Set Course for the Southern Hemisphere

By Jane Canaway

Published in the Foxley Docket, UK, April 2014

TSS Earnshaw offers trips across Lake Wakatipu

From sheep farmers to gold diggers, snowboarders to bungy jumpers, Queenstown has always attracted entrepreneurs, and the current generation seems to feed off each other’s inventiveness to find ever more crazy activities.

Grass sledding? – ride up on horseback and throw in a zip-line ride while you’re there. Wine tasting? – mountain bike between vineyards, and return via jet boat or helicopter via the glaciers.

Now this creativity is also being expressed in food, wine, accommodation and service, as well as entertainment.

Declared “fit for a Queen” in Victorian times, Queenstown is still so pristine that the belches of black smoke from the grand old steamboat TSS Earnshaw as it chugs across Lake Wakatipu seem out of place. Feeding off this clean, green environment, the organic and wholefood industries are going great guns, but don’t think you have to be a vegetarian to enjoy it.

Restaurants light up Steamer Wharf at dusk

Fine wining & dining

On the hills around the town, the lush meadows are home to large, healthy herds of Merino sheep, as well as Angus and Murray Grey cattle, while the clear waters of Lake Wakatipu and its feeder rivers are teeming with introduced trout and salmon. As well as offering great fly fishing, all this tasty produce is appearing on the tables at a small coterie of restaurants that are setting an individual style in Kiwi dining.

Queenstown cuisine combines the best of the local, fresh produce – Canterbury mackerel, Fiordland crayfish, Athol lamb, and east coast oysters, gurnard and hake – prepared in a distinctive fusion style.

Michelin-starred chef Josh Emett runs the kitchen at Rata, and his menu reflects his love of slow cooking and local flavours; the NZ$60 set lunch is a great way to get a taste of his current favourites. Further out, Gantleys, set on two acres of gardens, has a stunning six-course degustation menu available with matching wines; it’s a short hop out of town, but free transport from central Queenstown is available. How’s that for service.

Another gem, buried down one of Queenstown’s labyrinthine alleyways, is Bunker, which serves a 10-course degustation Taste of the South menu with matching wines: think roasted Fiordland crayfish with house-made lemon gnocchi and crayfish bisque beurre blanc with a 2010 Amisfield Fumé Blanc. Its rooftop bar offers more casual tapas-style bites and is a great spot to enjoy a sundowner.

Shop for a drop

It is well worth making the short trip up the road to visit Central Otago’s adolescent wine industry, which is winning recognition for its clean-tasting, mineral-tangy wines. Pinot gris and pinor noir are especially fine here, as well as the sauvignon blanc and semillon that make up the bulk of the export market. There are a number of ways to explore the vineyards, but if you’re short of time you can do all your research in one location downtown.

Wine Tastes has a smart self-service system stocking more than 80 local and international wines in one shop – with comfy chairs, low tables and cheese platters for extra cosiness. Tasting notes offer some direction, then you can choose a ‘shot’ or larger measure of any wine, from the latest-vintage riesling to a Penfolds Grange, at $600+ a bottle. If you find something you like, you can order and get it shipped home (or – ahem – pop to the bottle shop next door and buy it at shelf price).

Fashionistas will be pleasantly surprised at the individuality of Queenstown boutiques. Rodd & Gunn’s has its own Southern take on green wellies and country clothing, but it’s worth hunting down the locally made knitwear.

New Zealand has devised a new wool blend – the amazing Merinosilk, made up of 70 per cent merino, 10 per cent silk and 20 per cent possum fur. Introduced from Australia, possums are now at pest levels, and Kiwis have put a lot of creative thought into ridding their islands of the cute but destructive critters, known locally known as squashums.

The end result is a totally opulent, lightweight fabric that is being dyed and used to extraordinary effect. The cost can be fairly staggering too, but you won’t find anything like it for warmth and luxury anywhere else in the world.

The hills are alive

Film-makers and skiers are drawn like magnets to the hills beyond Queenstown, and you may find you’re more familiar with them than you realise. Nearby ranges have doubled as the Swiss Alps on Milka chocolate bars; they feature as the Canadian Rockies on the front of Coors light beer and, most famously, appear as the mystical mountains of Isengard, Lothlorien and Dimrill Dale in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies.

The hills are also rich in greenstone, which drew the first maori settlers to the area more than 800 years ago. While it is no longer used for weaponry (Captain Cook described it as holding a keener edge than metal), it now inspires local jewellers to create some very fine pieces. Many artisans sell their wares at the Saturday craft market on Steamer Wharf.

