Adventure capital of New Zealand. I believe people have even gone as far as calling it the adventure capital of the world; although I’m sure it was a Kiwi that made that declaration.
Why? The ski fields, for a start. And then there’s the bungy jumping, canyon swinging, jet boating, river surfing, whitewater rafting & sledging, canyoning, skydiving, hang gliding. It goes on. Oh, can’t forget the hydro attack – that shark shaped boat that plunges 5 feet into the water and leaps up to 18 feet into the air.
The last time we were in Queenstown was somewhere around 18 years ago. Some very hazy memories of a mountain town that doesn’t seem to have altered much. Well, perhaps a little.
One thing for sure is the landscape upon which Queenstown is built is nothing short of stunning. Snowcapped mountains form an impressive backdrop to a sparkling Lake Wakatipu that laps the pebbled shoreline.
People mill about the waterfront parks to catch the warm sunshine, lounge about the al fresco bars and cafés and tuck into food from a multitude of cultures.
Where was our first meal in Queenstown? A burger joint. But not your ordinary burger joint.
This is undoubtedly the most popular eatery in town. At just about any given time of the day (and night) people line up for a little burger action at Fergburger; stuffing their faces with some of the most delectable burgers around.
“The Ferg” has a 21-hour day. What the hell? Yep, those skiing and snowboarding youngin’s need something to soak up the booze in the early hours after shredding their way down the slopes, hitting up the bars and then dosing-up on solids before repeating the procedure. Us conventional folk that sleep at normal times will happily line up at midday for their burger fill. Yes, I’m talking about the hnf crew.
Take a look at this sexy beast. That would be Chief Wiggum (14.5) – layers of lettuce, tomato, caramelised red onion and a hash brown. Following the vegetable factor are thick strips of meltingly fatty slow-roasted pork belly with a sweet apricot seeded mustard. To be blunt, it was nothing short of stupendous and completely overshadowed my rather ordinary burger choice.
It all sounded great on paper and looked decent enough, but my sweet bambi (12.5) wasn’t cracked up to what I was hoping it would be. I thought I’d keep it local by ordering a burger that contained wild Fiordland deer, but that minced-up patty was almost as dry as a boiled egg yolk between two bread buns. The Thai plum chutney and aïoli help a bit, but I only had eyes for that juicy pork belly, and other peoples burgers.
On a previous visit to Wellington we dropped by Joe’s Garage, a laid back café with some cracking coffee, but it’s in Queenstown that we found the first Joe’s tucked away on Searle Lane near Nomads hostel. When they started out fourteen years ago they operated from the sorting room in the old post office. Nowadays the digs are a little more advanced and it’s a magnet for the breakfast/brunch crowd.
The first time we dropped in for coffee we had to sit out in the lane due to every inside seat being occupied. No great drama if drinking coffee in 2°C floats your boat. At least the sun was warm, and that fab coffee warmed the innards in no time.
Taking the skyline gondola 450 metres up Bob’s Peak is not only a great way to get a sense of your whereabouts, but it reaffirms how utterly beautiful the Wakatipu basin is.
Back down on the waterfront at Steamer Wharf there are a number of eating and drinking options. And what better way to sit and watch the sun set over the snow-dusted Remarkables than al fresco beneath a heater? Ok, regular folk would probably opt for a table inside, rather than eat their food faster than normal before it went cold from the sudden temperature drop as the sun disappears behind Bob’s Peak.
Ivy & Lola’s was our pick for the evening with its solid sounding menu that celebrates local produce, decent drinks list and a cool Art Deco fit-out that’s easy on the eye.
Mulled wine would have been the go, considering the chill-factor, but I thought the wild rabbit & pork hot pot (18) would be more appropriate. It was chunks of meat galore in a watery broth that didn’t really pack a great deal of flavour. Even the mentioned wild thyme didn’t come through much.
Some toasted brioche helped soak up some of that broth and, disappointingly, the chef decided to replace the promised rhubarb chutney with a smoked whipped yoghurt. Sounds interesting enough, but the incredibly intense smokiness was like a jolt to the palate; a questionable condiment to an otherwise bland casserole.
Portion size isn’t an issue when it comes to the mains. Crisp braised pork belly (30) with bacon & leek bake would have been enough, but some potted shredded pork shoulder super-sized the meal. The belly may not have been crispy and the bake was akin to a bread pudding, but it was a good dish, overall. Loved the chilli bite from the jalapeño chutney.
A great slab of Fiordland venison (36) was all about varying degrees of doneness from medium to blue, spilling its tasty juices over a celeriac pureé with every slice of the knife. The main selling point, for me, was the “crispy” venison heart that packed some flavour, with cumin as the overriding one. I could have eaten them all night.
We discovered there wasn’t a great deal on offer for early risers in the town centre. Perhaps people stuck to their hotel breakfast buffet? Of the couple of options available, Vudu Larder seemed the magnet for the early breakfast punters. And there’s no guesses why. The meals are hearty and delicious and the array of house baked sweets and savouries in the long cabinet is rather impressive.
How about grilled haloumi (18) with perfectly cooked poached eggs? A coriander-spiked tomato salsa joined in on the yolky fun; as did some toasted tortilla that was smeared with spiced black beans.
Pancake lovers are well-catered for with the stack of buttermilk & buckwheat pancakes (17.5). A blueberry compote crowns the stack with a dollop of orange-vanilla bean ricotta.
And the coffee? Well, it’s pretty smashing.
With weather as glorious as what we encountered during our stay, it was a given that we got out on the water to see the landscape from a different perspective. The obvious choice was to take the historic TSS Ernslaw out on the lake, but we chose Million Dollar Cruise as it’s smaller and more intimate.
