Historic cycle of green and gold

LADY OF THE LAKE: TSS Earnslaw plies the waters of Lake Wakatipu, and celebrates a significant birthday this year.
LADY OF THE LAKE: TSS Earnslaw plies the waters of Lake Wakatipu, and celebrates a significant birthday this year.

 T HE PIONEER legends that invariably move me most involve cold, wet, and danger. Thomas Brunner and his bush- bash down the Buller, Alice McKenzie's childhood in far-flung Fiordland - such stories give rise to powerful imaginings, particularly when I stand within cooee of their occurrence. One place guaranteed to give me the chills is the old miners' village on the shady banks of the Arrow River.

It was gold that gave birth to Arrowtown, in 1862, when the beans were spilled and 1500 miners piled in to try their luck. To celebrate the town's 150th anniversary in October, the locals are hosting a shindig.

No doubt they'll string up the bunting on their bonny buildings, many still standing from the gold rush era and 30-odd in all pre-dating 1900. Other historic sites include the cemetery and Lakes District Museum, although visitors are just as likely to get drawn into town by ye olde sweet shop and clothing boutiques. The town is all the more enticing for its veneer of twee, but it doesn't take much effort to scratch the surface.

LEAF TO RESIDE: Arrowtown's arborial panorama changes radically with the seasons.
LEAF TO RESIDE: Arrowtown's arborial panorama changes radically with the seasons.

Even Arrowtown's fancy-pants golf resort can lay claim to history. Millbrook was established in the 1860s by French brothers John and Peter Butel as a wheat farm to feed local miners. Some landmarks from this period remain, including six restored buildings, water races and farm machinery, and the oaks, elms and hawthorns that line its grand avenue.

During World War I, Millbrook was the site of a tent hospital for injured soldiers returning from Europe, and converted back to farming after World War II. It was purchased in 1993 by the Ishii family and now comprises an upmarket village bordering a 27-hole golf course, along with a 175-room hotel, day spa and associated indulgences.

Although a stranger to such luxury - my style is a game of darts and a kip in the back of the campervan - Millbrook pretty much won me over from the front gate.

It was wide open. Any person can wander along the paths or bike the byways that pass throughout its pleasing green acres. You don't have to like golf to appreciate a good- looking lawn, especially when beyond it lies a 360-degree-view of the mountains.

Anyone can avail themselves of Millbrook's resort facilities , including the golf course, tennis courts and day spa, along with its four on-site restaurants.

A top-drawer breakfast buffet is served in the surprisingly unstuffy clubhouse, after which one can ready oneself for beer and a cheeseburger on the sun-drenched terrace of The Hole in One. It is situated in a spectacular spot, so it's no wonder this is a popular outing for the locals.

The fine-dining Millhouse followed suit, being both accessible and fairly priced. The original flourmill has been extensively rebuilt, its muscular timber and schist interior has an uncontrived, roguish atmosphere, with a sizeable contingent of New Zealand patrons keeping it real.

The menu was big on game, with duck, quail and venison on the menu along with delectable Southland lamb. The classics were matched with the unconventional, including a memorable intermezzo "margarita" of lime sorbet and fine tequila. Then there was the white chocolate and kirsch mousse with raspberry coulis, along with the Felton Road pinot noir. I think I could develop a taste for this resorty thing.

Arrowtown's no slouch either when it comes to notable dining. Peter Gawron's trio of Saffron, Pesto and the Blue Door Bar scoop up much of the business, but there are leagues of worthy rivals including Arrowtown Bakery, purveyor of a mean meat pie. The Arrow Brewery also does a decent pie, and its family- friendly environs are an inviting place to get on the craft beer bandwagon. Their tasting flight was presented with real pride.

And let's not forget the fabulous Provisions cafe, located in an 1874 miner's cottage. Its garden is the perfect place to stuff your face with its amazing sticky buns.

Between the breakfast buffet, sticky buns, the pie and a pint, visitors may wish to take a spot of exercise. There is a guided cycle tour with Cycle de Vine, perhaps, twixt the wineries of Gibbston Valley. (Red wine is incredibly good for you, you know.)

On foot, the essential outing is the short amble along the Arrow River where a cluster of Chinese diggers settled in the late 1860s. Invited by the provincial government to keep the Otago goldfields cranking post-rush, their situation was cold, wet and dangerous.

Restored stone huts and evocative storyboards retell their tales, as does Julia Bradshaw's book Arrowtown History and Walks, a worthy companion for your explorations. It also details the popular pilgrimage to the ghost town of Macetown, where quartz was mined for gold until finally abandoned in 1914.

Arrowtown's 150th anniversary will be celebrated with a series of events, most of which are free. Two- hundred locals have signed up for roles in the official "Arrowtown re- enactment", in which gold will glister, wagons will roll, and shanties will rollick with grog. The New Zealand Army Band is coming, as is the Chinese Village Theatre, lion and dragon dancers and the Black Powder gun shooters. The New Zealand gold panning championship will also be held, so if you've missed the Olympics there's hope for you yet.

The wider Central Otago region is also celebrating its 150th anniversary with nearly 150 events planned until March 2013. One of these is the centenary bash for the steamship Earnslaw. Her maiden voyage across Lake Wakatipu will be retraced on October 18; other events include special cruises and a family fun day at Walter Peak High Country Farm.

October will be a great time to visit Arrowtown and Queenstown, but if you can't manage it, visit in autumn when Arrowtown turns on its annual display of arboreal splendour. The gold diggers of years gone by from the Arrow wouldn't believe it.

Bennett & Slater were hosted by Millbrook.


Arrowtown 150th (Oct 19-25) arrowtown150.co.nz

Central Otago Anniversary (until Mar 2013) gold150.org.nz

TSS Earnslaw Centenary (Oct 14-22) tssearnslaw.co.nz

Arrowtown visitor guide arrowtown.com

Arrowtown History and Walks, Julia Bradshaw (Otago University Press)

Millbrook Resort millbrook.co.nz

Cycle de Vine/Fat Tyre Adventures fat-tyre.co.nz

The Dominion Post