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Helen Van Berkel gets the balance right during a colourful four-day stay in Queenstown.
The leaves are turning, the air is cooling. It’s autumn in Queenstown and along with summer, spring and winter, it is the perfect time to indulge in a taste of the best the best has to offer.
Making the best of your stay means catching the first flight of the morning. Start your break by re-acclimatising yourself with the eye-watering beauty — the perfect blue of Lake Wakatipu; the green trees trembling on the edge or bursting into their fiery autumn dreamcoats, the jagged mountain peaks — with an exhilarating, post-flight, leg stretching bike ride along the lakefront.
Cycle Higher is in the centre of town, handily at the start of the bike trail that circles the lake’s edge, a route peopled by walkers, bikers and dogs all focused on the view. We rode to the Sherwood, where we cooled down with a yoga session and a healthy lunch of greens and other tasty goodies grown in the gardens of this hotel/restaurant/community centre. Sherwood takes sustainability seriously: its garden is cultivated according to organic principles and the menu is determined by what is in season or has been bottled from the previous harvest.
We fetched our own greens — including leaves that tasted like oysters — from the garden and the chef added a leatherjacket fish, beetroot preserved from last season and a touch of magic to present us with a meal that not only was filling but left us feeling like saints for the ride back into Queenstown.
A walk through Queenstown’s streets will fill your ears with accents from around the world.
Luckily, some of these visitors stay and open restaurants. Choose your dinner from the cuisines on offer. At Taj we tried dishes we’d never heard of: dahi poori (pastry shells stuffed with spicy potato, yoghurt and chutney) and shared karara kekda (soft-shell crab cooked with coconut and curry leaves) and murg tiranga (three flavours of tandoor chicken) and ended up with tummies full and arms full of doggy bags. You just haven’t lived until you’ve had a blue cheese naan.
Or you might try the lighter Japanese food at Kappa, where a handwritten menu lists the day’s specials and each slice of duck breast or spiralled vegetable is presented as artwork on a plate. The hot spot for dining is Fergburger; the queue stretches out the door, up the street and round the corner. Take your Sweet Bambi burger (or your Cockadoodle Oink or your Bun Laden) to Perky’s floating bar and order a beer or a bubbly and feed all your senses with a view that doesn’t get much more waterfront without actually getting wet.
Floating in the darkness, you’re left alone with your thoughts. In Float Spa’s “dream pods” 450kg of Epsom salts dissolved in 600 litres of 35C water ease you into a sensory-deprived languor where your physical and mental selves simply melt away, along with the outside world.
Refreshed, it’s time for lunch. Cargo Brewery at Waitiri Creek is a short incursion into the granite grandeur of the Kawarau Gorge. Outside an old church in a sunny, green paddock sheltered by a row of poplars, try a flight of beers and a venison pizza as cyclists drop in on their way around the Queenstown cycle trail.
The rich and varied industrial history of the Wakatipu Basin has seen waves of adventurers and fortune hunters. Their legacy in this land remains: many of the old fruits and berries and herbs planted by nomads of old can be foraged for the dinner plates of now.
We joined Amisfield executive chef Vaughan Mabee in search of big, fat mushrooms swelling under the shivering leaves of a silver birch, watercress edging the banks of natural springs and sheep sorrel crowding the rabbit burrows in the fields. Nature’s larder is brimming with microgreens and herbs we dismiss as weeds.
Although, I could never match what Mabee presented us with in this “trust the chef” menu that night: smoked eel, native crayfish, bluff oysters, truffles, snowberry parfait, exquisitely plated with branches, moss and even edible soil. No wonder Amisfield is the destination of choice for royalty. Each plate was accompanied by a glass of Amisfield wine: an unusual pinot noir bubbly, an Amisfield pinot gris, an orange wine. It was a never-ending stream that only ended when the taxi arrived.
After all that eating you need to come back down to Earth. Creatures who walked this land long before us are celebrated at Queenstown’s Kiwi Birdlife Park. The kiwis are, of course, the star attraction in purpose-built, carefully lit burrows where, once your eyes have adjusted, you can see them thrusting their bills into the soil for their daily sustenance.
The staff are passionate about our native creatures and working towards a day where kiwis are not a rare sight but are protected and coexist with us in our backyards. As well as kiwi and other native birds, the park is about preserving native lizards and tuatara and preparing them for release in the wild.
I was fairly sure I could take my rented Jucy Hyundai on an afternoon drive into Skippers Canyon, but luckily learned that my insurance company would have taken a very dim view.
Instead, I joined 4WD Queenstown to explore the road listed on one website as the world’s third-most dangerous, and on another given a fear factor of seven out of 10. I was glad to be in the capable hands of someone who knew the fascinating stories of this road and was responsible for negotiating the hair-raising hairpin bends through a canyon of river rock and tumbling waters, gold and Hobbit scenery. The canyon has a rich history of gold mining and pubs and adventure and was once home to thousands. A little school sprouted up, educating about 35 kids at one time. But as the gold petered out, so the people gradually left the canyon, leaving an environment degraded beyond belief in some parts, but still magnificent in its untouched-by-human-hand gloriousness in others. Sadly, the historic homestead is now only a blackened chimney faced by the remains of the kitchen’s Aga because of a fire that destroyed a precious piece of New Zealand history.
The miners were not innocent of crimes against the environment; their efforts at extracting the yellow metal are clear in the open gashes in the hillsides and the remains of pipes and dredges on the flats and riverbanks.
It’s harder to walk out with a nugget in your pocket these days but our guide braved the depredations of the bloodthirsty sandflies to expertly swirl and swish his pan, revealing the glinting treasure on the bottom. Could I have driven my Hyundai in here, reversing along a pretty much single-lane gravel road hundreds of metres above a tumbling river to give a bus space to manoeuvre? Yes. Was I relieved not to have to test my cocky overconfidence? Yes.
It’s now time to go on to that lake you have been skirting these past few days. So rise early and board the Spirit of Queenstown for a cruise focussed on the small European nation-sized sheep stations in these parts. Some of the world’s best merino wool grows on the backs of the thousands of sheep that dine on the green lakeside pastures. From the on-board commentary, learn the history of these mountains and of the men, who named them after their sons. Did they have no daughters, I wonder, as we identify Mt Nicholas, Mt Cecil and Mt Walter.
Stop in at Frank’s Eats on the way to the airport for a final, leisurely lunch before soaring over the peaks that for so long have encircled and protected and kept hidden the glory that is Queenstown.