On leaving Queenstown for our little jaunt into the South Island wilderness, it didn’t take long to settle into yet another road trip that involved some smashing scenery. I’m kind of loving these road trips; an unbeatable way to immerse yourself and not having to worry about schedules and not being able to stop where you want.
Majestic mountain ranges make way to open plains and farmland where, if the timing is right, you may encounter a spot of road congestion; as we did along the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu. Trust the city folk to get excited about seeing hundreds of sheep on the road.
Barely two hours on the road and we were pulling into the driveway of our first overnighter. And check the digs we were shacked-up in. The cute and very comfy Aden Motel a block back from Lake Te Anau. All that was missing was a pair of flamingo statues. Although, the garden did have its share of colourful statuesque critters! From the very friendly Irene at the front desk and the fact that the motel is pet friendly, this place had much more homely character the bigger hotels seemed to be lacking.
The town of Te Anau sits on the edge of Fiordland, which makes it the ideal base for day trips into the national park for walking, hiking or water sports.
Being in town at the end of winter presented us with having most of the place to ourselves. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a town so devoid of people, as the only sign of life were the people working in shops, restaurants, other businesses and the occasional tourist breezing through town.
Aside from two local ladies and a small family of three, it was just us at The Fat Duck tucking into a hearty lunch. Pub and cafe-style food abounds at this chilled eatery in the centre of town, and it was the winter special menu that got our attention.
$20 for a main course with house vino, juice or beer couldn’t be ignored, so lambs fry with a local pinot it was, for me. Aside from the liver being overcooked and dry, the mountain of mash and very generous ladling of red wine and caramelised onion jus. My favourite part was the “jus”, a deliciously creamy sauce packed with richness.
A shot glass of highly-sugared onion chutney is amusingly embedded into the mash.
Bangers & mash it was, for the better half. Three very good pork & apple cider sausages with caramelised onions and cider gravy.
There’s more pub-style food to be had down the road at Bailiez Cafe & Bar, one of the restaurants at the Distinction Luxmore Hotel on the main drag. Inside and to the right is a casual bar area, to the left is the humbly-decorated restaurant complete with booths and tables that extend into a separate room.
Thai skewered chicken, blue cod and grilled steaks are the types of offerings on the family-friendly menu. There’s nothing pretentious about the Luxmore burger (26), featuring fried eggs, beetroot, bacon and two beef patties.
Aside from the awkwardly deep bowl that made eating the Fiordland venison pie (26) a challenge, the chunks of meat were slow-cooked to toothsome tenderness. A bucket of kumara fries came with it, as did a superfluous and flavour-challenged salad of shredded iceberg, cucumber and carrot.
Soy braised pork belly (29) was a must, served atop bok choy and several discs of aromatic West Coast black pudding. The menu did mention creamy mash, but the dry, crumbly and unseasoned potato we got didn’t match up to the description.
It was the native horopito that prompted me to order the chicken wings (15.5), but sadly it went completely unnoticed. BBQ sauce sweetens the tender wings and another dose of shredded iceberg salad provides the greenery.
Very close to Bailiez is Kepler Restaurant, an eatery with more of a modern hand at the local food it dishes up. This particular visit wasn’t about exploring the menu and sampling a variety of plates. It was more like a “let’s just grab a bite and relax back at the motel” kind of visitation.
It’s difficult to miss the deer farms as you drive into town, so I’m wondering which farm the local free range venison medallions (37.5) may have come from. I was seriously impressed with this towering plate of juicy meat over sautéed savoy cabbage, portobello mushrooms and kumara & pumpkin purée. Every flavour complemented the other and the added confit cubes of beet and red currant jus brought delicious pops of sweetness.
Things weren’t so ecstatic with our other choice of tender roast lamb (27.5). I’m not sure what made both of us think of juicy lamb fillets that could have been pan-roasted. Instead, it was layers of sliced, pre-roasted and reheated lamb, just as you’d have at home or an RSL restaurant – or RSA as they call them in NZ. A tasty drenching of port & red wine jus moistened the meat, with confit potatoes and a tian-style ratatouille on the side. Dabs of sweet mint sauce sealed the deal.
