The sun is peeking through clouds of mist above braided rivers that weave between verdant countryside, where snow-peaked mountains loom like guardians of the land. We’ve just departed Queenstown, on New Zealand’s South Island with The Helicopter Line and within minutes we’re descending onto Mount Sale, the chopper swaying like a toy in a child’s hand.
“It can get bumpy up here, but the helicopter doesn’t mind,” our pilot tells us. He smiles, manoeuvring the helicopter over the icy terrain.
Seconds later, our feet are sinking into the powdery snow. Champagne is poured and cameras pulled out. And as I gaze back towards the glacier-carved Lake Wakatipu, I am under no illusion this moment will be etched in my memory for all time.
The crown in Queenstown’s accommodation
You don’t have to, however, take to the air to appreciate this picturesque landscape. The hauntingly beautiful mountains envelop this town, and can be seen regardless where you go. In my two-bedroom apartment at the newly renovated Oaks Queenstown Shores Resort, floor-to-ceiling windows frame golden-leaved larch trees, the sparkling Lake Wakatipu, and beyond, the snow-capped Remarkables mountain range (which starred in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy).
Days could easily be whiled away here, sitting on your balcony watching the shifting light play with the mountainscape, but that cloud-like bed is calling, and there’s much to see.
I’m up early the next day to catch sunrise at the Onsen Hot Pools. While Instagram has long played favourite to this place, nothing prepares you for sitting in a steaming cedar-lined hot pool soaking up the bucolic landscape with fauna so vibrant it’s as if a child had taken to it with red and orange texters. Water is captured from the nearby mountains and heated to 38.5 degrees Celcius. Afterwards, head inside for a face or beauty treatment. You’ll float out of here.
Wineries to rival the world’s best
For lunch, I head to Amisfield. I am sitting in a private room having a wine tasting while being served decadent morsels. Think Lake Ellesmere native short-finned eel, Fiordland wapiti (deer), and pāua saucisson.
Presented much like the scenery here – it’s an art form. Not surprisingly, the chef is one of the world’s best. Vaughan Mabee worked for three Michelin-starred Noma in Denmark and is responsible for Amisfield becoming a three-hatted restaurant.
When I press him about the philosophy behind his food while eating his cloud-like truffle brioche with black truffle butter, he tells me it’s about using endemic ingredients. “We showcase things you can’t get unless you are here. We hunt and forage for the ingredients and have our own garden…
“It’s about relationships, so I have a fisherman who lives an hour away who is now one of my best friends. He catches fish and drives it up here and stays with me for the night.” He pauses in thought. “Instead of talking about it, let me show you.”
After savouring a few more of the multi-award-winning organic wines, the doors open and Mabee appears with a tray of deer skulls. “This is our red deer milk ice cream.”
He carefully pulls out the ‘horns’ and places them on plates, drizzling them with a ‘wild pasture sauce’ the colour of blood. There’s the clink of spoons as the dish is devoured. A pause only to discuss the unique flavours.
“I want it to taste like the wild pasture of Otago,” he says. We all nod in unison, knowing that’s exactly what he’s done.
A showcase of Queenstown’s community
As a small, tight-knit community, supporting each other is commonplace here and a prime example of that is Country Lane, the only boutique artisan precinct in the region. This micro-community was created for local producers to showcase their wares.
Its founder, Tineke Enright, is the fourth generation of this land, but didn’t want to farm the property. Instead, she had a vision that came to fruition when her brother and sister-in-law came on board. Now, the trio restore the old farm buildings and lease them to everyone from jewellery makers to beekeepers.
Nick Cameron from Buzzstop Bee and Honey Centre was one of the first in the new precinct. His family have been beekeepers for 120 years. Nick runs two beekeeping tours a day, and even if you don’t like bees, or honey for that matter, you’ll leave with an intricate knowledge of these important insects. And, in particular, the valued role of the female bee.
“Males are only ten per cent of the workforce and they are useless, it’s all about the girls.” He tells us. “So, when winter comes, and they are locking down to work for three to four months, the female bees kick the males out of the hive, one by one into the frost, see ya!” He flicks his finger to indicate the male bee falling to the ground and there’s a roar of laughter from our group.
His honey, he tells us, comes from hives located in private stations in the valley that take 14 river crossings to get to.
“We chose them because it’s pristine land and the farmers love it because it’s a pollination force. The bees produce more seeds to pollinate and that creates more flowers and ultimately feed for the cows.”
There’s little wonder his honey is so highly sought after.
The adventure capital of the world
No trip to Queenstown could be complete without an adrenalin-fuelled experience. It is after all the ‘adventure capital of the world’. I choose Kawarau Jet (KJet). It’s more about the scenery for me than the 360-degree spins, but you’ll get plenty of those too.
We head off from Queenstown along the Kawarau River and onto the Shotover River, skimming across water so shallow I can hear river rocks scrape the bottom of the boat. We whip past the riverbank, missing overhanging trees by millimetres, before sliding across our seats as our driver does one of those spins you’ll never get bored of.
For those who are in this just for the scenery (ahem), you will get that – if you can keep your eyes open throughout the thrilling ride. When we return to the pier, hearts racing and all smiles, we peel off the supplied wet weather gear and it’s time to head back to Oaks. Someone has started my fire, and the afternoon light is playing with the yellow hues of the larch trees.
I take out a wine glass, fill it with the pinot noir the region is so famed for and gaze out the windows.
The sun forms a warm golden glow over the top of the jagged peaks of The Remarkables, which are now almost fully covered in fresh snow – the sky is streaked in pinks and oranges, the water glassy – as if nature is putting on a final show just for me.