The slower side of Queenstown
You know Queenstown. Australasia's hottest ski destination, a hopping party town crammed full of an international 20-something workforce catering to adrenaline–pumping tourists.
Well, yes – and no. On a recent visit, I saw that side of Queenstown, then drove right past it. We were driving east of Queenstown, heading for Arrowtown along Arthur's Point Rd. We crossed the Shotover River and looked down on the launching area from where the famous red jet boats roar and spin and adrenaline junkies tackle the whitewater in rafts.
Ten minutes later we were soaking in the 38 degree water of a redwood hot tub at Onsen Hot Pools. Perched on the side of a steep hill, the private pool had an ingenious garage door front that rolled up at the touch of a button, revealing the Shotover River far below. Coronet Peak was behind us and we gazed over the river to the Remarkables in front of us. We were minutes from Queenstown's bustle yet the only distraction from our peace was the buzz of the Shotover Jets slicing through the shallows below us.
I had done that thrill ride decades ago but now in middle age, nursing bruises from a bike crash days earlier, I was happy to be soaking away my aches rather than twisting and bracing myself through the canyons of the Shotover Gorge.
From my pampered perch, the tourist-packed red speedboats looked like bathtub toys powered by baking soda and vinegar. The ride looked like fun but I felt no envy. I was soaking up Queentown's charm, not on a mad dash through it.
I have to confess it has been years since I have spent any real time in Queenstown. I love Central Otago but in recent years have avoided what I saw as an over-developed tourist town, in favour of trips to quieter spots like Lake Hawea and Wanaka.
But there is no denying its beauty. Ever since my high school camp days of 6.30am plunges in Lake Wakatipu, the lake and its surrounding mountains have held special memories, and as we flew in beside the Remarkables, they were stirred.
Seen from above, the scale of the lake and mountains dwarfs any human attempt to capitalise on them, and even from pedestrian level, with the sawtooth jaggedness of The Remarkables looming over the town, the location is so stunning that it is hard to ruin.
There are still some attempts: the lakeside Crowne Plaza looks like it has been plonked down from 1980s era Miami, but many of the newer developments feature Central Otago schist in an effort to fit in with the environment.
And even in the South Island's busiest tourist destination, some heritage buildings remain. One of the town's first houses, an 1864 lakeside cottage built by goldrush boatman John Williams, is now Vesta, a carefully curated art and design store.
The cottage has been well preserved, with very few changes since the 1930s. Successive layers of wallpaper are peeling away, revealing a glimpse of earlier decorating tastes in a temple of contemporary craft and homewares.
Some visitors don't get the synergy, says the ex-Aucklander behind the counter. They ask her when the water stains on the ceiling and the peeling wallpaper will get fixed.
Most probably don't even notice, since every room is overflowing with eye-catching prints, jewellery, and gift ideas. I loved the bold native bird paintings by Jane Galloway, and the McCahon-esque prints by Amber Smith, and lusted after simple yet stylish leather bags. But we left with a hand-knitted beanie from a local woman, as my wife sensibly anticipated facing a bitter Christchurch winter with some funky ear-warming colour.
Therapy, including retail therapy, comes in many forms in Queenstown. From the quaint charm of Vesta we walked to the glossy white space of Italian design shop Milan Design, which featured high-end Italian kitchens on one side and Italian fashion on the other.
"It works well because you don't sell a kitchen every day," said owner Mimi Maric, another ex-Aucklander (by way of Italy), who had moved south for the lifestyle.
I'm not the target market for the flashy Versace dresses, but even I could see why the elegant French label Rayure blouses were big sellers for Maric, who ran Parnell's Via Venato for 15 years before heading to Queenstown.
To southern ears, the idea of moving to Queenstown for the quiet life sounds odd, but extensively developed does not have to mean over-crowded. Sir Michel Hill touched on that with his provocative comments about trying to attract the right type of tourists to his beloved Arrowtown.
I was in Arrowtown on the weekend of the New Zealand Open golf tournament, which Hill opened with comments about tourists, saying, "We don't want any more. We want the quality ones."
The open was played at Hill's course, The Hills, and neighbouring Millbrook Resort, where we stayed on the open's closing night. The five-star resort features fairway homes, cottages, and studios and suites in four-unit buildings dotted around a 200-hectare property.
Despite having just hosted the open, the grounds were so tranquil that the only disturbance was the geese and ducks waddling on to our patio.
