A Central Otago boutique hotel with a conscience mixes pleasure with wellbeing, discovers Jesse Mulligan.
In the age of the hipster, coolness in a hotel is almost as important as luxury. At LA's The Standard, a female model broods in a fishtank behind reception, while US chain Hotel Palomar provides guests with a goldfish on request if they're alone and feel like company.
At the new Sherwood in Queenstown, the coolness comes from somewhere deeper, and more authentic. Described as "an experiment in modern living", it's a hotel, restaurant, cocktail bar and wellbeing centre. Each aspect works independently, but all flow from the same core philosophy: doing good for the world, doing good to your body and not taking the whole thing too seriously.
This last bit is quite important, given that the idea of staying at a hotel where employees constantly hector you about improving your posture and recycling your drink bottle isn't particularly alluring. In fact, though the staff are all on message, much of the worthiness lies below the surface, out of sight until you scratch around.
Examples: the stylish black kitchen floor in each room is made from recycled car tyres; the dark brown feature wall is made from carbon negative cork. My cocktail of the day was built around the last organic boysenberries of the summer harvest, and the grilled zucchini was picked minutes earlier from the chef's vegetable garden. That vegetable garden is enclosed by one of New Zealand's only dual slalom mountain bike tracks, built by Sherwood as a gift to the MTB-mad Queenstown community.
Want more? How about jars of kombucha, a hilltop tepee, low-waste paper drinking straws, a busy espresso machine where reception should be. Then there's the live music, afternoon pilates, a whisky library, and the fact the hotel is entirely powered by new solar panels on the roof.
A $25 room surcharge covers wifi, yoga classes and bike hire, so there's a good incentive to make the most of the facilities (beds start at $60 a night in a dorm and range up to full-size family suites). A holiday of stretching, pedalling, eating and drinking would be good fun even if you were in Levin, but this is Central Otago, an interactive movie set and bucket list theme park.
To create Sherwood, the owners (some of whom launched the original Matterhorn and Golden Dawn) took over a mock-Tudor 1980s motor court and set about improving it. Principles of conservation and respect dictated they work with the existing structure and, in some cases, chattels. They ripped up the stuff that was worn down but kept the green carpet and pink porcelain where it wasn't yet old enough to throw out (there's enough cool new stuff for it to work).
The biggest improvements are to the architecture of the dining room and bar, now a beautiful hangout space with communal tables, low lighting and an incredible open kitchen where the best seats are ringside.
Chef Ainsley Thompson serves up a menu filled with thoughtful, whole, nutritionally dense food, from grain-free muesli in the morning through to raw cacao tart at the end of the night.
Every ingredient has a story to it -- all day long Ainsley pickles, ferments and bakes using things she's foraged, grown or bargained from some local farmer who's been door-knocked and bullied into sharing his best crops.
Meanwhile, in the bar, they're knocking up drinks to match: cordial of fresh elderberry for as long as it's growing in clumps across the lake; orange-coloured wine from organic winery Mount Edward, where they get their kicks from messing around with centuries-old fermentation techniques.
I'm breathless describing it to you, yet we're in Queenstown and I haven't even taken you out the front gate. Never mind the horse trek we took from Glenorchy through rivers and forests into Lord of the Rings country, or the soak in a private spa pool set into a cliff face, or the 15-minute drive to Disney-perfect Arrowtown (dinner at the excellent La Rumbla then a movie at the local boutique cinema and a world class cocktail to finish the night).
Forget extreme sports and Fergburgers. Sherwood is the new Queenstown, where the built environment complements the natural environment, where luxury is a democratised right independent of wealth and status, and where every mouthful of food makes you feel like a better person.
Eat your way around Queenstown - then work it off
Restaurateur Fleur Caulton has lived in Queenstown for 25 years, opening her first restaurant at age 21 and now is business partner and co-owner of Rata and Madam Woo with Josh Emett. Husband Daz is a photographer and film location scout and they have a 10-year-old son, Max.
It's no surprise that Fleur suggests visitors dine at her restaurants Rata ("the ultimate southern dining experience") and Madam Woo ("fun, vibrant and authentic Malaysian street food"). But she also recommends Kappa Sushi for ("best bento lunch box ever"), Vudu Larder (best breakfast and best baking - "try the peanut butter bliss balls and the hummingbird cake with lashings of cream cheese icing"), and Arrowtown's Chop Shop (modern and interesting breakfasts and lunches), and La Rumbla (Spanish-style tapas).
Her five must-do experiences in Central Otago are:
• A walk up Queenstown hill to see the beautiful vistas over the town and to experience the dramatic intenseness of the Remarkables and the lake.
• A helicopter ride into the mountains to Lake Lochnagar with a bottle of bubbles and a picnic.
• A ride on the Dart River Wilderness Jet, an outstanding way to experience the natural beauty of the entrance to Fiordland National Park.
• A trip on the TSS Earnslaw to Walter Peak Station for lunch. "The 100-year-old boat is an incredible way to travel the lake, and the food on the other side is outstanding."
• Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell is a 40-minute drive from Queenstown and an extraordinary experience with something for everyone. "We go go-karting on a regular basis and have a running scoreboard. You can also do hot laps in very fast cars, and it has an amazing museum and a good restaurant."
While you're there . . .
• High Country Horses host short and long treks through incredible scenery for riders of all experience levels.
• Onsen Hot Pools offer romantic private spas overlooking the Shotover River.
• Dorothy Brown's is Arrowtown's gorgeous boutique cinema, bar and bookshop.
• La Rumbla serves first-class tapas-style food and a long list of great wine by the glass.
• The Blue Door is a cosy stone building with a fireplace and a serious approach to cocktails.
• Organic winery Mount Edward has a pimping cellar door, which is worth the extra work it takes to find it.
Getting there: Queenstown is a two-hour flight from Auckland.
Accommodation: Sherwood is 3.5km out of Queenstown at 554 Frankton Rd.