Looking out over weeping willows by a lazy river I realised I had been living a lie. I was not meant to be a 9 to 5 wage-slave. I was meant for luxury, to be cocooned and pampered. I was quite at home at Millbrook Resort near Arrowtown, one of Bill Clinton's favourite little hideaways.

It was all part of a long, indulgent weekend spent exploring the vineyards, tasting the local cuisine, and visiting local artists around the Remarkables.

My stay involved whiling away a couple of hours at Millbrook's rebuilt spa. The old one was destroyed by fire last year and in its place is a $1.7 million development that looks surprisingly modest from the outside.

Inside are 10 treatment rooms where bodies are steamed and massaged into blissful relaxation. Couples can even have dual massages and then take a break with a glass of bubbly or two in the adjoining private lounge. The spa's steam rooms have Turkish bath-style steam sessions and a shower that uses high-pressure jets to give what is described as an "invigorating experience".

Well, I may be in the adventure capital of the world but the air outside, at around 10 deg C, is bracing and luxuriating in lots of steam and natural oils is much more to my liking.

It's not just resort guests who can use Millbrook's facilities. "Lots of locals play golf here or use the fitness centre and spa. We're by no means a gated community," says Matt Green, the marketing manager of the 200ha resort.

It seems no matter how much Queenstown and Arrowtown depend on tourism, they still manage to look after the locals.

Over in the ruggedly beautiful Gibbston Valley, we have lunch at Waitiri Creek, a boutique vineyard which sells its wine to Kiwi restaurants, and exports mainly to the United States.

Pinot noir is the flagship wine of Central Otago and to this end, says Waitiri Creek's wine manager Jason Moss, the growers work together to sell it to the world. It's a co-operative venture that has earned them international acclaim. "It's in our best interests as that way we can guarantee our reputation," says Moss.

Waitiri Creek's cafe and wine tasting is housed in what was Wangaloa Presbyterian Church. The 115-year-old wooden church was shifted on to the site and fits in so perfectly, many are surprised to learn it's a relative newcomer. On the day I visit it's mid-week and comfortably full, split fairly evenly between locals and visitors.

The cafe offers a small but interesting menu. However, as soon as we hear the special of the day - a paella made with orzo (instead of rice), chorizo, scallops, mussels and Bluff oysters - we're sold. And it's excellent, if somewhat substantial (something that would not normally worry me). Yet in a few hours I'll be having dinner at Saffron in Arrowtown.

The town that prospered from gold fever in the 1860s and survived after the gold ran out is picture-book pretty and thriving. The cribs that were holiday homes for Southlanders and Otago folk are now worth upwards of $1 million. Some would say Arrowtown is too twee but I reckon there's a real sense of pride in this little town of stone and timber cottages. As one local puts it: "It's much more of place for grown-ups than Queenstown."

By that I guess he meant you don't come here just to throw yourself off a bridge with a big rubber band round your ankles.

The Arrowtown post office has just been spruced up and outside is a wooden bench under a rose arbour inviting you to rest up. It has a fine local museum where a great deal of thought and trouble has been taken to recreate the lives of the pioneers.

Someone who has played a pivotal role in getting Arrowtown taken seriously with foodies is chef Peter Gawron. He and partner Melanie Hill own the elegant Saffron, the cosy cocktail bar The Blue Door, and the more casual pizza and pasta restaurant Pesto. Gawron likes to use local produce and give it a Pacific twist. Tonight he's preparing a degustation of peking duck in crepes; whitebait three different ways, sauteed in olive oil, crispy fried, and cooked in a thin omelette; crisp-fried pork belly and paua with Vietnamese mint and beansprouts; cranberry sorbet; and char-grilled Auckland Island scampi on hijiki seaweed with coriander, lemongrass and coconut dressing. It's sensational and easy to see why Conde Nast Traveller listed Saffron in its top 100 tables of "the world's most exciting restaurants".

Arrowtown, too is where an old soft-topped 1937 Chevrolet bus is often seen trundling around. In the driver's seat is either Robyn or Jean-Claude Handtschoewercker who run the Remarkable Experience art and wine tour. For 25 years, this bus lay neglected in a paddock. Owners Neville and Margaret Bryant spent five years restoring it and one year battling bureaucracy - no engine number and no seat belts caused the Ministry of Transport major headaches - until the 20-seater bus was on the road again.

The Remarkable Experience involves a circuit from Queenstown to Arrowtown which changes depending on which artists are at home. "It's not like work to us; we both love art and history," says Robyn.

