It’s the smell, not the scale, of Queenstown that most takes the senses by surprise. Sure, the Southern Alps, which form a towering green wall around the city, are astonishingly massive. But the aroma — of grass and woodland, fern and farmland — has an almost divine purity about it. If God did gardening, it would smell like this.
For all its fame as New Zealand’s outdoors capital, Queenstown is also a place of frenetic arable activity. While its peaks and lakes crawl, buzz, seethe and hum with hikers, bikers, paragliders and kayakers, in the alluvial plains fanning out between the mountains of the surrounding Central Otago province, farmers are equally busy producing some of the country’s best dairy, meats and abundant fruits — including award-winning grapes. Yet, my first food stop in town involves none of these Kiwi farmland staples.
Down in the fluro-lit basement of a central shopping centre, I find Yama Express, a little sushi bar recommended by British chef Ben Batterbury, who heads the feted kitchens at Queenstown’s Rees Hotel. Unprepossessing it may be, but it’s a winner for bargain, moreish maki rolls jewelled with roe and stuffed with king salmon, and crispy hoki (hake) just-plucked from South Island’s seafood-rich waters.
Raw fish propels me to my next stop too, Kappa, a rustic little wood cabin-style cafe just above the mall. Among its 10 tables, on the terrace overlooking the city’s mountain-backed rooftops, I eat a simple bowl of grilled eel on a plump bed of rice crisscrossed with delicate strips of seaweed. I haven’t tasted anything so earthy and yet so artfully restrained since visiting Tokyo — in fact, owner Nao Higuchi hails from the Japanese capital. I’m only distracted from oooohing out loud at its immaculate freshness by a conversation on a neighbouring table.
An American woman and Australian man, both dressed in finely tailored fitnesswear, are discussing places they recently worked. These include a yoga studio in Jasper, Canada, a spa in the Maldives and a boutique surf business in Australia’s Byron Bay. It’s hard not to be somewhat dazzled by their cosmopolitan chatter, but it also underlines how this little city has firmly inserted itself on the well-to-do wellness circuit.
As the demographic of thrillseekers has widened from beanie-wearing, backpacking 20-year-olds, so too has its food scene matured. Pizza and burgers still dominate, but they’re now likely to be the gourmet variety. On offer at Fergburger: prime New Zealand beef and lamb burgers, loaded with all manner of homemade relishes and mayos, and rejoicing in names such as Sweet Bambi and Bun Laden. Here, you can add queuing to your list of local extreme sports — this joint is open 21 hours daily and there are people lining up around the block every minute of each of them, come hail, sleet or shine.
But if quinoa is more your kind of protein, then there are new organic cafes aplenty. At the Vudu Larder and Café, start the day with house-baked sourdough and local Otago honey alongside a house-roasted flat white, while the silverbeet (chard) and chicken broth with pearl barley is very much a yoga class for your tonsils.
Where Queenstown used to be a resort town with a food problem, it’s now a foodie town with a resort problem. In peak season at least, there’s little room to manoeuvre, its narrow streets densely packed with bars and bistros rammed to the rafters with hungry patrons.
Fleeing the fray, the older crowd has lately been decamping to adjacent Arrowtown, with its greenways and quiet cobbled backstreets. At Chop Shop, with its vintage-bike-parts-turned-lampshades and standout dishes like Japanese pork belly pancakes and tempura bluff oyster sliders, I begin to understand what’s drawing them 20 minutes down the road. En route to this lovely, old mountain-side mining town, you pass New Zealand’s highest bungee jump, whiplashing people 440ft above the Nevis River. But, if you prefer to steady your nerves, you’re in a fine spot, as surrounding Central Otago is prime Pinot Noir (not to mention Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling) country.
Viticulturalists are as happy as adrenalin junkies in the backcountry. Around the lake town of Wanaka, an hour north of the city, there are epic routes, from ranch-style landscapes that wouldn’t look out of place in Wyoming, right up to glacier-topped mountains, beguiling heli-bikers, iron man competitors and hardy hikers, not to mention hobbits — film director Peter Jackson has based numerous of his Tolkien adaptations here. And in the deep valleys that lay between earth and sky: a patchwork of near-endless fruit orchards and vineyards with enticing cellars. The best of these, not least for sheer entertainment, has to be Felton Road, a small artisan winery in the wilds of old Bannockburn mining country. Looking like a cross between a medieval wizard and an eccentric 1970s science teacher, owner Nigel Greening walks pre-booked visitors though the wine-making process of his biodynamic vineyard — literally.
“Footsteps are the best,” he says. “Know your vines, land, weather. That, for me, is what biodynamics is about, not Harry Potter stuff.” He’s found Stone Age flints amid the glacial dust that makes this terroir so uniquely successful for Pinot Noir grapes. “Ancient Maori hunted here, chasing giant moa [an emu-like bird] up dead-end valleys.”
His tasting notes are even more colourful. “This has the persistence of a Jehovah’s Witness,” he says, about one 2014 Pinot. But the wine that stays in my mind and palate is the Chardonnay: not oaky, not flinty and not overtly fruity. “It does cause upsets for those expecting that Central Otago fruit bomb,” says Nigel. “But we can’t make enough of it. There’s a real renaissance of interest.”
Give me this wine, in this setting, and I’ll certainly drink to that.
Five food finds
New Zealand’s best bivalves thrive in the cold, clean waters of the Foveaux Strait. Visit the annual Bluff Oyster Festival on 20 May.
Central Otago Lamb
The province was voted the nation’s best producer at the 2016 Glammies, aka The Golden Lamb Awards. beeflambnz.co.nz
Pair with a Marlborough Country Sauvingnon and these large, flavoursome mussels from the same area, are a real marvel.
Mount Cook Alpine
Salmon Fed by the cold fast-flowing waters of the Tekapo river, some 2,297ft above sea level, at the world’s highest salmon farm.
Marketed as lobster in some parts of the world, thanks to its sweet, fleshy meat. From the waters flanking the South Island coastal highway.
A taste of Queenstown
This grand, hunting lodge-style retreat in the frontier town of Glenorchy offers resident guests nightly five-course menus in the lakefront dining room or terrace. Showcasing seasonal New Zealand produce, including Canterbury quail, Hawkes Bay lamb short loin and crayfish from Milford Sound, with paired wines.
How much: Rooms at Blanket Bay cost from NZ$775 (£440) per person per night, including pre-dinner drinks, five-course menu and breakfast.
Much has been made of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge dining at this winery’s sleek modern bistro. And you can see why — think mountain views, great wines and mains such as crispy Southern blue cod and sides such as salt-crusted kumara (sweet potato) with black garlic butter, spring herbs and grains.
How much: A four-course ‘Trust The Chef’ lunch with wine-pairing costs $125 (£71) per person.
Dine over the water on mountain backed Lake Wakatipu. The contemporary, art-laden conservatory restaurant is at the centre of this plush resort, 10 minutes from downtown. The daily changing seasonal menu uses produce mostly drawn from local farms, markets and the waterfront vegetable garden.
How much: Rooms cost from NZ$830 (£471) per person per night, including pre-dinner drinks, five-course menu and breakfast.
Realm of starry chef, Josh Emmett, this buzzy Queenstown restaurant is a must-dine. Mosses and greenery dress this softly-lit, industrial-style space named after a colourful native New Zealand tree. The show kitchen delivers busy distractions and standout dishes, including Merino lamb rump, pan-fried blue cod with green-lipped mussels, plus an extensive NZ wine list.
How Much: Two courses for around NZ$50 (£29).
How to do it
For packages, including international/domestic flights, car hire, tours and stays at outlying food-focused lodges, visit theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk
Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)