I know many who have been wanting to “do” Otago in autumn for the best part of their adult life, but invariably end up there in winter because, you know, skiing! So, it’s with a hint of smugness that I report on my recent harvest holiday.
The comparisons begin when my partner and I collected our Wellington friends at Queenstown airport, and they were delighting in the warm breeze that greeted them, rather than a biting cold.
ARROWTOWN TO BANNOCKBURN
As a foursome who love food and wine, we planned our itinerary around our stomachs, so it was straight to Amisfield for lunch where we lucked out with Bluff oysters and crayfish on the menu.
The warmth of the day made courtyard dining extremely pleasant, and it is here that the open fire, used extensively for the lunch menu, resides. Meats hang above, benefiting from the smoke, and our crayfish was plunged into the coals, the charred crustacean presented then taken away to be cut and plated with a crayfish body sauce.
Remarkable fungi mushrooms and a beetroot juice bearnaise came together in a nod to the season, and we raised our glasses to this being exactly why we came here in autumn.
Amisfield dining is long and languid, but we were hitting the road, for all of nine minutes, to check in at Gibbston Valley Lodge. We remarked on the tranquillity of the Lodge a departure from the busyness of the cellar door, winery and restaurant complex where we were taken by the coolness (in ambience and temperature) of the wine cave, bought Whitestone cheese to enjoy with a wine in our villa garden, and surveyed the region's first vines planted in 1983. Following a private wine tasting at the Lodge, we ordered dinner from a menu of local, West Coast and Southland ingredients.
The Otago region has gone cycle mad, and it only took a few turns of an e-bike’s pedals to see why. You can go a long way under battery power and there were plenty of thrills along the Gibbston Valley trail that twists and turns alongside the Kawarau River, where the water flows at a swimmable temperature at this time of year.
This day was about vineyards and from the vines at Peregrine we pedalled up the backroad to Mount Edward where it's always a good time and, even deep in a hard and fast 2022 harvest, Duncan Forsyth poured tasters that were as compelling as the winemaker. How was he feeling about those grapes coming in the door? "The stellar summer and amazing autumn weather is giving us clean grapes with zero disease pressure apart from Covid. The wines are looking vibrant and eminently drinkable … you'll want more than one bottle from this vintage."
A heady mix of good wine and company made for a hilarious day that included stops at Mt Rosa, who have moved into a very smart new version of their original tasting shed; Coxs' Vineyard where art aficionados can get lost in the treasures at Seifert Gallery, which shares space with the tasting room; and Kinross, where you can taste Valli, Coal Pit, Hawkshead and Wild Irishman wines and stay in the vineyard cottages. For us, it was back to the Lodge, where we had spa treatments booked to ease the day's activities, with a cleansing ale under the trees in the Gibbston Tavern garden on the way.
Arrowtown's Little Aosta proved the perfect dinner choice the fritto misto being autumn on a plate. The chefs, led by Ben Bayly, lightly batter seasonal vegetables, herbs and flowers from Gibbston Valley's legendary Nevis Gardens, fry them to perfection and serve them family-style for everyone to dive into.
Continuing our wine trail by car, we drove through the gorge to Bannockburn where we had appointments at Stewart Town Vineyard, which overlooks the Stewart Town ruins where the 100-year-old pear trees are bearing fruit, and Felton Road because … yes, pinot noir, but hello dry riesling.
Following a dramatic walk through the Bannockburn Sluicings a valley of caves, tunnels and rock tailings abandoned by gold miners lunch was a highly praised Desert Heart platter, served on the lawn overlooking the Kawarau by the hospitable creator herself, Jane Gill, who talked of the platter’s seasonal delights harvested from neighbouring gardens.
We gave ourselves the afternoon to relax at Lowburn's Mt Michael Lodge, soaking in the serenity of the surrounding vineyards and mountain ranges from the swimming pool and our room's spa. This boutique bed and breakfast is pure luxury, the John Blair-designed home absorbs its occupants, and owners Fiona and Alistair give you as little or as much attention as you desire. There are homemade and local treats in the rooms and the breakfast table is full of fresh and preserved seasonal fruits.
Dinner was at The Stoaker Room, in the marquee that takes in the colour of the trees on the neighbouring orchard and the setting sun. With food cooked in Quintin Quider's unique oak wine barrel "stoakers", it has the relaxed vibe of a backyard barbecue with delectably smoky cuts of meat and seafood and a well-considered range of beer and wine that includes Quider's Wild Earth label.
We took it slow the next day, walking the 45th Southern Parallel track, which takes you high above Lake Dunstan with an iconic view towards Wanaka. In the late afternoon we basked in the western sun over a wine tasting at Te Kano. As they prefer to give individual groups their undivided attention, we had the sleek, award-winning cellar door to ourselves and dreamt that this could be home.
