After spending over 3 weeks in Sydney and 2 months in Australia, we were ready to move onto our next country….New Zealand. This is our third trip to New Zealand. We have toured many of the country’s primary cities, sights and of course, wine regions. We have partaken in many of the South Island’s primary adventures including jetboating, kayaking, tramping across a glacier, boating through Waitomo Cave, cruising through the Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, and for Tom, bungee jumping. We have hiked some of the island’s classic trails (including the entire five-day Routeburn Track and part of the Queen Charlotte Coastal Track).
We intended for this trip to catch up on a few of our favorite places—especially Queenstown, Milford Sound, the Central Otaga wine region and Auckland—and to check one more item off our dwindling Bucket List—hiking the South Island’s famous Milford Track.
We began our trip in Queenstown.
Queenstown New Zealand
Queenstown is located in one of the most scenic, mountainous regions in the world. It is literally in a bowl: surrounded by mountains on three sides. It is anchored on one side with the lake, with its gravel beach, walking path, underwater viewing station and its docks that are crowded with cruise boats (including the 100-plus year-old TSS Earnslaw coal-fired steamboat) and a handful of pleasure craft.
The sides of the lake are lined with parks, including the very pretty Queenstown Gardens which has lovely flower gardens, lily ponds, huge trees (a species of California sequoia with which we aren’t familiar), and a lawn bowling club, ice arena and Frisbee golf course.
It is anchored on another side by the 1,500-foot Bob’s Peak and its gondola to the top, which offers 360-degree views, houses the obligatory restaurant and bar and platforms for parapenting (jumping off the cliff with a parachute) and a downhill luge run. Although we could see the gondola and the restaurant from our hotel room—and watch the gliders and parachutists land in the soccer field outside our window, we decided to pass on the gondola and the hike in favor of our own trek through the mountains (see our subsequent post for a discussion of our hike of the Milford Track).
Like most of central New Zealand South Island’s mountain towns, Queenstown had its origins in the 1860’s Gold Rush. And, like those of the other mountain towns that continue to survive, not to speak of thrive into the 21st century, it had to develop new identities and economies. Queenstown rebuilt its identity and economy on tourism, and especially adventure tourism.
Located on the country’s second-largest glacial lake (Lake Wakatipu) and with some of its wildest rivers (especially the Shotover), it offers water sports such as boating, swimming, whitewater rafting and kayaking and jetboating. Located in the center of “The Remarkables”, the South Pacific’s largest and coldest mountain range, it also offer a broad range of mountain sports such as skiing, hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, hang-gliding, parasailing and so forth. In fact, the primary paragliding landing zone was within feet from our hotel room window.
The area has even created some of its own adventure sports (especially bungee jumping from atop bridges and mountains). Or you can just sit back and enjoy the incredible views, either from land or from the deck of a refurbished 19th-century paddlewheel steamer.
The town is built around the three block-long “The Mall” pedestrian mall, which, along with all of the streets surrounding it, is lined with buildings that date from the 1870s. Many of these buildings now serve as restaurants, cafes and bars and shops that sell souvenirs, outdoor goods and clothing. Catering to a young adventure-seeking crowd, the town is loaded with pizza shops, dessert shops, novelty bars (such as an Ice Bar) and burger shops. This includes Fergburger, which appears to be the hottest ticket in town with lines of 40 or so people for takeout burgers every time we went by it no matter what the time.
The town also has a wonderful wine bar (The Winery) whose card-based dispensers offer 80 different regional wines by the taste or half or full glass. It also has a bottle shop and sections for tasting and buying whiskeys and specialty foods. This gave us a chance to taste a couple pinot noirs from Valli, a highly recommended winery that does not have a tasting room. Both of the 2014 vineyard designated (Gibbston and Waitaka Vineyards) are very big pinots that need several more years and have the acid required to hold them. That being said, the Waitaka, which has somewhat lighter fruit (more of a strawberry, compared with the Gibbston’s red cherry), is somewhat more drinkable now.
- Pier 19, where we had mixed results. Green-lipped mussels in white wine sauce were very good. The rack of lamb with pinot noir jus, while ordered rare to medium-rare, came out medium, with barely a hint of red. The server first argued that it was medium rare and then that it was as rare as the kitchen was able to cook the rack (despite its being a relatively thick piece of meat). Rather than fight, Tom ended up eating it and the taste was okay, but did not have the rich flavor that one associates with the best lamb. We also enjoyed the accompaniments of “chunky” fries and sautéed vegetables (green beans, corn and carrots. Good also was the hot fudge brownie with vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce which the restaurant offered gratis for the disappointment with the lamb. We also enjoyed the bottle of 2012 Domains Road Brannockburn Pinot Noir (Central Otago) that we had with the meal.
- BathHouse, a cute, old, windowed restaurant located on the beach with a beautiful view over the lake to the shear stone cliffs of The Remarkables. The food was almost as remarkable as the views. We had two wonderful dishes. Joyce had steamed greenlip mussels and littleneck clams in a delicious garlic, chili and herb broth with ciabatta toast. Tom had the lamb that he could have only dreamt of after the previous night’s dinner at Pier 19. First, the rack, which was the same thickness of that from the previous night. BUT, it was served rare—as requested. Second, the taste (which was certainly enhanced with the mint white balsamic sauce) was as rich and flavorful as Tom had hoped. He also enjoyed the smoky pea and ham puree that accompanied the dish. And continuing on our Central Otago wine them, we had two glass of 2015 Roaring Meg point—one a Pinot Gris and the other a Pinot Noir. Both delightful. And then there was the very friendly, very helpful staff—from the chef to all of the servers. Be sure you make it to BathHouse on your next Queenstown visit.
- Fishbone Bar & Grill, a fishhouse at which we had three dishes. Bluestone Bay littleneck clams with XO sauce were good themselves, but all the onions, garlic, chili disguised the taste. Fried calamari with romesco sauce was good, but there was far too much romesco and far too little calamari. The main dish, pan-roasted groper with new potato, Moko smoked eel, baked beetroot and blue cod cream, was very good. So too was the wine, 2015 Chard Farm Pinot Gris, also from the next door wine region of Central Otago.
- Botswana Butchery specializes in meats and game. We had two main courses: Wild Fjordland red deer loin with kumara (sweet potato) gratin wilted kale, garlic confit, blackberry gel and jus was excellent; Central Otago rabbit was a mixed bag. Although the rabbit pie with carrot puree, purple carrots and squash was good (although not memorable, the rabbit leg confit was dry and had little taste. Nor were we impressed with the tasteless, supposedly soft Central Otago blue cheese. On a more positive note, we enjoyed the buttermilk crusted onion rings and the 2011 Ellero Pisa Terraces pinot noir (from Cromwell Basin) was quite nice and exactly as the somm described it.
- Patagonia Chocolates. While not exactly a restaurant, this is a must-try dessert stop. Homemade fudge, candies and pastries to be sure, But we fell for its ice creams and its toppings. Although we had a very hard time choosing, we selected the wonderful cream and caramel ice cream. Not willing to leave good enough alone, we choose to have it topped with a layer of melted white chocolate (from continually recirculating fountains of white, milk and dark chocolates) and roasted macadamia chips. Yummmmm
Although Queenstown has more than its fair share of sights and activities for a small town (28,000 people in the entire region), we used it primarily as a base for trips into two opposite directions. Our next blogs talk about our time on the Milford Track.