Monday, January 24, 2022

A Central Otago Getaway – Where To Go To Really Get Away From It All

Walking across the tarmac in 2020 truly feels like an out-of-body religious experience.

Handing over my boarding pass used to put a little spring in my step – now, it feels so momentous, I almost want to hug the flight attendant.

Like the rest of Auckland, we’re headed for Queenstown, but after the insanity of 2020 I’m keen for some proper, quiet R&R, where we really get away from it all, so when we touchdown we immediately pick up a rental car and head in the opposite direction to everyone else.

Turns out, you don’t have to travel far to get totally away from it all.

Within 15 minutes we’re bowling up the driveway of our Airbnb, watching rabbits run for cover (I know they’re pests, but they’re also so goddam cute!).

The house is tucked away in Dalefield – about smack bang in the middle between Queenstown and Arrowtown – and we chose this place because it has big front windows which perfectly frame a view of the Remarkables, a roaring fireplace, plenty of space and a huge kitchen, so really, if you didn’t want to leave the place, there isn’t much reason to do so.

The view! The fireplace! All that space! Excuse me while we never leave Dalefield…

But unfortunately, when we arrive, we really do have to be somewhere else, so it’s a 10 minute run around the house and a marvel at how beautiful – and quiet! – it all is. At the same time as I booked flights – two months earlier – I’d also booked in for Onsen, the legendary hot pools that seem to book out well in advance, even in 2020. Thankfully, there’s not far to go – they’re literally a four-minute drive around the corner.

If you’re feeling a bit stressed and frazzled (i.e. if you have lived through 2020), Onsen is a real salve, getting to soak up the warmth, a pinot in hand, with a beautiful view laid out before you. An hour seems to fly by, so with legs like jelly we head to the car to make our one jaunt into Queenstown for a bite to eat.

Taco Medic is a little food truck in the thick of it all on Searle Lane, and just happens to make some of the best tacos in NZ. The entire kitchen is gluten-free – an absolute treat – so I go for the Bajaman (a baja-style fried fish taco – if you’re GF and have missed the taste of a decent fish taco, please get yourself here asap) and a Ken Tuckyman (Escondido spiced free range fried chicken). For $15 it’s a bargain in the quite often over-priced centre of Queenstown. You can eat in, sitting on the picnic tables outside and wash your tacos down with a beer or blended margarita, or take your meal and walk through the alleyway to find yourself right on the shore of Lake Wakatipu.

I’d love to say we stayed on and explored Queenstown, but we were much more interested in picking up some supplies at the supermarket and heading to Dalefield to get the fire going while we soaked in the last of the sunset on the deck.

By the next day, the sun was out, it was surprisingly warm – and on a day like that, there’s really nowhere better than Gibbston Valley. It’s a sensational spot surrounded by the vines, and it has a truly laid-back feel, with lots to explore. You can have a casual drink and bite to eat at the Cellar Door, a meal at the Bistro, a little something from the cheesery & deli or explore the wine cave.

We arrived right on time for lunch, taking a seat out in the courtyard, partly under the trees, partly in the sun (where I managed to burn my shoulder – Queenstown must be one of the only places warm enough during the day to get sunburned, but cool enough by night to justify stoking the fire). We order breads, olives and oysters and start making our way through wine tastings.

Sunshine & wine: always a winning combo

I start with the special reserve tasting (a méthode traditionnelle, chardonnay and two pinot noirs – Le Matre and 2016 Reserve), all of which are delicious and I can barely choose a favourite (at a push I’d have to go with the 2016 – because I found it hard to leave without buying a bottle, even though they’re $160 a pop). Then I move on to a full pinot noir tasting, which is when the entire Eftpos system goes down – but the incredibly chilled staff don’t bat an eyelid and declare these ones on the house.

All good holidays revolve around meals – and we’re mindful to save plenty of room for the evening, where we have a booking at Ben Bayly’s new restaurant, Aosta. We also leave plenty of time for a stroll around Arrowtown – a portal into a whole other time and world – and soak up the evening sun with a drink at Bendix Stables at the end of our walk.

I’d been recommended Aosta by a friend (who is now one of my favourite friends) – and then Gareth Stewart named it as one of his favourites, and lordy, lord I can now see why.

It’s inspired by the cuisine of Northern Italy – where you’ll find the alpine valley of Aosta, that actually shares many similarities with Central Otago. We start with the Crispy Squid & White Bean Insalata and Crudo of Bluff Blue Cod. They’re both so good, I actually get teary I’m so happy. We follow up with the Roasted Bluff Monkfish and Southland Angus Scotch Fillet, which is like absolute wizardry. It’s easily the best meal I’ve had in a very long time.

Despite the fact we are insanely full, we order a dessert (deer milk ‘mozzarella’ with apple sorbet & vanilla) and watch the most spectacular Tiramisu arrive at the table next to us. The tasty little base essentially arrives on a little lazy Susan – while the mascarpone is spun around in front of you to build a towering tiramisu, like an artwork.

Ben Bayly building his legendary Tiramisu.

As we leave, the couple sitting next to us leans over and say, ‘We have been SO impressed by how much you two can eat. The meals just kept coming!” I’m proud beyond words.

And somehow, by morning, I’m ready to do it again. Tucked just down the road from the Airbnb is Akarua Wines and Kitchen – who not only make a great wine, but it turns out it’s the best spot in Queenstown/Lake Hayes for brunch. The courtyard is simply beautiful, and at 9am on Wednesday the place is humming, with the kitchen making waffles (with brulee banana and honeycomb butter), French toast brioche (with black doris plum puree) and Portobello mushrooms (with roasted almond romesco). It’s the perfect spot to unwind, fill your belly and get slightly emotional into your coffee that it’s the last stop before heading home.

*Alice was hosted by the wonderful folks at Airbnb for this story – all other excursions were paid for individually.

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