Finally stealing the limelight from its famous neighbours (we still see you Queenstown), Cromwell is quite the head-turner, writes Tim Roxborogh
Luxury over-the-water resorts and Back to the Future DeLoreans weren't exactly what I was expecting from Cromwell, but when it's a quarter of a century since you last visited a place, don't be alarmed if it's changed a little.
The Cromwell I remembered was the placid, blue-skied, defiantly unruffled Central Otago orchard town where my sister was the local pharmacist for a time in the early 90s. Queenstown and Wānaka were both 45 minutes away in either direction and they were the known tourist centres and that was that. Sure, Cromwell had the obligatory oversized Kiwiana sculpture to let you know that yes, you were in small-town New Zealand, but beyond those glorious 13m-high fruit icons, it wasn't somewhere that was exactly pulling in the crowds.
You know what? The 90s were a long time ago. And if your ideas about Cromwell haven't been updated since a youthful Rachel Roxborogh kept the winter sniffles at bay for the approximately 3500 people who lived in the Cromwell basin 25 years ago, then prepare to be enlightened.
First things first, the gigantic welcoming fruit - an apricot, an apple, a pear and a nectarine - remain and rightly so. The apple alone is approximately 6m by 5m, undoubtedly making it one of the largest fake apples in the world. And given the entire 1.7-tonne sculpture is now more than 30 years old (the oversized fruit were constructed in 1989 as a gift from the Cromwell Rotary Club), they're now firmly a part of this now 10,000 strong region's story.
It's a story that entails the much growing of fruit, though in recent years it's grapes and cherries - controversially not a part of the sculpture - that bring in the cash. Regardless, a dry climate with hot summers and cold winters has long made Cromwell synonymous with fruit and indeed, fruit-picking.
Further back in the story of Cromwell are raucous tales from the Gold Rush of the late 1800s, with the town also being a historically significant service centre during those early pioneer days. With orchards and, more recently, wineries and vineyards replacing gold as the main economic driver, Cromwell always stayed on the map, albeit in slightly adjusted fashion. As in literally, as maps were altered with the flooding of the old town centre to create Lake Dunstan and the Clyde Dam, completed in 1993.
I was thinking all of this as I floated on Lake Dunstan in a hybrid spa pool-boat, aptly named "Spartacus". The brainchild of Anthony Robertson, the owner-manager of the Heritage Collection Lake Resort Cromwell, Robertson was throwing back a rum or two one night in 2016 when he thought, "Wouldn't it be awesome to combine a spa pool with a boat?" And where most of us would've gone, "It sure would!" and left it at that, he actually did it.
Having entered Spartacus from our over-the-water villa at the Heritage Collection Lake Resort, Robertson skippered me and some friends out into the middle of a lake that didn't used to exist, on a vessel that he invented. On a still, starry winter's night enveloped by the dramatic landscapes of Central Otago, it was stunning and surreal in equal measure.
As for those villas, they're among the more memorable accommodation options in a part of the world not short on them. Three-level boat-houses, complete with enormous decks, not to mention saunas and spas beneath. Oh, and access - via bookings - to Spartacus. It's like the Maldives crossed with Banff crossed with Santa Monica.
Whatever it is, the resort, and her motorised floating spa, are emblematic of the new, head-turning Cromwell. Much like the 2013-built Highlands Motorsport Park, which, if the thrills of Lake Dunstan or the surrounding world-class skiing and cycle trails aren't enough for you, really is an essential stop.
I'm hardly what you'd call a petrol head, but from yahooing it up in the go-karts to the hair-raising "U-Drive" experiences, I loved it. "U-drive", by the way, had me doing 170km/h in a Le Mans-style sports car, co-driven by professional driver Andrew Waite.
It was exhilarating, though I got just as big of a kick seeing a DeLorean in the Highlands Museum. With Back to the Future still up there with my all-time favourite movies, getting my photo snapped with the short-lived stainless steel vehicle that found immortality - and time travel - via the big screen, well, it may as well have been a selfie with Michael J. Fox.
Or if Aston Martins are more your thing, or a Transformers Bumblebee, or the Benetton that Michael Schumacher won his first Formula One with, it's little surprise this is said to be one of the premier car collections in the Southern Hemisphere.
And if somehow all of that isn't yet enough to lure you to Cromwell, just know that A-list cellar doors and wineries like Cloudy Bay's The Shed are now here, as well as restaurants like The Stoaker Room where the french oak pinot noir-barrel-cooked meat will make you reassess everything you thought you knew about cooking.
It's a long time since people just stopped for a photo with the massive fruit sculpture and carried on their way.
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