Queenstown: Mini-break mecca

By Shandelle Battersby

There's plenty more to do than just ski in this Central Otago town, reports Shandelle Battersby.

The Hilton Queenstown offers lakefront luxury.
Photo / Supplied
The Hilton Queenstown offers lakefront luxury. Photo / Supplied

As my plane broke through the clouds during its descent into Queenstown, I got my first eye-popping glimpse of scenery I'd only seen on TV and in photos - the razorback snow-capped Remarkables range and crystal-clear Lake Wakatipu.

Yes, somehow in nearly 35 years, I'd never made it to this famously picturesque Central Otago township, which in the winter is a mecca for snow bunnies and adventure seekers.

But I was soon to discover Queenstown has plenty to offer all year round, and is a popular destination for foodies and luxury travellers too.

My aims for this weekend mini-break were simple: a bit of pampering, some good food and wine, and as much time as possible enjoying that stunning scenery.

The luxurious new Hilton Queenstown, right on on the shores of the lake, is the ideal base from which to explore the area, located a few minutes' drive from the airport and 15 minutes by water taxi or shuttle bus from the township.

Also on site, as part of what is known as the Kawarau Village, is the boutique four-star Kawarau Hotel, Stacks Pub (try the pizza), speciality grocer, cafe and deli The Lake Counter, which stocks lots of local artisan products, and Asian noodle bar Me & Mee.

These eateries, plus the Hilton's signature restaurant, the Wakatipu Grill, and its Cru Wine Bar, mean it would be easy to find excuses not to leave the village at all if you really wanted a complete getaway.

But I wanted a decent look around, so first on my agenda was a wander along the Kelvin Heights Peninsula Track which runs in front of the Hilton and winds around the lakefront, giving plenty of opportunity to ogle some of the area's grandiose houses and pretty spring gardens in full flower.

Appetite sufficiently whetted, I legged it back to the village for lunch, then headed to the hotel's Eforea spa with its 25m indoor lap pool, hot tub, gym, 10 treatment rooms and a steam room and sauna. The spa bases many of its treatments on traditional Aboriginal techniques and uses products made from native Australian plants, muds, desert salts and marine algae.

After a Yulu tea of lemon myrtle, wild rosella, wild lime and plums, I headed into my relaxation massage for the overtired, overworked and sleep-deprived (check, check, check). It was so effective that I nearly fell asleep. But I had to stay awake for dinner.

Renowned chef Peter Thornley (Kermadec, Bracu) has been brought in to run the hotel's Wakatipu Grill and is passionate about using local, seasonal produce whenever he can.

"I'm trying my utmost to make sure the food is sourced from local producers and that is what makes the difference in the flavour," he says.

Dining at the Grill is quite an experience - check out the outdoor "Pinot Pit", a circular sofa with a gas fire at its centre - with its open kitchen and rotisserie, five-star nosh, exquisite black chandeliers and huge wine list, which has a section dedicated to local wines by the glass.

Thornley tells me he's partial to fishing from the jetty in his chef's whites, and also that during the big snow dump in August which stranded many Queenstown visitors, they set up the oyster bar outside on the snow-covered schist walls and shucked them in the fresh air.

I start with some of the bread baked twice daily on site before a divine entree of Glory Bay smoked salmon carpaccio, yuzu ice, mirin, miso, locally made Coppersfolly wasabi and young coriander.

My main is slow-cooked beef short ribs served with radish, a mish mash of herbs, including some scavenged from the surrounding hillsides, and a sweetcorn and garlic sponge.

The desserts are to die for - my potted Heilala Vanilla cheesecake is served with orange, pink grapefruit and coriander and comes in one of those glass storage jars with the flip-top lids.

Sunday dawns chilly but clear and the sun comes out just in time for my appointment with Alice Blackley from Art Adventures, a small company offering bespoke sketching excursions for up to six people at a time.

No art experience is necessary, she says, but I'm slightly worried that I'll be completely hopeless as I haven't drawn more than stick figures since childhood.

Alice picks me up in her van, which if the weather is bad, turns into a mobile art studio complete with moveable chairs and tables, and we head to a quiet lakeside spot not far from the Hilton.

We perch on little tripod stools as Alice teaches the basics of drawing a landscape. It turns out, once you choose a segment of a vista - with the help of a cardboard "viewfinder" - and start with three simple lines, the rest comes easier than you expect.

Over the course of the morning, I do four sketches (one pictured above) and experiment with watercolours at various locations around the lake with a break in the middle for a cup of tea and a piece of home-made apple cake.

The afternoon is earmarked for a relaxed mooch around a few of the area's vineyards with Appellation Central Wine Tours. The boutique tourism company specialises in taking small groups and individuals on customised wine tours of Central Otago wineries.

Tour guide Keren McSkimming chats away easily to the 10 passengers from the driver's seat, sharing her knowledge of the goldmining history of the area and its origins as a wine region.

Over five hours, we visit four vineyards in the Gibbston Valley and Bannockburn wine-growing areas - Peregrine, Carrick (also our lunch stop), Bald Hills and Chard Farm - and even manage a quick look at Old Cromwell Town.

And all too quickly, my blossoming love affair with Queenstown is at an end. It may have taken nearly 35 years to get here, but it won't be long before I'm back.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies regularly to Queenstown.

Where to stay: Hilton Queenstown is in Kawarau Village.

What to do: Get pampered at Eforea Spa at Hilton, be inspired at Art Adventures or go wine tasting with Appellation Central Wine Tours.

Further information: See queenstownnz.co.nz.

Shandelle Battersby travelled to Queenstown with the assistance of Destination Queenstown.

- NZ Herald

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