I'm standing outside agog at the scenery surrounding me. The sky is changing colour from a riotous blue to a soft, delicate pink and the lake and snow-tipped hills are doing the same. Dusk is coming to this ancient river valley. Really, I should go inside. There's a glass of Central Otago Riesling inside with my name on it. Never mind the roaring fire. Yet, instead of hunkering down in this high country lodge, my travelling party are swiftly pulling on jumpers, grabbing beanbags and heading back out to the lawn to watch the Waitaki landscape magically transform with the day's fading light.
Long days relaxing in the South Island are like this: defined by crisp, star-studded nights that inevitably give way to sun-drowned days, which, in turn, dissolve into skies awash with paintbox colour.
What better place to take a week-long adventure? That was my thinking when I decided to go south on a roadie with 11 others, starting in Queenstown and finishing in Moeraki. Here's how to plan your own trip this summer.
Queenstown to Lake Ōhau
It seemed a shame to land at the airport, jam-pack three rental cars with suitcases and groceries and promptly leave picturesque Queenstown, but that's what we did. Taking the Lindis Pass, our destination was Lake Ōhau Quarters, a modern, high country lodge on the State Highway 8 turn off between Twizel and Omarama. It's about 16km from the area devastated by recent fires, and luckily received no damage.
Lake Ōhau Quarters host, Mel Ainge, assured me the small alpine village is again welcoming visitors after the terrible fires. "The road is open and the fish are biting. Bring your book, bring your boat – and bring your togs for a dip in the lake."
With uninterrupted views of the lake and mountains, Lake Ōhau Quarters squats just above the shoreline at the edge of a working merino sheep farm. It's ideal for large groups (sleeping up to 24) with comfy beds, a huge kitchen,
fireplace, an outdoor hot tub and plenty to do. We settled in by watching the last scraps of daylight move across the Ben Ōhau range and the dark sky appear punctuated by billions of tiny stars.
Hiking here ranges from the intrepid to the doable. With the farmer's permission, the fittest in our party ran the challenging Maitland Hut track, only to turn back to the lodge after two hours thwarted by a metres-wide, scree slip he couldn't cross. Another day we drove to Aoraki/Mt Cook to tackle the Hooker Valley Track. The flat 10km walk, typically heaving with tourists, was pleasantly quiet. A final pitstop at the Hermitage's Snowline Bar scored everyone a well-earned beer and yet more jaw-dropping views of the Southern Alps.
Lunch at Twizel's High Country Salmon for Chinook (or King Salmon) was an unexpected highlight. The salmon farm is set in the glacial waters of Mackenzie Country hydro canals and is easily found on State Highway 8. You can buy salmon steaks, fillets, mince, roe (in fact, you name it), eat at the cafe and feed the salmon. We sat down for fresh sushi and salmon pie and took wings and a large fillet for the road.
One afternoon we traipsed off to Lake Ōhau's shearing shed to watch a merino shearing gang at work. World champion blade shearer Allan Oldfield showed us how woollen fleece is carefully snipped off a ewe to leave some cover to keep her warm. Then it was home again to the hot tub and locally-made desserts delivered to our doorstep by the clever bakers at Deliciously Raw.
Ōhau to Naseby
We took in two stops before heading south-east to Naseby through Danseys Pass. The first was Clay Cliffs, a set of towering silt and gravel pinnacles that jut out of the Ahuriri River Plains like a scene from Star Wars. Reputedly four million years old, the cliffs are well sign-posted. Simply drive through the gate, shove $5 in the honesty box (the cliffs are on private land) to park and take the 10-minute walk to see the pinnacles up close. Our second stop was River Cafe in Kurow for a family-sized pack of takeaway cheese rolls.
The elevated (935m) and winding road through Danseys Pass, an unsealed mountain pass, takes you through the Kakanui Range to Naseby. It's a rugged, back road best tackled in dry weather. Stopping for lunch at the historic Danseys Pass Hotel, we took a couple of hours to finally reach Maniototo Indoor Curling Rink for our 90-minute, pre-booked curling session. For $40 per adult, we were shown the ropes by an experienced curling tutor, given all the gear we needed and two lanes to play. Open year-round, the Naseby rink is a great place to cool off on a hot summer's day.
Ranfurly to Moeraki
Our next destination was Ranfurly for op shopping. We checked out a suitably fusty store near the Refreshment Rooms on Charlemont St, then followed the homemade signs to The Curiosity Shoppe run by secondhand dealer Alison Proffit. Ranfurly is popular for many reasons. It's a stop-off on the Otago Central Rail Trail and an art deco lover's paradise. It hosts an Art Deco Street Festival every year in February. It's also home to an art deco museum, housed in an icon of the 1930s architectural form, the Centennial Milk Bar.
With our suitcases bulging (think: 1980s suit jackets, scraps of vintage material and, yes, even a tasselled lampshade), we made it to the coastal village of Moeraki. Staying at the Moeraki Beach Motel, we checked in and walked the shoreline to Fleur's Place as the sun began to set. The seafood restaurant located on Moeraki's old jetty draws punters and praise from all over the world. But, thanks to a global pandemic, this mighty eatery is all ours this summer. Fleur served us a tītī (muttonbird) starter, mains of freshly-caught blue cod, garden-grown veg and enormous portions of creme brulee.
Frankly, it surprised us that anyone had room for fresh crayfish and hot chips the following morning. But we'd heard from a Ranfurly local that brunch at The Fish Wife (Moeraki's latest gourmet offering) was simply too good to miss. She was right.
CHECKLIST: QUEENSTOWN TO MOERAKI
Lake Ōhau Quarters
Moeraki Beach Motel
Hooker Valley Track
Maniototo Indoor Curling Rink
EAT & DRINK
Hermitage's Snowline Bar
Twizel's High Country Salmon
Fleur's Place, Moeraki
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com