Visiting Queenstown’s Walter Peak: Steamboat Sailing On Lake Whakatipu & A Gourmet Buffet Set Ashore

By Julia Gessler
This 300-acre working sheep station is planting backyard gardens to service an all-year barbecue buffet.

Julia Gessler heads to Queenstown to experience Walter Peak high country farm, its Colonel’s Homestead Restaurant, executive chef Will Eaglesfield’s gourmet barbecue buffet, and the main mode of transport: the coal-fired TSS Earnslaw.

Walter Peak sprawls across the shorefront of Lake Whakatipu.
Walter Peak sprawls across the shorefront of Lake Whakatipu.

Walter Peak can feel like a buffet at the end of the world, or the beginning of it.

The Englishman’s story is a familiar one: Will came to Queenstown for a ski season, then never left. “I used to flit between the French Alps for skiing in winter, and the Med for windsurfing in summer,” he says. “Here, I can do it all in one handy location.”

Where he works, the location comes with beautiful wood wainscoting, bay windows that take in Lake Whakatipu’s south-western shores, and plaid and candles and highland cows redolent of a Scottish romance. Will describes the sprawling one-storey building as a “classic Kiwi homestead”. The restaurant orbits around an open barbecue kitchen, which is used for Southland grass-fed beef, contorni such as courgettes, and to blister cauliflower heads marinated in things like Sichuan.

A chef works in the open barbecue kitchen, blistering and charring New Zealand produce.
A chef works in the open barbecue kitchen, blistering and charring New Zealand produce.

A great buffet is a glutton’s game, a choose-your-own-adventure that delineates your needs and wants with elaborate sides and serving one’s self a pile of 20 prawns in a move both embarrassing and dignified. An ideal meal begins wherever you want it to, so I start with the salads: Beetroot and piko piko with manuka-smoked cashews; generously diced heirloom tomatoes tossed in an olive crumble; roast potatoes cooked alongside confit garlic and duck fat until they’re a deep, crunchy brown – that unmatched crisp skin. The meats read like a butcher’s inventory – beef, pork, chicken, lamb – and you’ll find more fish during the dinner service. On the day I visited, vegan Māori potato gnocchi was available on request.

A hotplate from the buffet, garnished with rosemary.
A hotplate from the buffet, garnished with rosemary.

The sticky toffee pudding is the star here. It is classic – a saucy cakelet served in a miniature skillet that you’ll pluck out of a sort of cauldron that keeps it warm. There is, blessedly, homemade vanilla icecream to have with it, along with plenty of other artisanal desserts to wade through, including chocolate tartlets with stonefruit and macadamia, chocolate beet brownies, and a light-as-air mochaccino mousse. Buffet aficionados will bring a Ziplock bag, or a napkin. Semi-obscured by the copious amounts of sweets is a shelf decorated with containers and copyright-complying labels: “baby fish”, “pineapple chunks”, “orange chocolate balls”.

Everything is unquestionably geared towards eaters venturing from somewhere: the kitchen runs to the schedule of the boats that arrive every two hours, and a farm tour, available during your visit should you choose, includes a dog show where unsuspecting sheep are shuffled through a paddock, while another is shorn of all its wool on stage in one grandiose haircut. And so the tables fill with couples with backpacks, families with brooding teens and anyone not working on a Wednesday.

Single dessert servings, topped with velvety creams and dried fruit ribbons.
Single dessert servings, topped with velvety creams and dried fruit ribbons.

That’s why they serve comfort food, says Will, but elevated with a little finesse. “None of the dishes should be scary to people, or intimidating.” He takes the approachability part of the assignment seriously, but it hasn’t limited him. Really, he works without limits: there is no set menu, and much of what his team cooks is dependent on what has been grown in their organic gardens on site, or on the seasonal produce they’ve purchased locally. “The great thing about not being committed to a menu that we’re publishing is that we can get 20kg of quince and make quince paste and use that for a day, a week, a single service,” he says.

The food is simple enough and fresh enough that you can pinpoint exactly what spoke to you because Will is adamant on it being authentic to the area. “People are able to taste the peas and beans from the plant, which is very different from when they’ve been picked and then chilled and transported, then left for a few more days, because within half an hour of being picked, they start to lose some of their sugars,” he explains. “I spend all my time doing ready-steady-cook with things that come out of the gardens.”

He also spends his time foraging. When we meet for this interview, on a dock on Queenstown’s waterfront, Will is holding a sack of watercress. He’d picked it earlier from around Moke Lake, and will bistro it into something delicious, like he does with the mānuka he finds growing around the back of his house. “I like using mānuka to make tea and then infuse that into the things that I make,” he says, adding that he can’t resist horopito and kawakawa either. “I have to hold myself back sometimes.”

This coal-fired screw steamer, the TSS Earnslaw, has been sailing since 1912.
This coal-fired screw steamer, the TSS Earnslaw, has been sailing since 1912.

The gardens, which were built in the latter half of last year, are overseen by horticulturist Paul Carr. Walter Peak wants to produce 10 per cent of its own produce in its first year with these crops, then 20 per cent in its second, and so on until it reaches 80 per cent. For now, they tend to finger radishes and kohlrabi, kale and a “feijoa alley”. The most productive trees are the plums, the first. The bees at the back of the orchard have bedded down for the winter, living on batches of sugar water sitting at the bottom of their hives in lieu of the honey Will’s team has tenderly harvested.

“We will never get to 100 per cent,” says Will, a catch of sorrow. Meyer lemons, one of his favourite ingredients, won’t grow well in the alpine climes. But he perseveres, and preserves: hulking jars of shelf-stable fruits and vegetables are scattered across the dining hall, balancing time.

Julia Gessler travelled to Walter Peak courtesy of RealNZ.

More going places

Some standout destinations with Aotearoa.

What to do in the Wairarapa: Stay at luxury lodge Wharekauhau and sip wine at The Runholder. Julia Gessler stays in a lodge perched in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.

The Landing in the Bay of Islands offers unsurpassable luxury in one of the country’s most beautiful locations. Johanna Thornton spends a weekend in one of New Zealand’s premier luxury retreats, with four architecturally designed residences and an award-winning vineyard in a stunning coastal location.

Where to eat, drink and stay in Hawke’s Bay for a weekend. Jesse Mulligan spends a weekend living his best life in Hawke’s Bay, where locals are keen to spread the word they’re open for business.

The Black Diamond: Is this NZ’s ultimate private dining experience? South Island luxury lodge The Lindis’ new addition is an absolute gem.

Marlon Williams’ guide to Aotearoa. Where to eat, drink, shop and soak in our beautiful country, as told to Karl Puschmann.

Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: