Tell anyone you’re going to Queenstown for the weekend and they’ll probably assume you’re going skiing. That, or jumping off a bridge if you can hackett. But what if you’re a non-skier, like myself? Well, I recently headed down south during the American Express Winter Festival for a different kind of adventure. A weekend of food, wine, and remarkable views.
With only 52 hours in town and a list of places to eat bigger than my stomach, there was no time to spare. After dropping the bags at the hotel (we stayed at the Novotel) it was straight to Amisfield for some wine tasting and a late lunch; the perfect way to begin a gluttonous weekend. My pick: the 2010 pinot. Matched with a tender piece of lamb served with sweet potato and a tzatziki-style sauce, I died and went to foodie heaven.
Next stop was the Rekorderlig Winter Forest pop-up bar which was nestled quite cosily on the water’s edge of Queenstown Bay, right in the heart of the festivities. The drink: their seasonal Winter Cider which is basically their apple cider infused with cinnamon and vanilla, served hot with a slice of orange. ‘Twas the season!
After officially kicking the winter festival off watching the fireworks over the lake, we snuck away early to secure a spot at the popular Madam Woo restaurant; the second venture by Josh Emett and Fleur Caulton (the first being Rata). This madam’s all sorts of fun too with a menu inspired by Chinese and Malaysian street food. So what’s good? You can’t go past the tiger prawn and water chestnut dumplings, the crispy pork belly and the honey and soy tossed squid.
As important as the food though, of course, are the drinks. Their espresso martini deserves a special mention because it is quite possibly the best I have ever had, and trust me, that’s a BIG call. The secret ingredient? Quick Brown Fox, an organic coffee liquor from Dunedin which is infused with a touch of cinnamon. I’m not quite sure why, but this sweet little concoction had plenty of added value giving it a slight chocolatey taste, a pleasant surprise considering there wasn’t even a drop inside. Let’s just say: Best. Thing. Ever. So good, in fact, we skipped dessert.
Next stop: Bardeaux for a nightcap. Think leather chairs and a cosy fire in an intimate, gentleman’s club type vibe; the ideal spot to settle in when the temperatures hit sub-zero.
As always, the day begins with coffee, so with that in mind our first stop was Joe’s Garage for a cup of the good stuff. After a walk around the lake and plenty of stop-I-have-to-take-a-photo moments we headed to breakfast at Vudu Cafe. Their poached eggs, smoked salmon, crispy capers and pumpernickel special was definitely one the best breakfasts I have had in a long time. Throw in a detox juice and it’s the breakfast of champions. Great vibe, great fit-out, great food. Win!
On the agenda for the day was wine tasting at Chard Farm and lunch at La Rumbla in Arrowtown, with a trip up Coronet Peak somewhere along the way, so hiring a car was the obvious option. At $80 for the day it was worth every penny and a must if you want to explore the area. Plus it beats cabbing, and it’s cheaper too!
Getting to Chard Farm was like making it to King’s Landing, alive. The road in is no mean feat – narrow and winding, it teeters on the edge of a cliff up high over the Kawarau Gorge. Suffice to say, we survived, and relished in joy at the sight of the winery in all it’s Tuscan glory. Don’t be put off if upon arrival it looks like it’s closed, it most likely isn’t. The cellar is in fact open seven days a week tucked quietly behind the beautiful wooden door. Just make sure to leave your horses and guns outside… a fun detail if you happen to notice it. I’m not really a white wine drinker, but on the red side my favourite would have to be the River Run Pinot Noir 2012. It’s the kind of wine you want to enjoy with an eye-fillet steak and a roaring fire on a winter’s night.
What must every Queenstown traveller do? Take a token tourist photo (i.e. Instagram snap) up one of the ski fields. In our case it was Coronet Peak because it was the only one open. Hey, at least we can say we went to the snow… not that there was much of it anyway. At least I didn’t feel too bad not wearing a ski suit, although I did attract a few typical bloody Jafa looks. Just another fabulous Aucklander, I say. Either way, skier or not, a trek up the mountain is must; the view from the top really is priceless.
Next stop: Arrowtown. Only a 20 minute drive from Queenstown, this charming little village is still perfectly reminiscent of the good old gold rush days of the 1860s. It’s endearing in an old-worldly way; like a movie set or a real life version of that historic street in the Auckland museum, but I love that. You half expect the locals to be riding round on horses.