Dinner was early at the Bannockburn Hotel where the 200-plus wine list, a quarter of which is available by the glass, lets you know you are in wine country. This historic pub has been successfully shaped into a modern restaurant with a shared plates menu that brings a global flavour.
LOWBURN TO CLYDE
We were back on two wheels the following day to ride the Dunstan trail after a "proper" lunch at Carrick where produce from the vineyard gardens and chickens appear on chef Gwen Harvie's seasonal menu.
Setting off on the trail we spotted the vineyard’s holiday houses among the vines overseeing harvest activities people moving through the rows picking grapes which tractors carted to bustling wineries the odd bunch left behind on the vivid yellow poplar-lined road.
The trail is spectacularly diverse. The established tress, vineyards and olive groves at the Bannockburn end tail off to dramatic rock faces along the Clutha River before things open out again and the glow of Clyde in autumn appears before you.
Cycling to the door of our accommodation at The Lord Clyde, we rested weary legs on plush, super-king beds before heading two doors down to dinner. Werner Hecht-Wendt is now cooking dinner in The Old Clyde Bank the cafe he owns with wife Wendy. Well-known from their days at Bannockburn's Mt Difficulty, they are a welcome addition to the Clyde dining scene that includes the popular Olivers.
CLYDE TO HAWEA
Taking the Cromwell to Tarras road to Wanaka, we spent a few hours at Cloudy Bay touring their vineyards, sipping a glass of Te Wahi in the vines that this year's grapes have just been picked from, and enjoying lunch on The Shed terrace. Chef Harry Bonning-Snook has taken the menu from bites and platters to a series of impeccable grazing dishes showcasing seasonal local produce. Each dish has a suggested wine match and on this occasion the salmon carpaccio and 2021 sauvignon blanc stole the show.
The glassy lake cradled by majestic mountains took our breath away as we drove into Lake Hawea and through the towering trees of The Camp to Cross Hill where a unique geo-dome experience takes glamping to a new level. The tented ceiling and walls one side clear, to take in the natural surroundings and night skies say camping; the well-appointed bathroom and kitchenette say luxury boutique hotel.
Glen Dene Station’s Sarah and Richard Burdon have thought of every detail in The Camp development, and they bring high country hospitality through the family environment at the lodge where dome guests enjoy breakfast, and dinners on request.
The couple’s warmth and generosity flow through the team of hosts who cheerfully look after your every need.
Autumn is an idyllic time to be at one with nature here and there was little need to leave with a food truck at The Camp serving food and drinks to fill the gaps. We drove 15 minutes down the road to Wanaka to dine at Muttonbird where chef/owners George Proudfoot and Jonty Jackson create fun, flavoursome food in a smart, casual way that challenges and satisfies the palate.
Activity time in Wanaka was spent on a series of lake walks. We ate lip-smacking American-style sandwiches from the Wanaka 'Wich Project at Ground Up Brewing, and beer became the tasting du jour with visits to Rhyme and Reason and b.social breweries. We did get a wine tasting in, on yet another terrace, at Maude, overlooking the lake and the Wanaka golf course, where we swear the trees were changing colour before our eyes.
A birthday was timed perfectly for brunch at Arc, which may well be the most special breakfast in New Zealand. A restaurant rather than cafe, James Stapley and Sam Cooper provide the same level of service and detail as you would find at dinner, including breakfast cocktails and such things as Fiordland fresh crayfish and salted cod eggs benedict.
WANAKA TO QUEENSTOWN
Through the Cardrona Valley on the way over the hill to Queenstown we stopped at the Cardrona Distillery to buy the birthday girl a bottle of single malt and mixologist Joey enticed us into his shiny brass bar for a cocktail and freshly shucked oysters.
There were more spirits to taste at the Gin Garden in Arthurs Point. This bar/restaurant is also the tasting room for locally distilled Broken Heart gin, vodka, rum, whisky and Oktoberfest lager. It's young, fun and hard to leave without a bottle or two once the team have helped you define your gin preferences.
Checking into Sherwood came with mixed feelings: it was comforting to be at our home away from home, but it was the last night of our autumn adventure.
We walked along the lake to Altitude Brewing for a beer because the after-work vibe was captivating, as was the late-afternoon light on the Remarkables.
Flight times gave us a moment to wander the Sherwood garden where we reconnected with ingredients on last night’s “leave it to us” dishes tomatoes, eggplant, beans, lettuces, berries, pears, rhubarb, herbs … Executive chef Chris Scott told me they have plans to triple the size of this already impressive organic garden that influences the way he cooks and ties into Sherwood’s wellbeing and sustainability ethos.
We headed home invigorated and content. Autumn is the best time here every local said it and we felt it.
The air was still and warm, as were the rivers and lakes. The sun rose and set in a blaze of fiery hues which were reflected in the vegetation during the day.
The people are enchanting and deeply passionate about their produce that has fed and watered us so memorably. It’s a great big “We’ll be back!” from us.