Weekender: The tranquility of an autumn stay at Millbrook Resort
Relaxation and golf don't often go hand-in-hand for this writer, but Queenstown's luxury golf resort helped him find a way to do both.
About 20 minutes' drive from Queenstown and a hop and a skip away from the historic gold mining settlement of Arrowtown. The 27 holes that make up the golf course are beautifully framed by mountain ranges, most notably the Remarkables to the south, which had their first dusting of snow in late April when I was there. The setting was enhanced with luxury Mercs dotted around the place for the MercedesTrophy golf tournament, but more on that later.
Upon arriving, you drive down an avenue lined with 150-year-old trees, which in mid-autumn created a golden greeting befitting the central Otago location.
The resort's origins were as a wheat farm in the 1860s, setup by two French brothers. The resort's Japanese owner and developer, Eiichi Ishii, has done a good job in combining those historical elements with the luxury accommodation and golf courses.
The restaurants have an authentic feel to them, especially the Millhouse, which is in the original flour mill at the farm.
Once you're settled in, it feels like you've got this great big place to yourself. With many of the guests out on the golf course when I arrived mid afternoon, my stroll around the expansive area was interrupted only by the odd marauding duck. Peaceful was the thought that kept coming to mind.
It felt more like a home away from home than your typical resort, and was reminiscent of my time in Swiss alpine villages during their autumn last year.
My room was the entry-level deluxe studio set along the sixth fairway of the Arrow 9 part of the course. The studio name belied the amount of space there was to stretch out and relax.
Alternatively, you've got multi-bedroom suites and cottages to cater for more upmarket couples or bigger groups. Splitting one of the cottages between five or six friends would be an ideal way to plan a boys' or girls' weekend away, with either golf or skiing catered for.
The accommodation is spread out across the 200-hectare property, but there's always a friendly staff member on hand to whisk you to and from your room in a golf cart.
On my final morning, I grabbed a morning coffee and watched two hot air balloons take off in the distance, with the evaporating morning dew in the foreground and the snow-capped Remarkables providing the backdrop. Magnificent.
Inside the room, the gas fire was a nice touch to sit in front of on a cold day. It wasn't difficult to picture it as the perfect setting for a romantic getaway, complete with autumn afternoon strolls, a dip in the hot pools, or a massage at the award-winning spa (hot tip, get one of those if you've got time), followed by some time in front of the fire with a glass of wine and a good cheese spread.
The aforementioned Millhouse was the restaurant I dined at, along with Richie and Gemma McCaw, at the MercedesTrophy's gala awards dinner. The food was delicious and beautifully presented from the mind of executive chef Andi Bozhiqi. I had the merino lamb loin, which was wonderfully tender, while others spoke of the crusted duck breast as the best duck they'd had. Considering the upmarket crowd, that was some compliment.
But the flavour party doesn't end at the Millhouse. With a Japanese owner there is a Japanese restaurant in Kobe Cuisine (although it closes during winter), while the Hole In One cafe is an ideal place for an afternoon nibble or a more affordable dinner, including an array of pizzas from the pizza oven.
The buffet breakfast is served at the Clubhouse.
When I was there the MercedesTrophy National Final was on. It's an interesting event in that amateur golfers play in a 36-hole competition for a massive prize. All 24 players were Mercedes-Benz owners and qualified through regional tournaments, with the top three of Fangyi Zhang, Xu Han and Alistair Bisset, earning their spots at the MercedesTrophy World Final in Stuggart, Germany, where they'll rub shoulders with top golfer Martin Kaymer and retired former World No 1 Bernhard Langer. A straightest drive competition was also held, with Joy McLaughlan winning it and a VIP trip to the 2017 staging of The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
But winning those prizes didn't come easy on a course that hosted the New Zealand Open in March.
The first day saw relatively low scoring on the Remarkables Nine and Arrow Nine (designed by legendary Kiwi golfer Sir Bob Charles), but the golf got decidedly more difficult on the second day, which again included the Remarkables Nine and ended on Greg Turner's Coronet Nine.
I played those 18 holes as well on what was a cold, wet and windy day, which posed as many challenges as the golf itself. The par-five sixth hole on the Coronet side was particularly tough, with the second and third shots fraught with danger. The Remarkables course was more forgiving of errant shots, but still had water and rough, which seemed to entice my ball towards them at every available opportunity.
The last hole for the Mercedes-Benz golfers was Coronet's ninth, and provided some entertainment as one golfer stuck their approach shot on to the deck of the Clubhouse, which overlooks the green.
The event was a great way to show how even the most amateur of golfers (this writer included) could enjoy themselves at Millbrook, with the 24 hopefuls all able to regale each other with tales of good shots and bad in equal measure.
If golf isn't your thing, then you've got the normal Queenstown tourist activities at your doorstep, and Arrowtown is a 30-minute stroll away.
It was my first time staying at a resort like this, and I initially thought it would be my last given my lack of discernable golfing skill. But I found it to be a place where even non-golfers could enjoy themselves.
There are six daily direct flights with Air New Zealand and two with Jetstar from Auckland to Queenstown. Air New Zealand also operates a direct service from Wellington once a day, and Christchurch four times a day. The resort runs a complimentary shuttle service to and from the airport.
A deluxe studio starts from $265 a night, with access to the tennis courts and health and fitness centre. The highly-recommended spa comes at an additional cost. Eighteen holes on the golf course will cost $65 between May 1 and September 30, and $125 the rest of the year. Alternatively, the stay and play package in the studio starts at $359, which includes breakfast and an unlimited day's play of golf.
The writer stayed courtesy of Millbrook Resort and Mercedes-Benz New Zealand.