On recommendation from a friend, we decided to check out La Rumbla for a late lunch; a Spanish and South-American tapas-style bar and restaurant tucked away on Buckingham Street. It’s definitely a spot you want to cosy up and settle in; the food is great, the bar is well stocked, and the staff are the kind you want to be friends with. Special mention goes to their rendition of the Bloody Mary. With a spoonful of horseradish and a dash of red wine, it was pretty much the best ever. Who would have thought the cocktails would be better down south? Not this Jafa. Olé!
After returning to to the hotel, we did what every good Kiwi should do on a Saturday night in winter; watch the rugby. Dressed all in black (of course), we settled in at a local pub to watch New Zealand beat England, again. Fireplace: tick. Red wine: tick. Win: tick.
With a post-game dinner on our minds, we settled on Rātā which was an excellent move. Josh Emett and Fleur Caulton’s original venture celebrates New Zealand in everything from the menu to the décor; it’s Kiwiana with a classy finish, and it works. Even the blown-up floor-to-ceiling photo of the Fiorldand bush on the back wall works. In fact, it actually gives the space an interesting dynamic. For an entrée I had the tuna sashimi with persimmon, avocado and wasabi, and for a main I chose the pan fried trumpeter served with mussels, gold kumara, coconut, apple, and vadouvan spice – both were delicious. I tried something peculiar too, cheese rolls (albeit a fancy version). Apparently they’re a southern thing, news to me.
And for this evening’s nightcap: a drink (or two) at The Bunker. As always, the best spots are hidden away and this little gem is no exception. Tucked down a back alley (Cow Lane) and up a flight of stairs, this rooftop terrace and cocktail bar is perfectly discreet. A cool spot made even better with the black and white James Bond film projected on the wall outside, good enough to keep me there to brave the elements even with the fire inside. Befitting its name, this is the kind of bunker I would quite willingly take refuge in, with a margarita in hand, of course.
It’s easy to forget just how beautiful New Zealand is when you’re travelling around the world and discovering new places. I remember standing on the beach in Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany looking from the sea and the sand up to the snowcapped mountains in the distance and thinking why on earth do people think New Zealand is so amazing. It’s places like Queenstown which remind me why they’re right.
After the essential Sunday sleep-in, we stopped by Joe’s for a pick-me-up coffee and set off on a morning walk only to discover something quite remarkable. Standing in Queenstown Bay on the shore of Lake Wakatipu looking from the water and the sand up to the snow-capped mountains in the distance was a long, white cloud. It stretched from high in the mountains right down low over the lake. It was one of those incredible sights, like a mind-blowing sunset or an impossible reflection. A picture-perfect postcard, or in my case an Instagrammer’s dream; Aotearoa incarnated. Okay, I remember now. New Zealand really is that amazing.
With an afternoon flight, we had time for a couple more spots to tick off the list before returning to the big smoke. Lunch at Botswana Butchery was up first. It’s another well-known Queenstown haunt and worth checking out if only for the $15 steak on their lunch menu. Oh, and they make a good Bloody Mary too. Sunday bloody Sunday!
With a little time to kill, we popped into Eichardt’s for some mulled wine before heading to the airport. There’s something so satisfying about a glass of mulled wine on a winter’s day, it’s like cold-weather sangria, packed full of fruit and spices. You can almost kid yourself it’s nutritious, almost… Regardless, it was a perfect ending to an epic trip.
Reality check. Off to the airport, the fairytale was over, and tomorrow would be Monday. Sigh.
I don’t know if this is so much a non-skiers guide to Queenstown as it is how to live (or eat) like a queen for 52 hours, either way, stop off at any of the aforementioned places and you’re in for a good time, with or without the skis. But who really has time for that anyway when there’s breakfast, lunch and dinner to be had? Clearly, not me.
Until next time….
And just in case you wanted a concise version, a perfect food diary day would look like this:
Coffee: Joe’s Garage
Breakfast: Vudu Cafe
Lunch and winetasting: Amisfield
Afternoon drink: mulled wine at Eichardt’s
Dinner: Madam Woo
Nightcap: The Bunker
© Samantha Shorter and Bright Eyes, 2014.