Thirty-one years, a heap of travel over New Zealand and the world, but nary a trip to Central Otago.
Shame on me. I remember seeing a picture of Wanaka as a kid without knowing where it was and I thought it was the most beautiful place on Earth. Decades later I arrived and was just as sure.
You're in the throes of landing and already thinking what a dumb-ass you've been for neglecting this view. It doesn't take long to concur with whoever it was that named the mountains the Remarkables. It's jaw-dropping all around.
I think I neglected this part of New Zealand for so long because I'm not the adventurous type. People who travel to Queenstown and Wanaka do stuff when they get there. They charge down mountains on their attachment of choice and jump out of planes and wear Icebreaker merino jumpers and their sunglasses are worn with a cord around the neck because they might fall off in the midst of all the adventurousness.
I know the types well and yet I am not one of them. I like to drink by a pool with a book in summer and drink by a fire with a book in winter. You would think that would make me relatively cheap to run. It doesn't. But Queenstown, I always thought, had nothing to offer me and my type. How wrong I was.
The view is its best asset. And it's not just one frame of remarkableness. Everywhere you drive, from Queenstown, to Arrowtown, to Wanaka, and I'm sure further afield, is thrilling to look at and so impressively cuddled by mountains.
Here is my list of things to do for people who like life irrespective of adventure, in and around Queenstown.
WHERE TO VISIT
It's a little disappointing in terms of shopping, but Arrowtown makes up for it in prettiness and pastry shops. I'm sure it must have the highest number of bakeries per capita of anywhere in the country. I walked the tree- lined streets and found myself playing out an imaginary life in the town, just to see if I could live there. It would involve living in one of the most charming houses around, grabbing a coffee and croissant on the way to work, weekends spent in Wanaka, or Queenstown. I think I could do it.
Pull up at one of the many parking spots around the lake and enjoy the view, or drive around and have a nosey at the impressive architecture in Wanaka. Ponder what you would need to do to get a holiday home there.
Coffee is best at Urban Grind and the gourmet pizzas aren't bad, either. A drive up to Rippon vineyard will give you one of the best views in Wanaka.
WHERE TO STAY
Stay at the Rees Hotel & Residence in Queenstown. Everything about this place is top notch. The view from the entranceway says it all. The staff and service is faultless and the rooms sit right on Lake Wakatipu. Once you move in, you won't want to pack that suitcase back up. And you won't have to. You could live there all round. In fact, the Rees was named best leading hotel residence at the 2013 world travel awards. It's that good.
WHAT TO EAT
A charming stand alone cottage built by a Scottish stonemason in 1882, Sasso on Church St in Queenstown, is fine dining, Italian style. The menu is huge and ranges from delicious pizza, to five-course dining that covers all the classics, as does the wine list. If you can, ring ahead and book a table in the front room - it has two fires (we went in summer, but needed them) and is stylishly quaint.
Hands-down the best coffee we tried in Queenstown, this place was heaving with people every second it was open. The cabinets are plentiful, I had an excellent peppermint slice and everything looks delicious. The menu is also a winner, but service is the only downfall of this trendy establishment. The vibe is that your presence is a hindrance. The grumpy man on the front counter almost put us off a second visit, but the coffee was too good to pass up. Sadly, he was no better the next day. Enter at your own risk.
Friends had dined at Rata a few nights before us. "You're gonna love it, " they said. They found themselves craving their meals the next day as soon as they woke. They were right, Rata was memorable. Everything about Josh Emett's Queenstown restaurant is winning. The giant feature wall with a backlit photo of a luscious forest serves as the backdrop and the rest of the decor is perfectly underplayed. It's like eating in the apartment of someone who has impeccable taste.
Head chef Chris Scott serves up so many delicious plates of food, it's hard to walk out the door at the end. It's far too amazing to leave on the plate. The menu consists of four courses - bites, starters, mains, desserts (with the option of sides, or larger cuts of meat called Feasts - for the whole table). It really is an explosion of tastes. I went the no-meat way (there was an impressive second menu for vegetarians) and my date raved over the roast cervena venison loin with smoked cauli and beets and the northland kingfish with watermelon, avocado and wasabi.
WHERE TO SHOP
This corner of the world is not laden with amazing shops, but the good ones are really worth a visit. Bella in Wanaka (Shop one, Spencer House Mall) has many a New Zealand fashion label, and Decode on Camp St in Queenstown has great clothes, art and furniture.