Sitting inside to listen to the well-informed commentary was the warmer option, but sitting up on the roof in the freezing cold provided unobstructed views of the remarkable scenery. Shivering like a fool kinda didn’t matter.
Another place that grabbed our attention down on Steamer Wharf was Public Kitchen; an eatery that’s not only easy on the eye, but it takes full advantage of the waterfront location, with views to the nearby mountains.
The menu is New Zealand through-and-through, with the likes of local venison, lamb, beef and rabbit alongside Pacific Island style cod and sweet pav for dessert.
Ours was a relatively light lunch that involved – for starters – some intriguing chickpea chips with truffle salt (10). The soft and light fingers are made from ground chickpea batter, deep-fried and joined by aïoli.
Too many things were screaming to me from the extensive menu. Confit duck pancakes, coconut fried chicken and potted rabbit, to name a few. And then there was the braised beef cheek (22); tenderly sliced and served with roasted cauliflower and juicy raisins. Some collagen-rich goodness that hit all the right places.
A salad of salt baked beets (18) took care of the vegetable element, with the addition of peppery watercress, almonds and sheep feta.
Queenstown may be a town of adventure, but there’s much to do when it comes to activities that don’t require a great deal of energy or adrenalin. Take sitting on the waterfront and having a few drinks, or shopping for a new pair of sunglasses because yours mysteriously disappeared. The options are aplenty.
One thing this pair did was go for a stroll around the Queenstown Gardens; that leafy finger of land that juts out below the town centre. It’s tranquil, beautiful and offers some smashing views from the shoreline.
Frisbee enthusiasts can even partake in a rather unique activity called Disc Golf. The challenging course takes the frisbee-tossers through the gardens and forest, with strategically placed nets that players aim for. Oodles of fun, especially if you’re knocking back stubbies of beer during the process, as we observed with a bunch of guys.
At the bottom of Church Street is somewhat of a Queenstown “mini” institution. Aggy’s Shack keeps many-a-local and visitor fed from its tiny kiosk location. It was one of the first things I noticed when walking along the waterfront, and on the third pass-by I went in for a much closer look.
A few benches surround the yellow & black shack; topped with the essentials of malt vinegar, chicken salt and a serious napkin dispenser. Fish & chips, steamed prawns and mussels, spring rolls and squid populate the menu above some more “Wild Kiwi Foods” like smoked eel, blue cod, pāua, sea urchin and marinated raw fish.
Something made me revisit the mutton bird, or as the Maori call it – the tītī. The last time I tried it was at the Wellington night markets; tenderly cooked in a hāngi. This shearwater bird has a flavour that you’ve either grown to appreciate or struggle with; a dark flesh that’s quite fatty and akin to the combined flavours of very salty duck that tastes like tinned sardines.
Half a mutton bird & chips (15) is more than enough for this curious eater, and those golden chips are sensational.
Those that may be up for something a tad more refined should probably take a look at Rātā – a bit of a gastro-temple that celebrates local produce in a relaxed and beautiful space.
Celeb and Michelin-starred chef Josh Emett has his name branded on the restaurant, but as we all know, it’s bound to be someone else tossing the pans. That would be a fellow named Chris Scott.
Apparently the Rātā bread tin (7) has a bit of a fan club, so it was a given that it made the table with a couple of starters. Hot and fresh from the oven, the bread is very fluffy, a little sweet and sprinkled with rosemary and sea salt. What can I say, other than – it’s bread.
The signature goat cheese profiteroles (10) sit like lop-sided soldiers on a lump of shale; an easy pop-in-the-mouth and it’s gone moment. A little thick and creamy honey joins in on the wee fun, from bees that harvested the rātā blossom; a tree that’s endemic to New Zealand. Cheese and honey always work, in my eyes, so thumbs-up here.
I liked the play of textures with the Moko smoked eel (22); small firm pieces of eel, golden, yellow and red beets, crunchy black quinoa and watercress. There was meant to be horseradish in there somewhere, but it barely showed its face.
The two mains we ordered were relatively light and perfectly proportioned, seeing we weren’t overly ravenous to begin with. Crispy skin duck (48) lay beside a small mound of freekeh and broccolini, with sweet roasted black grapes that brought some much-loved sweetness to the juicy duck flesh.
The crispy skin Marlborough king salmon (39) flaked to medium-rare perfection; a dish brought together beautifully with warm velouté, leeks, Otaga saffron potato and thinly shaved Bluff pāua. Interesting touch with the thin rounds of raw swede beneath everything; an element that added a fresh crunch to the otherwise soft textures of the other components.
Dessert was unnecessary, would you believe?
Many that come to Queenstown don’t leave without paying a visit to Arrowtown, that historic gold mining town just 20 minutes from the adventure capital. The Arrowtown we saw on this particular visit was far from the one I remember, thanks to stopping by early in the morning just as the village shops were opening their doors.
During the day it becomes a very different place, swarming with tourists snapping pics of the restored building façades and snapping up the tourist offerings most of the businesses peddle.
I must be honest, I prefer the town without the hoards, and seeing it enshrouded in smoke from burning fireplaces added a mystique to the whole setting.
The very cold temperature was something I could easily deal with, but something I couldn’t ignore was a chalkboard saying the words “obscenely good sticky buns & Arrowtowns best coffee”. These guys know how to get my attention.
Provisions Cafe can be found in an historic miners cottage a block down from the main strip. The name says it all with the goods that are on offer – gourmet pantry and fridge edibles, fresh bread and baked goods made daily, local ceramics and baking accessories.
If we’d known about this place before breakfast, we would have eaten here for sure. Great sounding menu. A very decent Allpress coffee and as for those killer sticky buns, they’re well-worth the visit for those alone.
All other posts from this South Island trip –