An hours drive north of Dunedin is a much visited geological site known as the Moeraki Boulders. Such rock formations can be seen in many places across New Zealand, but the ones at Moeraki are probably the most visited and photographed. About 50 of these 2-3 metre-wide concretions are strewn along the beach, and if you’re lucky, you may spot a furry grey local basking in the sun next to the boulders.
Ninety minutes north of Moeraki is the small port city of Timaru, our first food stop of the day. In retrospect, we probably should have wandered about the city centre a little more to check out the beautiful bluestone Edwardian and Victorian buildings, but once the appetite was sated, we kind of forgot.
The Oxford caught our eye as we drove around looking for a parking spot; catching sight of its smart interior as we turned the corner.
Taking centre stage inside the restaurant is an enlarged photo from the 1960’s depicting a fashion parade. It isn’t until you look closely that you begin to notice quirky – and well disguised – additions such as somebody taking a photo with their smartphone and the owner sitting in the crowd using a laptop. It soon becomes a “Where’s Wally” game trying to find other additions.
The lunch menu may not offer as much as the one at dinner, but the six or seven options are solid examples of English and Continental bistro-style fare.
My beef & ale pie (17) is a damn fine plate of gastropub goodness, standing tall on creamy mash and buttered cabbage; richly drenched in ale gravy.
Almost as substantial is the open pork sandwich (19), served salad-style with pieces of schnitzel, fennel slaw, crunchy apple and mustard mayo.
The savouries were so good that desserts were a given. Warmed slice of orange syrup cake (12), a scattering of pistachio crumble and healthy dollop of thick yoghurt.
Just as warming was the toffee apple grunt (12). Beneath the biscuit top is baked apple and boysenberries, bourbon-soaked prunes and pine nuts.
I kinda wanted to hang about town to try the dinner menu, but we had another town to get to.
The remnants of hazy memories from my first visit to Tekapo involve a multitude of colourful lupins, an old church and killer sandflies. Not much has changed other than us missing lupin season and those biting insects not being so prevalent. As for the Church of the Good Shepherd, well, you can scroll down and see it yourself.
Tekapo, as with most of the South Island, presents itself as a bit of a postcard. A rippling turquoise-coloured lake framed by the snow-dusted Southern Alps.
Many come for the hot springs, air safaris, skiing and trekking, but another activity so happens to be star gazing.
Overlooking the village is the Mount John Observatory, a place that takes full advantage of the clear night skies and low levels of local light pollution. It’s no wonder that Lake Tekapo is part of the UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve.
During the day the observatory operates a cafe that has some pretty smashing 360° views over the surrounding countryside. And the coffee ain’t half bad, either. Food-wise, the offerings are all about sandwiches, bagels and a few cakes.
The main drawcard, of course, is that view.
Being such a small village means the eating options are relatively limited. Some hotels have their own restaurants, but it’s the compact village that most gravitate to. Not a village in a quaint kind of way; more like a glorified strip mall, really.
Tin Plate is a relative newcomer to the town, feeding-up visitors with pizza, pasta and piada – a type of pita roll loaded with things like spiced pulled pork, meatballs or chorizo and prawn.
It was carne pizza (22) for this one – topped with venison, beef, lamb and mushrooms. Caramelised onion and bbq sauce, as well. The base is enough to keep thin-and-crispy pizza lovers content, but this particular Neapolitan die-hard wasn’t all that thrilled.
A similar reaction with the penne (22). Meagre in size and a little too al dente. At least the flavours were good – with bacon, garlic, chilli and basil.
Situated on the eastern shore of Lake Tekapo is Mt Gerald Station, the farm that supplies much of the venison, beef and merino to its Run 77 Cafe & General Store in the village. The cafe takes its name from the stations “run”, a numbering system used in the late 1800’s for each station property.
On the general store side of things, there’s a gamut of New Zealand deli-style pickings like local cheeses, preserves and chutneys and take-home meals that simply require reheating.
Cakes, slices, wraps and sandwiches fill the cabinets, with platters of fresh scones filling the air with their buttery scent.
Breakfast is all about eggs, beans, grains and good coffee, thrown together in a rustic manner as you’d do at home. High country fried eggs (14.5) kick-started me with toasted seeded bread, a tangle of charred bacon and balsamic roasted tomato that was neither roasted or anywhere near vinegar. The promised Cafe de Paris butter didn’t get out of bed that morning, either.
