Exploring New Zealand’s adrenaline capital
Off-piste in snowy Queenstown.
Surrounded by steep snow in winter, it’s no wonder Queenstown is often hailed as New Zealand’s skiing and snowboarding capital. But to have an unforgettable time in this gobsmackingly beautiful town, you don’t even have to go anywhere near the slopes.
Our adventure began as the plane loomed over the mysterious inkiness of Lake Wakatipu and descended between sheer powdery mountains to Queenstown’s Lego-sized airport. Waiting to fetch us with his all-black Land Rover was the suave Kieran Gardiner — head concierge for The Spire Hotel, the most coveted address in town, and our home for two nights.
The weather was closing in — but that was fine: I could happily have hibernated for the entire stay in the bedroom. A stylish blend of mid-century and contemporary elements, the space — although expansive — was warm and cosy, with thick carpets and a vast, meltingly comfortable bed. As a gas fire flickered in the grate, sliding doors framed views of the cloud-shrouded mountains and a slither of lake.
Once checked in, Gardiner assured us he was only a call away should we need anything– if we changed our minds and decided to go skiing he could get our equipment sorted,for example, or could arrange a tasting tour of nearby Central Otago — the world’s southernmost wine region and a hotbed of cool Pinot Noirs.
Fortified by peppermint tea, we decided to brave the elements for a spot of exploring. We were within spitting distance (almost!) of the lakeshore, right in the heart of the town. A myriad of restaurants, bars and shops are in the vicinity — frequented by a curious range of humanity — from pink-cheeked backpackers to posh middle-aged skiers. A ten-minute stroll away is the base station for the Skyline gondola, which whirrs you up the mountain. If you fancy getting the heart-rate up, you can speed down the mountain down the twisty luge track.
Over the next couple of days, we would explore Queenstown on foot — snacking on hot cookies from Cookie Muncher and slurping feisty chilli speciality hot chocolate at The Exchange café. The only thing that could beat the dulche de leche ice cream from Patagonia Chocolates were the sweeping lake views from the upstairs seating area of its flagship café.
One night we joined the queues stretching out the door of Fergburger — a gourmet hamburger takeaway outlet that’s also Queenstown’s most famous eatery. And for good reason. Slick, friendly service ensured our wait passed surprisingly quickly. I chose the Mr Big Guy: perfectly seared meatiness, topped with a generous helping of crispy American bacon and subtle cheddar. I wolfed it down in a frenzy — it was so good. Later we headed to Smithoverlooking bustling Shotover Street — a laidback bar with a wide range of great craft brews.
Queenstown is a marvellous launch pad for nearby activities: lazy lake cruises, kayaking, hiking — and, for the super-flush, helicopter flips. Early one morning we headed to Onsen, perched high above the Shotover valley. For one hour, we wallowedin our own, exclusive hot pool. The water steamed and bubbled as we admired the gathering light splaying across the mountains surrounding us. When it got a bit too toasty, a jet of water from the roof spattered over us, cooling us down. We headed back to town blissed out — relaxed and invigorated, the stress and strains of travel having melted away.
A day later, we would revisit the valley for a ride on the iconic Shotover Jet boat, which has been enthralling visitors since 1965. Over the course of 25 exhilarating minutes we surged at up to 85km an hour over glacier-green water — sometimes only 10cm high — twisting through the canyon, within heart-stopping proximity to the rock sides, and swirling and skimming in dramatic 360 degree turns.
A more sedate but equally dramatic experience was a day trip to the Milford Sound in the heart of the Fiordland National Park. The glass-covered bus ride getting there was worth the trip alone: taking us through thick forest before climbing steadily up and through the Southern Alps, before twisting down towards the sea. A boat took us along the fiord, which was sided with steep cliffs cloaked in dense rainforest, all overlooked by snow-capped peaks. Turning back when we reached the Tasman Sea, we nudged up against a waterfall as we made our way back.
On our last night at The Spire we headed to its bar-restaurant, №5 Church Lane, where hotel guests are invited to have a complimentary pre-dinner drink every evening. From mixologist Jake Page’s extensive cocktail list (which includes a range of absinthe-inspired tipples), we enjoyed a sublime whisky-driven Vieux Carré as sultry as New Orleans itself; and an excellent local Pinot Gris.
Executive chef Will Eaglesfield’s menu embraces his passion for showcasing local produce. Happily for those as indecisive as me he offers a “trust the chef” mezze selection, shared by the table, and served up in three courses.
Highlights included local Pinot Noir-infused wild Fiordland venison liver pâté with, rhubarb relish, walnuts, spiced wine jelly and sourdough. The local chargrilled merino harissa-marinated lamb ribs were also dizzyingly good — accompanied by stand-out sides such as crispy hand-cut chips with red pepper aioli and long-stemmed broccoli.
The next day, we breakfasted in the hotel’s gorgeously snug bar-restaurant, warmed by the fire. Daylight over seeped in from the french windows through which we could admire the tranquil lake. I drank the perfect flat white, feasted on delicious wild boar with spicy tomato relish poached egg on fresh, fluffy sourdough. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Queenstown.
I was a guest of The Spire Hotel.