Queenstown: New hotels open up 'other side' of Wakatipu

By Belinda Henley

The lobby lounge at Hilton Queenstown affords views across Lake Wakatipu. Photo / Supplied
The lobby lounge at Hilton Queenstown affords views across Lake Wakatipu. Photo / Supplied

Queenstown is home to just twenty thousand permanent residents, but each year it welcomes more than two million tourists through its stunning doors. Tourism is the true lifeblood of this vibrant town and the international contingent of adventure-seeking travellers who visit each year.

There is something special about wandering through the many lanes, along the lakefront or lingering at one of the wineries just out of town, all the while being entertained by the sing song of accents from all over the world.

I was back in the town this time for the opening of the Hilton Queenstown and its sister property, the Kawarau Hotel.

In all my years of coming to Queenstown, I can't recall spending any time on 'the other side' of Lake Wakatipu; the area around Kelvin Heights at the foothills of the Remarkables.

The opening of these two stunning hotels is the first step in establishing Kawarau Village, which will also house retail stores, cafes, bars restaurants, and other accommodation options.

Destination Queenstown CEO Tony Everitt says the new development is an essential expansion of the town.

"It was natural evolution," he said. "There is only so much land in central Queenstown and this makes use of the key feature of our town, Lake Wakatipu".

The hotel chain - one of the world's most recognisable brands in luxury accommodation - says it identified Queenstown as a "strategically significant location", building on its portfolio of New Zealand properties, which already includes Taupo and Auckland.

The hotels are being run by Australian Marlene Poynder, lured to New Zealand after being general manager of Sydney's wonderful Park Hyatt hotel.

Poynder says she has been most struck by the tranquillity of the site.

"It is just so peaceful and quiet, when you go to sleep at night you don't hear a thing and the scenery from this end of the lake is truly stunning."

Poynder says she has been hugely impressed with how the development has been embraced by the locals - during peak season the hotels will be employing more than 180 people, many of whom will be expected to work across a number of different roles.

The Hilton Queenstown is certainly luxurious, but also incredibly warm and welcoming. The rooms all feature gas fires and breathtaking views and the hotel also boasts an extraordinary collection of New Zealand and Pacific art and photography.

It is also home to Queenstown's largest spa, Eforea, which is fitted out with a 25-metre lap pool, steam room and sauna.

Both hotels will provide a massive boost to Queenstown's tourism business, not just in terms of accommodation, but also with their fantastic 'foodie' offerings.

The Hilton's signature restaurant is Wakatipu Grill, situated right on the edge of the lake with stunning views.

One of New Zealand's most well respected chefs, Peter Thornley has left his post at Kermadec restaurant in Auckland to oversee the Hilton's high-end culinary offering with an emphasis on 'fresh, seasonal and local".

The hotel and restaurants were officially opened last month in lavish style, giving Thornley a chance to showcase his skills to a small group of VIPs.

And Thornley is indeed walking the talk when it comes to creating his dishes from products available within a stone's throw of the restaurant: Mount Cook salmon, Auckland Island scampi and local duck are on the menu, as is a selection of central Otago wines.

"It was a huge move for me to come down here, but when you look at what it offers, the best stone fruit, the best wine, beef, olive oil, truffles, it was a great opportunity to reinvent what I do," said Thornley.

The charming and unaffected chef is involved in every aspect of the restaurant, from jumping fences of local farms to pick the smallest and sweetest carrots to rewriting the entire wine list to reflect the best of central Otago.

Thornley says cooking at altitude means many of his dishes taste completely different.

"The dishes I traditionally cook, I couldn't roll them out of my bag."

Thornley says he was forced to look at varieties of produce being grown in the region and to adapt his recipes accordingly.

"Some [varieties] don't grow here unless they are undercover and I don't want them undercover, I want them grown out in the open."

As well as 'Wakatipu Grill' the Kawarau complex boasts Stacks pub with a wonderful terrace and open pizza oven and Me Mee - an Asian noodle bar.

There's also The Lake Counter, a deli which is stocked full of pastry chef Brian Campbell's incredible creations. Light, sweet and delicious macaron (in seven different colours and flavours), pastries, éclairs and canele - a small French pastry with a soft, tender custard centre and a dark, thick caramelised crust - are all available. The latter is a speciality from the Bordeaux region and it's recipe is a closely guarded secret.

The unveiling of the Hilton and Kawarau Hotel marks a significant development for the town in opening up the 'other side' of the lake to tourists.

For just $5 you can jump on Neville's new (and heated) water taxi to take the short and scenic trip across to the centre of Queenstown, pulling up alongside the iconic vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw.

A new bike path alongside the lake will further enhance the tourist offering and gives you a chance to work off some of those pastries... before starting all over again at dinner time.

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