Couldn’t go wrong with the bowl of goodness (13.7), however. House-made muesli with three slices of poached pear and yoghurt. Rather steep in price, but tasty none the less.
Our next overnighter wasn’t all that far away, so a little local exploration was in order. Just above Lake Pukaki is the spectacular Mount Cook-Aoraki National Park; a haven for hiking, mountaineering and heli-skiing. Aoraki-Mount Cook is New Zealand’s highest mountain and so happens to be the place that Sir Edmund Hillary honed his mountaineering skills before his Everest conquest.
A well-equipped Aoraki Visitor Centre provides fantastic information about the areas Māori and climbing history and any activities that one can do in the region. You can even base yourself in the village at one of a handful of accommodations.
I wasn’t all that keen on a 3-hour trek that involved ascending over 1800 steps on the Sealy Tarns Track that particular morning, instead opting for a more leisurely 15 minute walk to Kea Point. It’s still a beautiful walk and provides views to the mountains, glaciers and even an avalanche or two. We were at a safe distance, so watching ice and rock tumble down a mountain was seriously spectacular.
First impressions of Twizel was “Where’s the actual town?”
As far as a town goes, this one is a bit of a youngster. Created in the 1960’s, Twizel started out as a home-base for workers that were part of the Upper Waitaki Power Scheme.
The town centre is merely a cluster of strip mall-type buildings that contain services and most of the eateries. A newsagent here, a Thai restaurant there, and a fantastic Shawty’s Cafe that was busier than everything else.
Coffee was the sensible choice, and seeing this place is a bar as well, one of the craft beers or a grappa would have gone down a treat. Yes, they even have a grappa menu. I guess it was only midday and I was driving, so no booze just yet.
The lunch menu is a mixed bag of top-notch cafe fare. I went all out and ordered the confit duck leg (32). An enormous shallow dish that also contained a spiced wild game cassoulet of pancetta, venison sausage, veg and white beans. Seriously impressive and the best cassoulet I’ve had since our Canal du Midi jaunt a few years ago.
A much lighter lamb shoulder (20) resembled an open sandwich, of sorts. Juicy shredded meat joined rocket leaves, smoked kumara aïoli, balsamic roast beets and feta; all over char-grilled ciabatta.
Win-win in the food department, and the coffee is top-notch, as well.
A few kilometres drive south of Twizel is High Country Salmon, floating over the turquoise Wairepo Arm of Lake Ruataniwha. More than a dozen pens cluster in the water around the shop, with access to a couple of them if you feel like tossing the salmon pellets and creating a wild feeding frenzy.
Inside the shop you can purchase hot and cold salmon, whole fish or fillets, sashimi lunch packs; even free range eggs, local honey and chutneys.
Well worth the stop-in if you want to stretch the legs, get some fresh air and some of that fresh salmon grown just metres away.
En route to our next overnighter is a blink-and-miss-it locale called Tarras. This small farming settlement is well-and-truly set up for people pulling off the highway to refuel their cars and refuel their bodies. The Tarras Country Cafe offers country style breakfasts and a few lunch options like polenta cakes, bagels, salads and sandwiches. Caffeine and sugar was all I needed to stay alert, so macchiato and ginger crunch it was.
Those that are interested in picking up a kitchen gadget, something for the home or some basic food items can duck into the Country Store adjacent to the cafe.
The town of Wanaka fits the same kind of template as Tekapo. Gorgeous lake back-dropped by the Southern Alps, walking, hiking and skiing. And more. Wanaka is a larger town, has a lot more buzz and a more diverse food scene.
Places to grab a drink are aplenty and our pick is the ever-popular Alivate Restaurant & Bar. Not to be confused with the pub-like Water Bar downstairs, Alivate is a tad more polished and has a great outdoor deck overlooking the lake and mountains beyond.
The drawcard? Happy hour, of course. It was time to get stuck into some local vino, chat and watch the sun go down over Lake Wanaka.
Next door to the bar is BoaBoa Food Company. Nothing more than a takeaway with a few seats for those that are lucky enough to get them. If burgers are your thing, then this is a good place to start. There are twelve to choose from. If not, then perhaps fish or crayfish & chips, whitebait or fried chicken would do.
Between our two choices, the crumbed blue cod & chips (12) outshone the burger I ordered. Thin crumb and steaming, flakey fish innards.
