Tim Roxborogh has the lunch of his life, among other fantastic experiences.
Lunches, I've had a few. Sure, it may not have quite the same punch as Frank Sinatra's "regrets, I've had a few" from My Way, but it'll do. The point being, I've been lucky to have some good lunches in some amazing places over the years, but I'm pretty certain that nothing — neither food nor setting — will ever quite compare to lunch in Fiordland National Park.
Helicopters, crayfish and glaciers; fly fishing, rainforests and remote beaches, we'll get to that particular pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming chapter in a moment, but the truth is this entire three-day Central Otago and Fiordland jaunt had something of a dreamlike haze to it.
Perhaps it was the wine. Indeed, wine was the reason for the trip, with internationally renowned Kiwi winery Cloudy Bay launching its new cellar door facility, The Shed, just out of Cromwell.
With Cloudy Bay among New Zealand's most highly regarded labels, going back to the mid-1980s when it was first established in the-then fledgling wine region of Marlborough, the company felt it was time to create a physical presence in Central Otago too.
Scouring the region for vineyards that weren't just visually stunning but could produce grapes that would honour the Cloudy Bay reputation, in the early part of this decade the company found what it was looking for. It bought the Northburn Vineyard, overlooking the teal waters and mesmeric, shadowy mountain landscapes of Lake Dunstan, and starting leasing part of the nearby Calvert vineyard. This is not a part of the world lacking in the looks department, but wow. In both settings, though particularly the Northburn vineyard — where Cloudy Bay now has 'The Shed', I couldn't stop taking photos.
The trip began with an afternoon flight to Queenstown, followed by a drive to Whare Kea Lodge in Wanaka for welcome drinks and dinner. In a living room with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the lake and mountains, much mingling was done with the assistance of some extremely pleasant Cloudy Bay selections.
"Extremely pleasant" are clearly not the words of a sommelier or fancy wine writer, but for a regular-guy connoisseur like me, I know enough that Cloudy Bay's Pelorus has long been my go-too bubbly.
The next day was all about tasting. In conjunction with 4WD tours of both Central Otago properties, we would stop to sample the pinot noir and sauvignon blanc that are the pillars of Cloudy Bay's international standing. I sniffed, swirled and sipped the likes of the Te Wahi, a sensational, high-end Central Otago pinot noir described by Cloudy Bay as having "an elegant core of concentrated damson and hedgerow fruit, underpinned by extremely fine tannins and a vibrant freshness".
Then there was the Te Koko, an "expressive and vibrant" Marlborough sauv with "a balance between ripe stonefruits and citrus intensity".
Or as I might say, "extremely pleasant."
After a lovely outdoor, wine-paired dinner at The Shed, it was back to Wanaka for the night and I went to sleep knowing a very good day was ahead.
Well, it turns out "a very good day" is in a similar category to "extremely pleasant" in its utter inadequacy in explaining just how incredible this experience was. The morning dawned with a perfect blue sky and judging from the brown of the hills, this didn't look to be out of the ordinary.
Destination number one on this day of foraging for the food that can grace the plates of those lucky enough to visit The Shed was Lake Wanaka, for a spot of fly fishing. Each chopper found a secluded spot on the lake and after landing, our pilot and guide presented us with rods and showed us how to fish.
We'd barely picked our jaws off the ground after the flight from Wanaka Airport, but here on the lake, enveloped by burnt mountains whose cinematic beauty shone even without snow, this was truly spectacular. One of our group, Kevin, was the first to feel the tug of a trout and though I may have been more focused on my stone-skimming than I was on my fishing, we all felt the excitement.
Then, rising through valleys criss-crossed with rivers and dotted by waterfalls, suddenly we were above the snowline. Still with the cloudless blue sky against us, we reunited with the other helicopters to land in formation on Tyndall Glacier. We posed for photos in the snow, ice and rock and if the day had ended right there, it would have been amazement enough.
Turns out it was only stop number two of five —with stop number three taking us from the snow and dry of Central Otago for the lush rainforests of Fiordland National Park. The change couldn't have been more abrupt, but once over the spine of the Southern Alps, we'd gone from barren landscape to snow to dense, rain-drenched bush and all in the space of a couple of hours. In a region where rain falls 200 days a year, we were still bathed in sun as we came in to land on a beach as evoking of Jurassic Park as any I've seen in this country.
We might've been closer to Antarctica than the equator, but this was wild, jungle-like bush and though we didn't see dinosaurs, it felt like it wouldn't have been a surprise to spot a moa or two. What we did see were crayfish, and plenty of them, as another helicopter arrived having lifted a cage from the sea carrying the creatures who would be joining Kevin's fish on our lunch plates.
Cameras and phones worked overtime just to document it all, then it was briefly back to the helicopters where we hugged the coastline before darting inland again. Spotting a clearing next to a river, surrounded by the mountain greens of the national park, we touched down.
This was it, the most magical of all the stops. The guides and pilots combined to build a barbecue on the edge of the mossy forest, while the rest of us popped corks on bottles of Cloudy Bay Pelorus Rosé.
Alongside the crayfish and the trout, lamb was cooked, salads tossed and we sat, a circle of slightly stunned, extremely grateful guests.
Even that salad had been sourced locally from a delightful Wanaka garden (we dropped into it — by helicopter of course, darling! — on our way back to The Shed later that afternoon). That would be stop five, but it was stop number four where we ate the lunch of all lunches that I know will loom the largest.
Finally back at The Shed after a day of so much gob-smacking wonder it was hard to process it all, I sat in the grass under a lakeside tree. With a wine in hand and the sun sinking towards the painting-like, slowly grooved hills above Lake Dunstan, I asked myself if I'd ever had a day quite like it in all my life. "Lunches, I've had a few".
● The Cloudy Bay Shed is at 45 Northburn Station Rd, Cromwell, and is open 11am-5pm, seven days a week.
● The Shed has a lunch menu to pair with the full range of Cloudy Bay wines. These can be enjoyed by the fireplace in winter, or outside by the lake in summer.
● A range of tasting experiences and vineyard tours — by land or air — are available.
● Visit cloudybay.co.nz for further details.
Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's Weekend Collective and blogs at roxboroghreport.com