Today we drop in on landscape artist Paul Cato at his gallery. Cato started dabbling in oils as a 9-year-old and became hooked. His paintings, which he describes as realistic impressionism, sell for upwards of $20,000. Inspiration is on his doorstep - the mountains, rivers, rock and tussock. Despite a brief experiment with watercolours and acrylics, oils remain his medium. "It's the power, the strength, the oomph I can get out of oils," says Cato. And everything is on a big scale. Cato, knows a lot about scale. At 2m tall he was in demand as a scale model for the Lord of the Rings.

Down the road we call in to have a look at the work of watercolourists Brian Millard and Marilyn Palmer. What is so impressive, apart from having the chance to talk to artists on their own turf, is the extraordinary talent in this area.

We take a break from culture for coffee and a platter of fruit, meat and cheeses at The Stables in Arrowtown and then a spot of wine-tasting at Amisfield overlooking Lake Hayes. I meet Da' Vella Gore, another gifted and truly tenacious local, when we call in next door. One day she saw some workmen tearing down a church in Hokitika and decided to buy the materials. She transported them 500km to Lake Hayes where she decided to build a grand English-style country house. Gore and her 8-year-old son Wayne lived in a caravan for three years as she began building her dream.

That was 25 years ago. Today, thanks to materials from another old church, Gore's property boasts a grand house, chapel and beautiful gardens which are open to visitors.

All this despite cancer and, eight years ago, a car accident which nearly cost her her sight and ability to walk.

Gore is a painter who has also written This Blessed House (Taiwan has had 2 million copies printed and it wants another million) on the trials of building, or as she says: "How not to build a house."

In mid-winter she'll be taking a break from the home and garden tours. She's just bought a motorhome and is "going up the Dart [River], into the wop wops, dear," for a couple of months to paint.

Remarkable people it seems are common round here.

* Barbara Harris was a guest of Destination Queenstown.

Autumn is party time 

Autumn is traditionally a quiet time in the Wakatipu Basin, but there's still a lot to do. The riot of colour from the autumn leaves that Arrowtown is famous for provides the perfect backdrop to the town's 21st autumn birthday festival which begins this week. It starts on Friday and runs through to Sunday May 8, and includes street parties, art exhibitions and workshops plus lots of family entertainment.

To encourage more visitors during the autumn, for the third year running businesses have banded together to offer a huge range of discounts on accommodation and activities in the area.

The Do More in May campaign offers online coupons which are valid from April 15 to June 15. All those who redeem coupons go into a prize draw for a trip for two to Queenstown from anywhere in the country with Air New Zealand, plus $5000 spending money on an American Express card.

Check out www.queenstown-nz.co.nz

Getting there

Air New Zealand and Qantas fly direct to Queenstown.

Check www.airnewzealand.co.nz or www.qantas.co.nz


Millbrook Resort

Only 20km from Queenstown. Prices start from $390 for the Village Inn studio rooms, going up to $1600 for a Fairway home. A typical 90-minute body treatment with steam infusion and massage costs $190.

Contact Millbrook Resort at Private Bag, Queenstown, toll free 0800 800 604 or www.millbrook.co.nz

Arrowtown House

A luxury boutique lodge just a few minutes' walk from restaurants and shops. It costs $250 a night for one, or $445 a night for two, including choices such as smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast.

Arrowtown House is at 10 Caernarvon St, Arrowtown, phone (03) 442 0025 or www.arrowtownhouse.co.nz

Eating out Saffron

Seriously good food with an extensive menu with the emphasis on New Zealand's finest produce. Open for lunch and dinner. A seven-course degustation menu costs $110.

It's at 18 Buckingham St, Arrowtown, phone (03) 442 0131 or www.saffronrestaurant.co.nz

Waitiri Creek winery

From now until December Waitiri Creek is open Thursday to Monday with lunch from 11am-3pm and wine tastings and sales 11am-5pm. It's at Church Lane, SH6 Gibbston Valley, phone (03) 441 3315 or www.waitiricreek.co.nz

Things to do Remarkable Experience

Three-and-a-half-hour art and wine tour of the Wakatipu region.

It costs $125 each.

Contact them at PO Box 552, Queenstown, phone (03) 409 8578 or check www.remarkableexperience.com.

Historic retail therapy

For a bit of history thrown in with shopping visit Vesta, a design store housed in the 1864 Williams Cottage, where original fittings and much of the early wallpapers remain. It has a sunny courtyard for coffee and nibbles but best of all it stocks some funky homeware and gifts - 95 per cent of which come from New Zealand designers.

It's on Marine Parade, Queenstown, phone (03) 442 5687 or www.vestadesign.co.nz