They call it the jewel in the crown of New Zealand’s Southland this scenic gem of a town is only getting better with age. Previously, rightly lauded for its ski slopes, Queenstown now throbs with tourist activity year-round and is as much a culinary destination as a centre of adventure. Craig Osment revisits one of his favourite places.
Relentlessly quaint, chic and trendy, this bijoux borough is set among magnificent mountains and towering trees on the shores of Lake Wakatipu at the foot of the Remarkables mountain range in Otago on New Zealand’s South Island.
In spite of a surge in tourism and increasing numbers of direct flights the town has retained its charm and character and indeed has only improved its offering to tourists and residents alike. Sympathetically redeveloped while retaining lots of original buildings, the place is booming. With a resident population of around 20,000 you’d be forgiven for thinking it may be more like 200,000 based on the numbers of people wandering its lanes and lakefront.
That much overused cliché (is there any other kind?) about jewels in crowns is an entirely apt description of this sparkling chiaroscuro of water, sky, snow and trees. The ozone is palpably crisp and invigorating, the scenery is defined by sharply contrasting layers of greenery, some of it growing vertically up the sides of mountains and blue cloudless skies – well in summertime.
When the weather does close in the views are equally spectacular if a little more threatening.
Every season’s high season
Indeed it used to be that Queenstown was a winter destination for skiers and the snow set but summer (the après ski season) has now taken over as the holiday high point with expanded flight schedules filled with tourists keen to eat, drink and participate in what has become the town’s major attraction – hundreds of adventure pursuits.
You can bungy jump, ride white water, jet boat on the Shotover River, mountain bike, paraglide, hang glide, sky dive, fish, hike (or tramp as they prefer to call it in NZ) or just take the gondola (cable car) up Bob’s Peak which is the steepest cable car journey in the Southern Hemisphere.
This will take you 450 metres above town and offer 220-degree views of the area from the top. The only way to see more is to join the hang gliders hovering even further above.
A more sedentary way to catch the views at water level is to take a trip up the lake on the steamship TSS Earnshaw, which has been plying the lake for decades and is the oldest tourist attraction in town. Built in 1912 the twin-screw steamer is the last remaining commercial coal-fired ship in the hemisphere.
But wait, there’s more. Probably the most popular attraction is the food and wine scene. This little alpine village is littered with bars, pubs, restaurants and coffee houses and what is likely the world’s most popular hamburger purveyor.
You could simply wander aimlessly through the streets and lanes and pick a place at random and find food and drink to match the best anywhere in the world but if you really want to do the haute epicure thing, then a little research might be useful.
At great expense to my liver and digestive tract, I undertook a few well-planned dining excursions along with the more spontaneous surprises.
Winery with the works
One of the best has to be a lunch at Amisfield, a winery and bistro about a 15-minute drive from town and not far from the delightful historic village of Arrowtown (more on that later). Here you’ll find not only an extensive list of estate-grown wines – mostly whites with Pinot Noir their only red offering – but the food is so good that you end up almost ignoring the views of the Remarkables and adjacent Lake Hayes.
While there is a tantalising à la carte menu I’d suggest you take the ‘Trust the Chef’ option which leaves the choice entirely to the chef’s discretion and utilises the freshest local ingredients of the season. The meal includes an amuse bouche, bread and four courses which are mixture of shared and individual plates. This can be had for $75 per head without wine, or for another 50 bucks they choose matching drinks on your behalf. There’s a dinner version of this experience which adds more food and another $20 to the bill.
When you know the chef’s credentials this has to be a gourmet bargain. New Zealander Vaughan Mabee began his cooking career in Auckland before heading off to the US and Europe where he worked in a number of Michelin-starred kitchens including Noma in Copenhagen. This provenance explains why every course was perfectly timed, presented and constructed. From the spectacular amuse bouche which was a caviar-based crispy creation to the hare rillette dotted with miniature cherries through to the delicate local fish and tender beef. And the outdoor, umbrella-shaded courtyard is set around a delightful pond with a couple of sculptural artworks (by Phil Price) standing sentinel while in the garden there are works by Chris Booth due to a gallery affiliation with Nadine Milne from Arrowtown.
