Thirty-six hours in Wanaka

Last updated 05:00 18/04/2011
cardrona
Fairfax
PIT STOP: Visitors to Wanaka pass through the Cardrona Valley.

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Wanaka never fails to take your breath away, writes Angela Walker.

Friday, 4.40pm: I love the drive from Queenstown airport to Wanaka, via the twists and turns of the Crown Range and Cardrona Valley. I'm finding I love it even more in the company of two visiting Australians, both making their first trip to this part of the world. While it's not quite like seeing it for the first time, their reaction to this, one of my most special places, means it's nearly as good.

5pm: We settle in at the Wyndham Wanaka, its two-storey blocks with their timber and schist stone exterior sit comfortably in this tree-lined stretch of Mt Aspiring Rd. It's a vacation ownership resort, one of 21 Wyndham properties in the Asia Pacific region. While most of the apartments and studio rooms are for the use of Wyndham Club members, a decent number are usually kept aside for non-members, though not always during peak season.

Along with restaurant Rafters, resort features also include a pool, waterslide, hot pool, gym and barbecue area, as well as a lovely outdoor fire that no doubt features large in the apres ski activities of winter guests.

There's even a four- bedroom presidential suite that would make a perfect winter getaway for a large family or group of couples. My own two-bedroom apartment is spacious and warm and decorated with several great show-off photos of Wanaka's lake and mountains. Why on earth would you want to look at anything else?

7pm: At Sapphire restaurant, up on the hill behind the golf course and with great views over the lake, we're in the company of Australian Junior Chef of the Year, Soren Lascelles of Sydney's Assiette, who tomorrow night is cooking a five-course gourmet dinner at Wyndham's Rafters restaurant with its chef Chris Hughes. Turns out Hughes, who is also at our table tonight, is a partner in Sapphire with chef and old friend Shane Ritchie.

The menu features great southern produce including Havoc pork from Waimate, Akaroa salmon, Canterbury duck and Fiordland wild venison with a suitably parochial wine list. We're all mightily happy with our meals, the portion sizes alone being enough to put a smile on anyone's face.

Saturday, 9am: Many a time I've arrived in Wanaka on a patchy day to be told by a certain family member: "You should've been here yesterday." Well in that case, today is yesterday, if you know what I mean. The sky is a dazzling blue and the sun highlights the first yellow and golden tones on the poplars along the lakefront.

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We stroll into town for coffees and while the Aussies are working their cameras overtime, I'm pondering the lines Sam Neill wrote in his introduction for the Grahame Sydney/Brian Turner book Timeless Land - a celebration of Central Otago in painting and poetry - about the irony of being unable to live in the place where you feel most at home. Again I thank my lucky stars, ie my mum and dad, that Wanaka is at least a home away from home.

Noon: OK, it's not that I'm afraid of getting on the motor-trike that's just pulled up outside; I'm just more afraid of looking like a bit of an arse. Davy Pattison moved to Wanaka from Hawke's Bay a few years ago and now runs Adventure Wanaka - fishing, lake cruises and yes, trike tours. We hop on the back, Pattison revs up the bike and his microphone and we're off. As well as venturing out of my comfort zone, we go off- road at Penrith, home to some of the priciest sections and property in Wanaka, then head out to nearby Albert Town and the banks of the mighty Clutha. Really, it's not so bad, apart from some of those corners ... maybe, just possibly, even quite good fun.

1.30pm: For years I've driven past the Luggate pub, about 10 minutes back down SH6, and not once have I stopped there. Until today. What a revelation. The old pub - it opened in 1867 - always seemed to me a bit hard-bitten and down-at-heel but, under new ownership over the past few couple of years, it's been lovingly restored and redecorated, with superb club couches around a fireplace and bean bags under the fruit trees out the back, though I'm sure the blokes sitting outside are the same ones I've seen every time I've passed it. We nab one of the outdoor tables, which is soon home to plates of blue cod and chips and a bottle of the local Mt Maude riesling to wash it down. It's as perfect a southern lunch as you'd hope to find.

3pm: Next stop is the Cardrona Valley and the farm of Ben Gordon. His family has farmed in the area for several generations and Gordon is now behind Cardrona Merino Lamb, a small producer providing merino lamb to top restaurants, high-end suppliers around the country and even Government House.

We jump into the farm ute, bounce around a few paddocks and quickly realise that when Gordon sees a sheep in the paddocks, he sees a good meal. Being merino sheep, he sees a particularly great meal as their meat is lean, almost nutty in flavour and with a considerably more appealing smell than you'd expect. No wonder it's been described as New Zealand's finest lamb. Seek it out at www.cardronamerino.com

4pm: I'm pretty familiar with the view from Rippon vineyard - we used a photo of it for our wedding invites six years ago. This vista, over vines, lake, Ruby Island and the mountains, never fails to thrill me and with the addition of the Sculpture in Central Otago installations - on until May 1 - it's even more beautiful. We taste a rose and riesling in the new tasting room and take a quick peak at the Rippon Hall, also a recent addition and possibly, after my mum and dad's garden, the nicest place around for a wedding.

7pm: Is there a better way to start a night than whitebait and Bluff oysters? Doubt it. Even Lascelles, who started the day having never tried a Bluff oyster, is immediately won over. Tonight's dinner is a showcase of local food and wine, with winemakers from Rippon, Felton Road, Olssens, Quartz Reef and Valli on hand to talk about the wines they have matched to each course. No wonder Rafters, fittingly, is packed. Lascelles and Hughes have done the region proud, with dishes including rabbit, lamb and Marlborough King salmon.

It's hard to pick favourites but for a pairing that best sums up Central Otago to me, it has to be the terrine of rabbit with fig puree and a glass of Olssens Slapjack Creek Pinot Noir 2009. This is the taste of home.

Angela Walker was hosted by Wyndham Vacation Resorts.

- Sunday Star Times

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