For the two nights we’d spent in Te Anau, breakfast was had at Sandfly Cafe. Consistently good coffee, hearty food, friendly service and some killer homemade sweet and savoury muffins. And you’ve got to love the name of the place. Clearly a reference to those pesky little local winged beasts that attack with a stinging bite.
Aside from those delicious muffins – yes we had our share – and the cabinet stocked with cakes, tarts, slices and rolls, the brekkie menu is a celebration of egg dishes, toasties and grains.
A bacon & egg panini (9.5) fuelled me up one morning as the fluffy pancakes (13) took care of the other half on both days. We don’t think we’ve seen a place that’s so generous with berries as Sandfly is. Much appreciated, folks.
The hash brown stack (16.5) is a perfect contender to increase anybody’s cholesterol levels. Aside from the obvious, it’s a small mountain of bacon, tomato, poached eggs and buttery hollandaise.
Being in Fiordland and not getting out-and-about would be a bit of a waste of time, so our agenda involved driving from Te Anau to Milford Sound. An early morning rise as a thick fog blanketed the valley pretty much as far as The Divide. Once high enough in altitude, of course, it was clear skies and valleys in the Mount Christina and Mount Lyttle region. Stunning view, as you can see above.
Before the drive through the mountain via Homer Tunnel it was a stop to take in the scenery, stretch the legs and be reminded of the biting cold outside. Fern fronds looked as if they’d been crystallised in sugar, grass crunched beneath the feet and a curious kea landed on the car to say hello. This endemic bird – the worlds only alpine parrot – looks cute enough, but it didn’t hesitate in trying to take chunks out of any rubber or plastic fittings on the car.
Exiting Homer Tunnel provided yet another spectacular view. This time over a deep forested valley filled with fog pretty-much all the way to Milford Sound. No town, as such, can be found there. Other than the cruise terminal down on the waterfront, there’s accommodation, the Blue Duck Cafe & Bar and an information centre. Free limited wifi comes in handy when the urge to reconnect is required, even if the connection is painfully weak. Snaps to the coffee-maker, as well. So good that we went back for another top-up after our little cruise on the sound.
Yes it was absolutely freezing up on the roof deck of our cruise, but it’s the ruggedly beautiful scenery that trumps any icy discomfort, should you visit at the end of winter as we did. Seals bask in the sunshine at the base of sheer cliffs, snow is dusted high above the waterline and waterfalls plunge into the milky turquoise waters.
It’s the complete opposite of when we were in this area nearly twenty years ago. The weather was so cyclonic that you couldn’t see past the shore and we were advised to leave before Homer Tunnel closed and we were stranded.
And there you have it. Magestic Mitre Peak enshrouded with clouds; the iconic Milford Sound scene that people come far and wide for.
The region is a bit of a paradise for nature enthusiasts, where visitors can stop to walk through the rainforest to The Chasm, fulfil any feathery fetishes with bird-watching or spontaneously take a left turn and see where the Hollyford Track road takes you, as we did.
Swing bridges, crystal clear creeks and rivers, wild forest and waterfalls.
With Milford Sound and Te Anau well and truly behind us, the South Island road trip continued in a south-easterly direction with a quick early morning stop at the small township of Lumsden. It was the mural on the local pub that made me pull the car over to snap a few pics.
The drive from Te Anau to our destination takes a mere 3½ hours, so the morning pit stop was made in the town of Gore – home to brown trout fly fishing and home to New Zealand’s country music scene.
Breezing through town only had one requirement. Coffee. Located in the St James Theatre building is The Green Room Cafe; appropriately named and decked-out in vintage garb. Tempting cakes peered from the bench cabinet, but for us it was a couple of coffees whilst seated in old movie theatre seats.
If I had one request whilst planning this trip to New Zealand, it was to see the city of Dunedin down on the southeast coastline. It’s the second largest city on the island, is home to some mighty-fine Edwardian and Victorian architecture and happens birthplace of my partners late father.
It’s pretty easy to see why it’s been labelled as the Edinburgh of New Zealand.
Our arrival time coincided perfectly with lunch time and I had eyes for just one place. Bracken. This is the pride and joy of Ken and Fiona O’Connell, a couple that made the big move from Ireland to better the life of their family.
It’s easy to assume the name of the restaurant came from poet Thomas Bracken, an Irishman that spent most of his life in New Zealand, but it seems the name is more plant related. The bracken – that hardy fern that grows wild on almost every continent.