One local jeweller, who owns a chain of stores in Australia, is Sir Michael Hill. His son Mark has inherited his parents’ creative talents and has applied it to his chosen field of sculpture. Many of his dramatic, large-scale pieces are dotted across The Hills, which is part golf course and partly his family’s estate at nearby Arrowtown – a beautifully preserved 1860s mining town worthy of a visit in its own right.

The Hills is an example of what happens when passion, creativity and large wads of cash collide: starting with one practice hole outside the family home, the project grew to become a golf course many regard as the best in the area, and which now hosts the NZ PGA tournament. Membership is limited to 100, but visitors can apply to play – at a price (NZ$500). While most of the work is from Australasian artists, the course is also home to a huge, 111-piece from Chinese sculptor Liu Ruowang, featuring a single man surrounded by a pack of wolves.

Matakauri Lodge – the lap of luxury

The lodge of luxury

Wherever you are in Queensland, the views – across magnificent Lake Wakapitu lake to the aptly names Remarkable Ranges – are first class, but somehow they seem enhanced when enjoyed from the stand-alone tub in the ensuite of an elegant suite or from the Matakauri Lodge’s rimless pool.

The lodge is an intimate cluster of just 11 private suites and villas dotted amid landscaped gardens in a private section of the Lake’s shoreline. It also has a private arrangement with The Hills and Jack’s Point golf courses (across the lake – water taxi available) and day visits can be arranged by the ever-courteous concierge. Ski trips are as easily arranged.

The Hills golf club recently opened its own lodge – with equally impressive views, minus the lake – catering for up for 12 guests in exclusive luxury that includes having a Michelin-trained chef on hand to prepare all your meals, yet in an open kitchen that feels more like a friend’s rather grand holiday home.

Until recently, gentlemen were required to wear a jacket for dinner at the magnificent Matakauri Lodge but with complimentary pre-dinner cocktails and canapés, degustation-style meals that change daily, and relaxed but precision-driven service, it seems churlish not to continue this fine habit.

Guests have a choice of splendid spots from which to enjoy the food and views, and those seeking privacy can opt to dine in their suites or in the residents’ library upstairs. All drinks are included with meals, and it goes without saying that guests can choose from the very best of local wines, advised if need be by knowledgable sommeliers, who are in regular contact with local winemakers and often have exclusive access to limited vintages, such as some of the low-yield stickies.

Back in the action

So you’ve relaxed in the lap of luxury, and now you want to explore. Of course there’s AJ Hackett’s classic bungy jump options, but it doesn’t end there. For those who hate crowds, here’s a few suggestions for more exclusive adventures.

  • Spend a day in a Heliworks chopper exploring Fiordland in all its glory, with opportunities to get out and fish, dive and kayak in Lord of the Rings scenery – then dine on freshly caught produce. Overnight stays are an option. POA. www.heliworks.co.nz
  • Stand in awe at the base of the millennium-old trees in the Mt Aspiring National Park – some of these trees were alive when the first humans stepped foot on this island. Dart River Jet Safari guides are experts in the area: www.dartriver.co.nz
  • Design your own air charter trip, taking in quieter places or dropping you off for one-way bushwalks. www.glenorchy.net.nz
  • Sign up for a creative photography workshop led by award-winning photographers in some of the world’s most inspiring landscapes. Maximum group size is eight. www.qccp.co.nz
  • Visit the three-day air show Warbirds over Wanaka, held this Easter, April 18-20, which culminates with a mock air battle.  www.warbirdsoverwanaka.com
  • Vertigo Bikes; the name says it all. Whether you’re an overseas pro that wants to find the best runs ASAP or a beginner eager to keep the skin on your knees, these guys have the bike, tour and guide for you. vertigobikes.co.nz
  • Nick Clark has been leading fly-fishing tours of the area for 30 years and overnight trips are an option for true addicts. www.southerntrout.co.nz
  • Luxury cruiser Pacific Jemm is available for charter, for business or pleasure trips on Lake Wakatipu, and can provide catering. It can accommodate up to eight passengers in four five-star, en-suite cabins. www.pacificjemm.co.nz
  • If you’re going to try skydiving anywhere, Queenstown offers some great scenery for the ride down. NZone offers tandem jumps from 9,00ft, 12,000ft and 15,000ft. www.nzone.biz
  • If you thought heliskiing and powder were beyond you, think again. “If you can ski, you can heliski,” says Harris Mountains Heliski, which has 30 years’ experience in the business and offers and three-run day trip for blue-run skiers.
  • Dart Stables offers exclusive rides for experienced and novice riders (www.dartstables.com) while High Country Horses can arrange longer rides up to five days, travelling from hut to hut across the valleys (www.high-country-horses.co.nz

A boat trip with Dart River Jet Ltd offers thrills without spills