I thought I’d go all out and get the big red (22), a hefty burger with two 180 g patties, hash brown, bacon, egg. cheese, beet relish, chilli jam, onion ring and a little salad. In reality it’s two burgers in one thanks to more bread bun in the middle. Sadly the meat was overcooked and incredibly dry and the chilli jam and beet relish was nowhere to be seen.
The kitchen seemed to be on the verge of melt-down due to a massive influx of people placing orders on this particular visitation, and the few guys in there were barely coping with it all. Interrupting them may have become contentious.
As the sunrise hit the surrounding snowcapped peaks, we emerged from our humble Alpine Motel in search of food and coffee. Sadly there was still half an hour before the first place opened, and that so happened to be Urban Grind.
High brick walls give this cafe a great sense of space and sitting by the roaring fire helped the extremities defrost from the near zero temperature outside. It seemed I was the only one with an appetite that morning, tucking into my baked mushrooms (12.5) with absolute joy. Rich, earthy and loaded with parmesan, peas, tiny croutons and oozing egg. Bacon on the side, of course.
That rocky knoll that rises 240 metres above the town is Mount Iron. Most people would drive past and not think more about it, others have the desire to climb it after breakfast. Nothing like a bit of a sweat in the morning, right? And I guess the view is pretty special – down the Cardrona and Upper Clutha Valleys, over both lakes and a virtual wall of mountains.
Speaking of Cardrona, it’s well worth the short drive to this picturesque valley to take in more of that stunning landscape. Yes there’s the famous Cardrona Hotel and that much-photographed bra fence, but a drive up towards Snow Farm Lodge offers spectacular views up and down the valley.
Sadly, for us, the fuel indicator decided to flash red halfway up, forcing us to turn around as the nearest petrol station was way back in Wanaka. Note to self – check fuel levels before driving up mountains.
Dinner choices in Wanaka are aplenty, but it pays to book ahead or get in early, as many of the good restaurants fill up very quickly. We thought we give Francesca’s Italian Kitchen a go. Unfortunate for us was they were solidly booked, but if we were ok with it, one of the outside tables was available for the next hour. The only downside is the heaters they use are more “visual” rather than practical, and the temp was rapidly dropping to low single numbers.
All of that aside, it was well worth the slight discomfort. Francesca’s happened to be the best place we’d eaten on the entire trip, and also happened to be some of the best food we’ve eaten outside of Italy.
For a start, the handmade beetroot agnolotti (16). Blushed and beautifully plump, the soft pillows are kept toasty and warm in browned butter, with sage, poppy seeds, vincotto and pecorino as perfectly partnered flavours.
And then the Aoraki salmon salad (20). There was no holding back on the hot-smoked salmon as it took up most of the dish alongside shaved fennel, segments of orange and a good dose of salsa verde and chilli.
Many people avoid carbs at dinnertime, but we don’t believe in such practices. And if we did, we would have missed out on the next two plates entirely. House-made potato gnocchi (25) with braised beef shin. I mean really, how could you not?
Impossibly soft, the little dumplings were the perfect vehicle for the rich, tender ragù; generously topped with pecorino and gremolata.
The orecchiette (22) was no slouch, either. Cavolini – or Brussels sprouts – with chestnuts, crisp prosciutto and fresh lemon. Pecorino, of course.
Dessert didn’t disappoint. Caramelised apple tart (12) with mascarpone ice cream and a divine set lemon cream (12) that came with high praise from our wonderful waitress. Both are great, but that lemon cream, well, it made our tastebuds bounce.
Aside from the cute glass cloche presentation, the arrangement of fresh and freeze-dried mandarin, pistachios, meringue and lemon gel was enchanting. And the flavour – uplifting and incredibly light.
Prior to setting off on the next leg of our road trip, it was breakfast at Federal Diner in the centre of town. This is another popular breakfast-brunch hang-out with a robust selection of edibles.
Baked delights tempt you as you walk in past the kitchen counter – pastries, scones and bikkies and the smell of coffee hangs in the air, tempting me order one as soon as we take a seat.
Once again it was me with the morning appetite, going vegetarian with the Hawea flat (18). Crisp fried hunks of polenta with spinach, grilled haloumi, mushrooms and tomato. A decent start to the day before more driving into the South Island wilderness.
All other posts from this South Island trip –