Adventure infuses the Wakatipu region with a buzz, writes Anna King Shahab
First stop: fried chicken. With an afternoon of riverboarding booked, lunch prior at the Love Chicken pop-up in the heart of town provided us sustenance. Owner and chef Darren Lovell's seafood-oriented Fishbone had been going strong in this spot for decades… but, 2020. He nimbly shifted gear to classic comfort food: chicken battered and fried to a crisp-meets-moist thing of beauty which, better yet, is made with Bostock's free-range organic birds. The good news is that Fishbone has now relaunched so you needn't miss out on that town favourite. But don't worry, you can still get a Love Chicken fix from the Frankton outlet.
After an adventure-filled, physically challenging afternoon on the Kawarau River, the reward kicked in as we settled down at our balcony table at Margo's for dinner. Before long we were sipping on frozen margaritas and welcoming dish after dish to the table – standouts included the tuna ceviche served with pineapple salsa and avocado, a fondue of cashew cheese, and the excellent salt and cumin squid tacos. There's a party atmosphere here, which, coupled with friendly and swift service, infused the evening with a good buzz.
Over in Arrowtown, owner-operated La Rumbla is a perennial favourite with the locals – so do make a booking, and prepare for a fun time. It was rowdy in the right way when we arrived; an annual long lunch in the village had taken place earlier and folks had stretched the occasion to dinnertime.
La Rumbla's menu is Spanish-influenced by way of local produce; things got off to a great start with a cocktail featuring rose syrup – just a few bottles of which the restaurant gets each year from a neighbour who makes it. A balmy evening was the perfect setting for our starters of tarakihi ceviche and mariscos fritos – chilli and lime-dusted fried morsels of calamari, tiger prawns, monkfish with a superb aioli. A juicy pork cutlet was paired with braised fennel and apple salsa, and the leafy salad had the best (muscatel-spiked, it turns out) vinaigrette I've had in some time.
Winery cafe Akarua Wines & Kitchen by Artisan has a particularly loyal following among locals at brunch time. The charming cottage was a cosy haven when we visited, during a rainy spell, but the extensive courtyard promised glorious outdoor dining on (usual) fairer summer days. My seared halloumi came with poached eggs, pesto, dukkah and a smoked labneh that I could eat all day. Ditto the blueberry mascarpone creme on my friend's waffles (along with brulee banana and honeycomb butter) – often it's those smaller touches that make a meal stand out.
I recommend skipping a meal before heading to Flame Bar & Grill – I did not, and the hefty amount of leftovers on our table stalked my conscience for days. If you love aged steaks and juicy ribs (or any kind of protein kissed by a hot grill) a meal at this restaurant with South African roots is a must – but what I loved most is that the sides and salads are just as thoughtfully, and deliciously, prepared; their crunchy apple slaw is a thing of beauty boasting an abundance of pinenuts, which would cost you a fortune if you were to try and replicate at home. A key part of the meats' flavour here comes from the basting sauce, which is applied as chefs grill over wood. The lofty, green-fringed interior, friendly service, excellent drinks list (especially the cocktails), and view over Lake Wakatipu all add to the experience.
Kitchen staff at Hulbert House, where I stayed for two nights, keep the oven fires stoked so they can offer a steady supply of cookies and cakes throughout the day in the palm-filled lounge area. Breakfast is continental or a la carte – I can wholeheartedly vouch for Saniya's smashed avocado on grainy toast which kept me going until lunch… a buffet at Walter Peak Station, and one of my surprise highlights of the trip.
A steady supply of locally raised beef, lamb, and pork off the hefty woodfired grill, balanced by elegant salads and sides and, for anyone with a sweet tooth, a dessert selection to get excited about. The ticket price, including a cruise on TSS Earnslaw, lunch, and a farm show, is very good value.
My last night was spent at Sherwood, and upon arrival, I booked a tour of the garden, which turned into a long chat with head chef Chris Scott about what's happening in the kitchen. A closed-loop system is the ambition here: all the scraps from the kitchen are composted to feed the garden which supplies the kitchen. An afternoon snack showed off the skill of the chefs cooking in the pizza oven – a sourdough base topped with silky oyster mushrooms, mozzarella, truffle, and Alexander leaves. Nope, I'd not heard of them either but this glossy green leaf prized by the Romans is thriving in the garden here. Later that evening, we explored more of the menu. Crunchy radishes freshly pulled from the soil, and a delightful tart of whipped avocado topped with delicate summer vegetables prepped our palates for richer fare – grilled flounder, skewered chicken oysters, smoked moki croquettes, an incredibly tasty and juicy coil of duck sausage, and twice-cooked crisp potatoes. This feast, enjoyed with several glasses from the list of local, low-intervention wines, is one I'd go back for in a flash.
Find other things to see, do, eat and where to stay at queenstownnz.co.nz