The real buzz came from the open kitchen of Kobe, the resort's Japanese restaurant. We sat at the bar surrounding the kitchen, and enjoyed the show as the focused chefs practiced their craft with a zen-like efficiency and economy of movement. As the restaurant filled with a mix of tourists and large groups of Japanese golf tournament executives, the pace quickened. The pressure was on but the now-sweating chefs kept up, turning out beautiful plate after beautiful plate.
They all looked so good that we had a hard job narrowing down our order, but were left with the impression that it wouldn't have mattered what we chose – every dish was a balanced composition of flavours and textures. It was fortunate all three of us were open to sharing, trading bites as our eyes rolled back in pleasure.
The Wagyu Usuyaki melded earthy umami flavours, featuring seared thinly sliced grade 8 wagyu beef wrapped around sauteed mushroom tofu mousse and pickled shiitake mushrooms, with grilled baby leek on the side. The beef wrap was topped with a miso cured egg yolk, a technique I'd love to attempt.
Our host had the Maguro Isobe Tataki, seaweed crusted tuna with cucumber, avocado and wasabi mousse, watermelon, edamame, ponzu green beans, brazil nuts, and apple miso. It looked so beautiful I had to break my no food selfies rule.
Just make sure to leave room for the Green Tea Cheesecake, a light and refreshing palate cleanser after our medley of intense flavours.
We strolled across the fairways back to our bungalow with the Milky Way and Southern Cross twinkling above the mountains. Our large comfy bed beckoned, because we knew that the next morning we were going to get our butts kicked.
To be fair, if you must endure a butt-kicking, Hannah Mai Dodd does it in the friendliest way possible. The relentlessly positive Australian trainer pushed us through a circuit of high-intensity exercises at Industrial Fitness, one of three such workouts over the 24 hours we spent at Queenstown Fitness Retreat.
The residential programme combines a variety of exercise, from weight-training to hiking to boxing, with personalised low-cal meals and nutrition education in a group setting.
We left with sore muscles and some healthy recipes but also an appreciation of what we could achieve, having wrapped up our brief stay by knocking off a "500", 50 reps of 10 exercises under the tutelage of Industrial Fitness owner Braden Lee. He may not have been quite as nurturing as colleague Hannah, but perhaps sometimes you need someone barking at you to push through the pain.
Besides, the reward was a trip out to Gibbston Valley Winery, the vineyards that pioneered growing pinot noir in Central Otago. People scoffed at former journalist Alan Brady when he started experimental planting so far south in the early 1980s but as we examined 33-year-old pinot noir vines in the Home Block, Cental Otago's first commercial vineyard, the fruit of Brady's "folly" was evident.
Despite its relatively small size, the 40 hectares of vineyards produce a range of pinot noirs as well as aromatic white varieties, late harvest stickies, and a bubbly.
The beautiful setting and a highly regarded restaurant make the vineyard a popular tourist spot but the highlight of the Prestige Wine Tour was away from the crowds, in the country's largest wine cave that Brady blasted under the schist hills. Here, surrounded by the heady oakiness of more than 400 barrels of pinot noir and chardonnay, our charming French cellar door host, Arthur Robert, led us through a tasting of single vineyard pinot noirs. My favourite was the 2014 Glenlee, from a block 3km along the road, with enough tannin to later pair well with a wild venison bolognaise on fresh house-made pasta at the winery restaurant.
We could have happily lingered over dessert as we made plans to return to Gibbston by bike on our next trip to Queenstown, but more therapy awaited us.
Our farewell to Queenstown came at the Eforea spa at the Hilton, a lakefront schist development that climbs Kelvin Heights. The spa was large and luxurious, and there was no better way to farewell three days of relaxing indulgence and physical exertion than side by side massages.
As we left, we noticed the large spa bath in the couples massage room – what treatment would include a soak in that beautiful tub, we wondered?
It would not be quite the immersion in Central Otago that my schoolboy 6.30am dips in freezing Lake Wakatipu were, but perhaps some memories are best left untouched.
STAYING THERE: Three kilometres from Arrowtown, Millbrook Resort has five types of accommodation, from studios to fairway homes. millbrook.co.nz
EATING THERE: Try the justifiably famous sticky buns at Arrowtown cafe Provisions. provisions.co.nz
RELAXING THERE: onsen.co.nz
MORE INFORMATION: queenstownnz.co.nz
The writer was hosted by Destination Queenstown.