Given the last few Covid winters, Queenstown would have had every excuse for taking some time to get back on its feet - to recover from some barren tourism seasons and get some money rolling in, however they could make it.
But the town has instead emerged from the darkness with a big and aspirational goal: to create a carbon-zero visitor economy by 2030. A keystone project in a wider strategy towards a more regenerative tourism industry, it’s now been endorsed by local decision-makers and is ready for action. Happily, there are plenty of local businesses already on this journey, and visiting them on your winter holiday is a great way of using your dollar to vote for the good guys.
Lunch at Sherwood Hotel is a must. A kitschy motor lodge given a low-waste makeover by eco-minded hipsters, it also has one of the most exciting restaurants in the region - where chefs busily prepare produce grown in the local gardens, creating dishes so incredible you’d never guess the strict sustainability principles that govern every kitchen process. We loved all of the seafood dishes (definitely get the oysters if they’re in season) but one of our favourites was the insanely good woodfire-charred flatbreads, topped with mozzarella and wild mushrooms.
From there we zapped into town for a ride on the Skyline gondola, New Zealand’s busiest tourist attraction (it’s closed until July 1 while new 10-seater gondolas are installed, but if you wanted to do your bit for “reuse recycle”, the old four-seaters are all looking for new homes!). It’s not until somebody points it out to you that you realise how low impact some of these most famous Queenstown attractions are - the luges are great fun and operate, of course, on the power of gravity, while we had a brilliant time on the Ziptrek Eco Tour - a ziplining adventure through the forest canopy, and incidentally the town’s first carbon neutral business. There is just enough adrenaline action to test you on these long, speedy vectors from platform to platform, but the friendly staff and interesting environmental story they share make it a well-rounded experience. Dress warm for the alpine shade!
We stayed at Headwaters Eco Lodge in Glenorchy, a pretty, historic site under the guardianship of two American philanthropists, who wanted to put something back into an area they loved. Designed under the incredibly strict Living Building Challenge, it’s a premium hotel where most of the good stuff happens behind the scenes - though if you ask, the staff can tell you about, for example, the subterranean energy centre sending power to your lightbulb. The lodge has a fantastic new restaurant open to all-comers, so even if your accommodation is elsewhere you should do a destination dinner at some point during your stay. Helmed by ex-Saffron chef Peter Gawron, it offers an inexpensive but elaborate set menu made with local produce and inspired by whichever cuisine Pete happened to be daydreaming of the day before.
Of course, the best attractions in the Wakatipu basin are free. We tramped into the Routeburn - one of DOC’s great walks - taking a side track up Sugarloaf Hill and arriving at a natural pool where the kids thirstily drank the cold mountain water. For all the treats we’d organised for their winter holiday, this was the moment that endured - they were so excited they insisted I fill a drink bottle and bring it back to Auckland for Nana, who was hoping for pinot noir I think but at least pretended to be pleased with the gift.
The next day we drove up the newly (partly) sealed Remarkables road to hike to Lake Alta - a 90-minute return walk, with more exciting free water at the top (this doesn’t sound like much competition for screen time I know, but I guess you had to be there).
Sunday lunch was at Canyon Brewing, a wonderful business with a restaurant and onsite brewery in a sunny spot overlooking the Shotover River. The food is fantastic and each beer has its own story - I drank a sour flavoured with the pulp of local cherries. Ingredients for the beer are grown by special arrangement at a local farm, with spent grain from the brewing process fed to the cattle who’ll one day visit the restaurant in their own way.
Ahead of our flight home, we stopped at Nadia Lim’s Royalburn Station farm shop in Arrowtown (okay, we went to the Remarkable Sweet Shop too). Nadia’s farm has its own incredible story (not to mention TV show) but in short, she and her husband Carlos are doing food at a mass scale while maintaining a very high ethical and environmental standard. You can imagine what the rest of the farming sector might have thought when this project began but it’s been a huge success - and now other farms are adopting the same “green” practices, primarily because it’s good for business.
Prominent climate change engineer Saul Griffith says that fighting climate change should taste at least as good as carrots, and maybe as good as ice cream. A low-carbon Queenstown holiday is a great example of this - some of the businesses doing the most for the planet just happen to be the ones you’d want to visit anyway.
For more to see and do, visit queenstownnz.co.nz