I was quietly hoping to see a few fiddleheads – the edible tender young heads from the bracken fern – but it wasn’t the right season. One thing I did love seeing was greens that had been foraged by either Ken himself or one of his suppliers. You’ve gotta love a chef that’s in tune with the local wild herbage.
Local Gruff junction goat curd (17) took centre stage in the first arrival, tinted with beetroot and piped into brik pastry. Either side of the “cigar” is a silver beet salad muddled with cranberry, orange, beet relish and honey. A final chefs flourish of bee pollen completed the picture.
Then there’s the southern seafood & shellfish (16). Fish, clam, prawn and mussel wade in a shallow pool of warm crayfish verjuice cream flecked with leek, peas, potato and wakame.
More delicious local produce came with a merino lamb rump (32), sauced-up with smoked garlic & mustard cream and kumara mash. A couple of leaves and blanched cavalo nero added greenery.
The tossed salad of crisp pork cheek (19) didn’t only featured tasty swine, but there was black pudding and chorizo in there as well. Not to mention the foraged greens, blooms, hazelnuts, apple and native horopito pepper relish.
Desserts didn’t disappoint, either. Rhubarb and custard (16) is tricked up with yoghurt, granola and maple syrup ice cream with a preserved raspberry crisp.
Or perhaps the chocolate crémeux (16) with fresh and freeze-dried mandarin, a chocolate malt soil and chocolate quince macaron.
A decadent end to a brilliant lunch.
Fiona from Bracken strongly suggested we take a drive into the Otago Peninsula after she learned we were in town for just one night, and the fact the weather was absolute perfection. From the centre of town it’s an easy drive along Portobello Road, hugging the harbours southern shore through bays and villages, to the northern point called Taiaroa Head.
Nature lovers flock to this part of the South Island to see seals, sea lions, penguins and a plethora of birdlife. We so happened to drop by the Royal Albatross Centre where we were lucky enough to witness many of these majestic birds and see them in flight. This is the worlds only mainland breeding colony for albatross, with all profits going straight back into the maintenance and protection of the area.
The small city of Dunedin offers a great choice of drinking and eating venues. We gravitated north away from The Octagon to sniff out the more casual eateries past the shopping strip, settling on a bit of Indian for the night.
Shahi Tandoor is a sizeable place with a rather vibrant appearance. Orange walls and ceiling and illuminated pillars depicting bright photos of spices. As far as the menu goes, there isn’t a great deal that sets it apart from any regular Indian restaurant, and it’s difficult to ignore the very friendly service.
The amritsari machhi (15.9) are swoon-worthy deep-fried North Indian fritters of monkfish beautifully spiced with ginger and amchoor.
My usual Indian go-to is biryani, so no exceptions were made in choosing the lamb (14) variety. The rice was quite overcooked, which made everything a little on the sloppy-side. As for the flavour, it was bang on.
Tandoori murgh (10) is also flavour-packed. Juicy little pieces of chicken fresh from the oven.
Not a great deal seemed to be open for early risers like ourselves. Good for us that Morning Magpie was ready for business, pulling coffees for a stream of regulars that clearly work in the neighbourhood. No work for us, however, as all we had planned for the day was a bit of driving to our next destination.
The main focus at Morning Magpie is the coffee they churn out. They’re a knowledgeable lot that strives for coffee perfection, be it from the espresso machine or pour-over.
Many of the edibles are made in-house, often displayed on the counter for all to see. Cakes, slices, rolls and ready to-go bagel sandwiches.
One of the big and rustic savoury scrolls did us fine, as did a creamy mushroom open bagel (14). It comes loaded with spinach and cottage cheese as well. A toasted bagel would have been preferred, but it’s still a decent breakfast offering.
As if one strong coffee wasn’t enough at breakfast, it was a speedy drop-in at Diesoline at the back of The Octagon. This little roaster and cafe offers nothing more than a handful of baked items, but we do understand you can bring your own food. You may want to check on that before you pack a lunch and nab one of the tables in this stark and sleek space.
The coffee is meticulously made and packs a real punch. Something I needed as it was my turn to drive us to the next destination.
All other posts from this South Island trip –