Dogs, racing cars, bikes and curling are just some of the highlights of a whistle-stop trip to Cromwell, finds Elisabeth Easther.

Ideally, you don't whizz around Central Otago at high speed but when time is limited, sometimes you have to accept there's no slowing down. At Highlands Motorsport Park Museum, Restaurant and Raceway, going fast is what it's all about.

We're not motorsport people so Highlands Park, on the outskirts of Cromwell, wouldn't have been on our agenda if we'd not been told to swerve in. The brainchild of Aussie pet food baron Tony Quinn, this international race circuit is the only place of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and, surrounded by a bowl of stunning mountains, these race facilities are fast becoming famous.

After polishing off a delightful lunch at The Nose Restaurant - complete with an aroma room for training your wine schnoz - our speed-quest kicked off at the go-kart track. After the safety briefing, we were fitted with hairnets and helmets and told to keep all our body parts inside the kart.

We were also told in no uncertain terms, bumping into other drivers or hitting the kerbs on purpose would result in our cars being electronically slowed by staff. I found that rather comforting.


Watching my only child, Theo, whizz off at speeds of up to 50km/h, nothing more than a chopper guard ahead of me waving in the wind, I was actually surprised at what a good driver he was. Over seven laps, the computer told us there was just .347 seconds between our times.

Giddy from going so fast, we were next introduced to handsome young Andrew, a real racing car driver who picked us up in a Porsche Cayenne to take us on a high-speed taxi ride. Once around the track we went slowly, admiring the views.

Dotted around the outskirts we spotted dinosaurs, giraffes, aliens and peacocks - the landscaping has been done with a quirky dose of good humour.

The second lap was so fast I simply had to squeal, although I did say to Andrew if he heard me screaming not to brake, these were simply noises of appreciation.

Theo described the ride as exhilarating and accelerating in equal measures. In our rental car, heading to Cromwell, I had to remind myself to keep my speed down.

We checked in at The Heritage Boutique Lake Resort, which rests on the shores of Lake Dunstan, and as the light faded, the water became a crisp reflecting pool.

The close proximity of The Moorings Restaurant and Bar, with its blazing outdoor fire, meant we didn't have to bother with cooking and our host, gracious Karen, served outstanding culinary delights.

Waking to the sun stealing pinkly over the mountains, we rose bright and early to walk along the marina's edge, the willows weeping into the water, presumably tears of joy. Our first appointment was at Real Dog Adventures, 75 minutes' drive from Cromwell near Ranfurly.


This is where husband-and-wife team Nigel and Rose raise Alaskan malamutes and Canadian eskimo dogs as well as manufacturing all sorts of canine paraphernalia. Nigel, a butcher-turned-police officer, and Rose, in another life an anaesthetist, are parents to three kids and 21 dogs and they couldn't be happier with the new direction their lives have taken.

Time was in short supply, so we had to choose between a dogsled ride or meeting the dogs. Because sledding alone wouldn't provide the chance to cavort with the canines, much as we wanted to do both, we opted to meet the team.

We were amazed to learn that one dog can pull over a tonne on its own. As for Theo, he was thrilled to have patted the rarest dog in the world. Maple is a Canadian eskimo dog, descended from Antarctic explorers, and there are just 300 of them left in the world.

Aside from their work in the sled team, the dogs also dabble in acting and modelling and have glamorous campaigns for luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Veuve Clicquot on their CVs.

Meeting the team was a blur of fur, licks and love. One at a time, various dogs were brought out for cuddles but Lucy and Maple stole the show.

All too soon it was time to move on and, covered in dog slobber souvenirs, we headed for Naseby for curling, which is much like playing bowls on ice.

Entered through the Black Forest, Naseby is described as being "2000 Feet Above Worry Level" and this vintage village and its historic shopfronts is more like a time capsule than a working town.

Elisabeth Easther's son Theo in Cromwell, South Island. Photo / Elisabeth Easther
Elisabeth Easther's son Theo in Cromwell, South Island. Photo / Elisabeth Easther

As New Zealand's curling capital, the facility is outstanding thanks to the Becker family, who have turned curling into a serious sport. Kiwis have taken out some big titles.

Ewan, a retired bank manager-turned-coach, quickly equipped us with the knowledge we needed to get cracking and, after a few trials, we were let loose on the ice, throwing, tossing, sliding, gliding and giggling.

Things had just kept getting cooler as the temperature dropped, but I was dead-set on riding a portion of the Otago Central Rail Trail - there was no way I was coming this far and not hopping in the saddle for at least one short leg of this legendary trail.

As luck would have it, the sun shone when we met Steve from Shebikeshebikes. Saddling up at Auripo, we headed for Lauder and it was love at first bike. Starting with a gentle slope, we rode through tunnels, over bridges and past rabbits. The colours were sensational. We have resolved to return when we're in less of a rush.

On the second and final day, we decided to cram in two walks as one little beauty was right behind our hotel. Trotting up the 45th Parallel, we made like mountain goats, stopping only to admire the little skinks sunning themselves on the stones or to collect shiny rocks, fool's gold perhaps, but good enough to take a few specimens home.

The spectacular views took in mountains and the lake and we wished we weren't doing everything on fast-forward. Next stop the Sluicings Loop, a two-hour walk outside Bannockburn, within cooee of the Mt Difficulty vineyard. This easy hike is like landing on another planet, with little caves to explore and signs pointing out areas of historic significance from the gold-mining days.

To top it all off literally, a scenic flight with Heliview put everything into perspective. Nothing can prepare you for lift off in a chopper. A hover, a zip and a zoom and we were up, up and off to the top of a pristine mountain where Nordic skiers and skidoos come to play.

Landing on snow, the crunch of the runners on ice, we felt like we had arrived on top of the world. Snowballs and superlatives flew as Richard, our pilot, handed out hot chocolates, a welcome treat for frosty paws. What a cool way to spend a weekend.

Heritage Boutique Lake Resort, Cromwell
Highlands Motorsport Park
Real Dog Adventures
Naseby Indoor Curling Rink
Heliview Helicopter Flight
Elisabeth Easther and her son were guests of Central Otago Tourism.