Back in town, enjoy the extended twilight by aimlessly roaming the lanes but make sure you happen to wander past Bardeaux (between Mall Street and Searle Lane). This intimate little bar is located in a timber cottage with a wide verandah fronting a fire-lit room with bar and clubby leather lounge chairs. While the food on offer is basic (they don’t run to a kitchen) the wine list has to be one of the most extensive anywhere, with pages of whiskeys and Champagne too. While this venue is one of four owned by the group, it retains a unique character and is a great spot for a pre-dinner cocktail or glass of wine, or an after dinner tipple.
Not far away is No. 5 Church Lane which sits below the Spire Boutique hotel with ten luxurious contemporary suites and as good a room as you’ll find in town with the possible exception of Eichardt’s Private Hotel around the corner on the waterfront and part of the same group. No. 5 is a stylish bar/restaurant/coffee shop with a terrific selection of food designed to be shared. I just had to keep going back for more barbecued Cardrona Merino Lamb ribs (marinated then chargrilled and served with harissa, babaganoush, cumin and yoghurt) and venison and Pinot Noir paté along with smoked cod fishcakes and roast beetroot falafel. They also do pizza and a range of mezze dishes – very sophisticated and funky.
Speaking of funky, there’s a curious and quirky Queenstown culinary phenomenon called Fergburgers, known locally as Ferg’s. There is almost no time during their 21-hour day that Ferg’s doesn’t have a queue outside, it seems to have gained an international following and indeed even though I think food queues to be a bit Soviet it is worth the effort. Ferg’s started as a ‘hole in the wall’ in 2001 and has subsequently moved its shrine to mince and buns to a new mainstreet address at 42 Shotover Street where it can better serve its hoards of devotees. From the Codfather (fish obviously) to the Bun Laden (falafel) to the Little Lamby the menu nomenclature is almost as much fun as the consumption. Check their amusing website for menu items at fergburger.com
Another but more sophisticated choice would have to be The Bunker which, as the name suggests has a slightly ‘bunkerish’ room and bar at street level while upstairs you’ll find a semi-open deck plus a Veuve Cliquot-branded bar and a private dining room. The food here, like so many other Queenstown eateries features the best of the local produce. Southland hare, paua (a NZ speciality that I love, along with whitebait when in season) salmon from Stewart Island, Southland Angus beef, Otago Alpine Merino lamb and Canter Valley duck all cooked to perfection and served without much concern about portion control – that means generous!
Get out of town
A few minutes from town on the Frankton Road, stop at the marina and drop into the Boatshed Café and Bistro for a lakeside lunch, coffee or snack (it’s open 8am to 5pm). This charming little timber shack with deck and lawns seems to be a drawcard for brunching mothers (it’s full of prams) and cosmopolitan tourists. The building is, like so many others, steeped in history and was originally the New Zealand Railways Shipping Office which was relocated to its current site in 1936 where it now enjoys sweeping views across the lake to the Remarkables.
About a 15-minute drive further north you’ll find Arrowtown, an almost Disney-esque gold rush village dating from the mid nineteenth century. Today the town retains around 70 buildings and features left over from its time as a mining centre and recently gained further international recognition as the location for much of the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As you would expect there are a plethora of cafés, restaurants, B&Bs, resorts and a charming old pub and museum along with wine purveyors selling the local drop (like everywhere else in the area, viticulture is a mainstay of the economy) … and a lot of lambs wool souvenirs. Also well worth a visit is Glenorchy the little town at the northern tip of the lake which merits a visit just for the 40-kilometre scenic drive along the lakefront followed by a relaxed lunch (or immense all-day breakfast in the local pub). This is yet another film location favourite with Narnia, X-Men and Fellowship of the Ring, among others, filmed here.
So if you’re getting the idea that Queenstown and surrounds are one big film location you wouldn’t be far wrong but hey, when you’re a Hollywood producer with a choice of locations around the globe why wouldn’t you choose one with the world’s best scenery. Go there even if you aren’t planning your next blockbuster, you’ll love it.
Getting there: There are numerous flights to Queenstown from all major New Zealand cities as well as direct flights from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney so just look up any airline in the Pacific that flies to New Zealand (e.g. Air Vanuatu, Fiji Airways, Virgin Samoa, Air Calin, Air Tahiti and Air New Zealand of course) and you’re on your way.