842 with a fleet of ships and a self-initiated bank providing bottomless credit, resulting in a staggering land-grab throughout southern Australia.

The jewel in his 1540-square kilometre squattocracy was a settlement on the shores of Twofold Bay, just shy of the whaling port of Eden on the NSW Sapphire Coast. Naming the town in his own inflated honour, Boyd envisaged Boydtown as the future capital of Australia, with the elegant Seahorse Inn the centrepiece of both the township and social life between Sydney and Melbourne.

There's no denying the vision behind Boyd's grandiose scheme; but like many of his vanity projects, construction of the sandstone inn soon stalled. Then, after exhausting supplies of convict and Aboriginal labour for both his pastoral and whaling enterprises, Boyd turned to "blackbirding" - kidnapping Pacific Islanders as an underpaid and abused workforce. In other words, Benjamin Boyd was Australia's first slave trader – a practice deemed both illegal and anathema amongst polite society, even in those less enlightened times.

Not surprisingly, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been recent rumblings proposing that both Boydtown, and more specifically, the surrounding Ben Boyd National Park – so-named back in 1971 – be stripped of their names, with local Yuin leaders hoping to replace them with more appropriate Indigenous monikers.

"I find it insulting it's been named Ben Boyd – national parks are, amongst other things, for the preservation of Aboriginal cultural heritage," BJ Cruse, chairman of the Eden Local Aboriginal Land Council and a traditional owner of the region, says. "We believe it's a slap in the face for Aboriginal people to have a national park named after a slave driver. Ben Boyd regarded Aboriginal people as vermin – we don't believe he should have the honour."

To address concerns, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service has engaged the services of an historian to evaluate Boyd's place in 19th century history, and to make recommendations. Meanwhile, Boydtown's owner, property developers Lyon Group Australia, is also examining the legal implications of a potential name change.

"The owners of the Seahorse Inn talked to myself and the traditional owners, and they have said they are going through the process to change the name," Mr Cruse says. "The last meeting I had with them was dealing with the Geographic Names Board, because there's a legal process they have to follow with a name change."

The Lyon Group has a long history with Boydtown, with former managing director Bruce Lyon purchasing the rundown Seahorse Inn in 1975 and embarking on a painstaking, decades-long restoration project.

Opening as a luxury boutique hotel in 2006, the imposing beachfront structure has since undergone several multi-million dollar renovations, with the most recent in November 2020 elevating the property to a standard otherwise unheard of on the Sapphire Coast.

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While retaining its historic façade, elegant stained-glass windows, massive hand-carved doors, a sweeping staircase and open-grate fireplaces, the interior of the inn has been transformed with new carpets, a fresh lick of paint and contemporary decor.

Upstairs, six plush and spacious guest suites offer uninterrupted views across glistening Twofold Bay to the town of Eden; while another four suites downstairs open onto manicured gardens. Massive bathrooms with free-standing tubs and double showers rival those found in five-star city hotels; while the restaurant, specialising in locally-caught seafood and regional produce, eases any possible inconvenience of the remote location.

And it's this secluded, absolute beachfront setting that makes the Seahorse Inn such a special and intriguing place to stay. Watch carefully, and you may see the blow of a humpback whale as it passes by on its annual migration; scan the sky for swooping sea eagles; or be lulled by pounding waves and the whisper of the breeze in the stately Norfolk Pines.

Take a trek up the hill to ponder the abandoned Boydtown church, never completed or consecrated; or travel further afield to view another ruined symbol of Boyd's narcissism, the never-commissioned lighthouse known as Boyd's Tower.

Indeed, for all his posturing, it seems most of Boyd's schemes eventually came to naught. After his kidnapped slaves were released – some of them walking to Sydney in an attempt to find their way home to the Pacific islands – Boyd was declared bankrupt.

After leaving the colony in disgrace in 1851 after just seven brief but impactful years, he met a fitting end in the Solomon Islands, where he was killed in a confrontation with the locals and was decapitated.

Karma, it seems, has a wicked sense of humour.

DETAILS

FLY

Qantas and Regional Express both fly direct to Merimbula from Sydney and Melbourne, with Qantas' half-priced sale ending July 31, qantas.com and rex.com.au

Note: Various travel restrictions are in place across the country that prevent travel to regional NSW. These restrictions are expected to lift in NSW and Victoria in coming months. 

STAY

Rooms at the Seahorse Inn in Boydtown from $275 per night, seahorseinn.com.au

Julie Miller travelled as a guest of Destination NSW.

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