Russet, scarlet and cinnamon with a dusting of snow white – this is the autumn palette of New Zealand’s South Island region of Otago and at this time of year I get seriously nostalgic for the land of my birth. It’s harvest time for the many wineries in the region and the ski bunnies of Queenstown are itching for another season of action. This blessed region has it all. Scenery, energy-packed adventures, and the more sedate Otago food and wine trails. And lots of friendly, earthy Kiwis.
I belong to the more sedate category – because my unstable knee ligaments wouldn’t last five minutes on the slopes. Although I do après-ski rather well. Otago is the world’s southern most wine-producing region. According to the latest climate change data, it could double production by 2050. In autumn the days are fine and crisp but there’s already a generous dump of snow on the peaks. The nights are a sample of the winter to come. Step outside and you feel like a snap frozen pea. In late autumn and winter, party town and adventure capital Queenstown is overshadowed by the snow-blanketed mountain range called The Remarkables, but over the hill in Wanaka the scenery is far more open (pictured above) and the sunshine hours are higher. Whare Kea Lodge and Chalet on the shore of Lake Wanaka is a superbly serene spot to chill. It’s also a Relais & Chateaux property – the goldmark standard of destination excellence.
The fourth largest lake in New Zealand, Lake Wanaka is a vast mirror of clear blue waters reflecting the mountains of the Southern Alps. Owned by Martyn and Louise Myer, of Melbourne’s Myer retail dynasty, the lodge caters for only 12 guests, and it feels more like being in someone’s home. No need to lock your bedroom door and it’s OK to wander into the kitchen in your PJs to ask for a cup of tea. Chef James Stapley runs the kitchen. He shops at the local markets and artisan producers for fresh produce.
He also has an organic garden at Whare Kea (a Maori name pronouned Far-e Kea). His menus feature a lot of local wines – Otago is famous for its award-winning pinot noir. Selections from the Two Paddocks winery, owned by actor Sam Neill, are on the menu. Sam even makes his own jam preserves, by the way.
A Whare Kea highlight is taking a chopper ride to its chalet which is the highest altitude accommodation in New Zealand at 1750 metres on the north side of Dragonfly Peak. It can withstand winds of 300km/h and a two-metre snow pack on the roof. With two double bedrooms, a spacious loft and a bunk room for staff, the chalet provides comfortable accommodation for up to six guests and two staff. It’s an exclusive honeymoon destination (up there no-one can hear you moan…).
It’s not all uber priced gourmet territory. In Arrowtown I tasted a Southland cheese roll – I’d never heard of them before. Priced under $2. Basically, it’s just a slice of buttered white bread slathered in tasty cheese (which may also include Worcestershire sauce or similar), rolled up and toasted. Golden crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside. The roll recipe dates back to the 1930s. It was the southern Kiwi version of welsh rarebit. While other folk have sausage sizzles for school fundraisers, down here they have cheese roll versions.
Arrowtown (pictured above) is 20 minutes from Queenstown and as cute as all get out. A historic former gold-mining village built on the banks of the Arrow River, the streets are lined with colonial cottages. It’s also wall-to-wall cafes, bars and boutique shopping. Five minutes away is award-winning Amisfield Winery and Bistro, where the celebrated drops are pinot noir, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc and riesling. Yields are kept low to provide concentrated fruit flavours and complexity derived from a range of soils within the vineyard of 77 hectares. I’ve had lunch there. Opened in 2005, the bistro offers a daily changing a la carte menu and the “Trust the Chef” signature menu which offers a shared dining experience, with dishes selected by the chef based on fresh produce and ingredients available on the day.
I think I need to make a cheese roll for lunch to satisfy the nostalgia thing. Even if it isn’t uber healthy, it’s the bomb!
USEFUL LINKS FOR OTAGO FOOD AND WINE
- Food and wine tours of Otago www.tastytours.co.nz
- Sam Neill’s winery www.twopaddocks.com
- Whare Kea www.wharekealodge.com
- Chopper ride over the area www.aspiringhelicopters.co.nz
- Amisfield for wine tasting and a fabulous meal that doesn’t cost a fortune www.amisfield.co.nz
- Misha’s Vineyard: www.mishasvineyard.com