New Zealand: Wine Trails + Wilderness

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Millbrook-Resort-image

Millbrook Resort

New Zealand is possibly the only country where you’ll find a man who owns a bungy jump and winery. Together they symbolize the diversity of experiences here, from the most popular alpine destination in the Asia/Pacific Rim to hundreds of vineyards within this New World wine region. The fabulous food and wine was the biggest surprise of this trip.

Depending which way you’re flying, the L.A./Auckland route is 11-12 hours aboard Air New Zealand. Be sure to start your Kiwi cultural edification at LAX inside Air NZ’s Koru Club, with some of the most hospitable staff we’ve ever met. Once you’re in Auckland, it’s a 1-hour, 50-minute flight south to Queenstown.

Celeste Jones, director of incentives for IDNZ Destination Management, put together our itinerary.

THE FIRST STEP IS A DOOZY

My feet are tied together with a bungy cord so I have to bunny hop to the edge of the platform sticking out from the bridge. The river is 150 feet below, equivalent to a 15-story building. The staff isn’t allowed to push you off but I can feel the guy’s hand firm on my back suggesting there’s only one way off this bridge.

“Whenever you’re ready, mate,” he says.

In that instant, a twinge of panic grips your belly, your brain shuts down and you swan dive into the chasm.

Bungy jumping was invented here on the Kawarau Bridge just outside Queenstown. And that’s just one of many outdoor adventures available here. The region is marked by craggy mountains, green forests and rapid rivers, which you’ll know if you saw any of the Lord of the Rings movies filmed here.

Over 400,000 people visit Kawarau yearly and about 10% jump. From the viewing platform jutting out from the side of the gorge, people cheer you on before you leap while the DJ cranks up the Aerosmith. The facility can run through about 20 jumpers per hour for private events up to 400 pax.

Our group is here in Central Otago—the southernmost wine region in the world, especially well known for Pinot Noir. The owner of Kawarau also owns The Winehouse next door. There’s a fun Wine Education Garden with four plots growing different varietals, each with a description. It’s a great conversation starter. Riesling, we learn, features notes of apricot, rose and lavender, for example. There’s also a croquet lawn and a convivial courtyard with a huge fireplace for 120-pax lunches.

A NEW CONVERSATION

Christopher Keys is an award-winning winemaker at Gibbston Valley Winery. He shows us around the new Barrel Hall for dinners for 250 pax surrounded by oak barrels. Or, the Wine Cave hosts 100 for tastings; 25 for degustation dinners.

As for the wine, the 2000 Gibbston Reserve Pinot Noir won the Champion Pinot Noir Award at the London Int’l Wine Challenge. The food is awesome too, especially in this setting. The Akaroa salmon pan-fried in cider with cinnamon and courgette agridulce pairs well with a 2010 Gibbston Reserve Chard.

I ask Keys about the evolution of food/wine tourism in New Zealand.

“The food movement is becoming less hedonistic, it’s not so much about, do I like it or not?” he says. “Instead, people are asking where did this food come from, why does it taste this way, who created it? Local context means so much, the people, the place…. The same thing is happening with wine, it’s less about a 0-100 ranking. If you just rank wine against wine, and say, ‘Is this a 92 or is it really a 90,’ then you’re never going to get the whole story, you’re never going to understand terroir.”

And what is the value of that?

“It provides diversity and choice for the consumer. Without it, you have a very short conversation.”

Next we check out Peregrine Wines, whose ’09 Pinot Noir won the Bouchard Finlayson Trophy Pinot Noir at last year’s Int’l Wine & Spirit Competition in London. The judges said the pinot exemplifies the “Peacock’s Tail,” where flavors roam across the tongue with “sensuous, nervously controlled elegance.”

Peregrine’s striking public building looks like a huge metal wing angling toward a large grassy meadow at the base of a mountain range. The minimalist wine tasting and barrel rooms are below, hosting about 50 pax, and there’s a restored 1860s woolshed at the entrance for 100-pax dinners.

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Walter Peak Sheep Farm

LUNCH W/ JETBOATS, CHOPPERS, SHEEP + SHIPS

The jet boat was invented in New Zealand to traverse the extremely shallow rivers winding between the mountains around Queenstown. We hop aboard one with DartRiver Jet Safaris for an hour ride to some secret coves surrounded by tall forests. The boat sits only inches in the water, and more than once we feel the boat scrape along the rocky river bed. Our driver Royce explains that planners have organized waiters with diving equipment to emerge from beneath the boat with chilled bottles of champagne.

We end our trip onshore where IDNZ has hot cocoa and fresh chocolate muffins waiting, surrounded by Maori carvings and couches. Later, to our surprise, two helicopters operated by Over the Top land nearby. We fly over the mountaintops and down into the ravines, and everyone is rather impressed when the pilot manages to squeeze onto a high mountain shelf for photos.

We touch down at Walter Peak Sheep Farm, where we segue into the sheep barn. Sheep farms are big business in New Zealand, producing wool for clothing suppliers worldwide. So, if you’ve never sheared a sheep before, this is your chance. Ranchman Lindsay Westaway holds the sheep while we take turns working the shears. Then Westaway shows us how dogs herd sheep before we go for lunch inside the elegant farm home, originally built in 1890. The setting is as gracious as it is beautiful, surrounded by bursting rose gardens fronting Lake Wakatipu.

Inside, The Colonel’s Homestead restaurant seats groups up to 180 for locally sourced homestyle cooking. It’s very cozy, and this is when our group really starts to bond.

From Walter Peak’s dock, the restored TSS Earnslaw steamship has been plying the lake to Queenstown’s harbor since 1912. Hop aboard “The Lady of the Lake” for the 45-minute ride back to town surrounded by towering mountain ridges.

The next day, we drive about 20 minutes along the lake to Matakauri Lodge, which looks like the lake house of your dreams. Only 11 rooms, it’s mostly booked by very high end groups, but it works very well as a sophisticated lunch venue. Two sister properties are The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs and The Farm at Cape Kidnappers on New Zealand’s North Island.

“This shows the standard of luxury in New Zealand,” says Jones with IDNZ. “For larger groups, we’ve split them up and then everyone meets in Queenstown. That’s worked really well because people get to enjoy this exquisite lodge experience.”

TOWN + COUNTRY HOTELS

Originally constructed as a French Colonial farm 150 years ago, the 175-key Millbrook Resort was ranked the #1 golf resort in Australasia last year. Spread over 500 acres, the extra large rooms and villa suites are housed in charming cottages facing the 27 fairways and English gardens. The rooms were renovated in updated French Provincial decor in 2010. They have fireplaces and French doors opening onto ground level terraces. The bright white 1- and 2-bedroom villas were reworked in 2011 with a barnyard-chic look sporting kitchens, country tables and large terraces.

The standalone spa is the country’s highest rated with plenty of natural light streaming through the large picture windows.

We all gather for a group putting contest on a rolling green surrounded by a moat in the resort’s central area. Affable hotel manager Brian Howie organized a putting lesson and quick contest while champagne is served. A great icebreaker.

Dinner here is something special in the restored millhouse, aptly called The Millhouse. We pull up around a big farmer’s table below heavy wood beams while a fire roars in the giant stone fireplace. Can’t say enough about the gorgeous 2009 Dog Point Vineyard Pinot Noir or the “home-killed” (local) lamb with pumpkin puree and seared scallops on crispy pork belly.

“We offer a private setting away from the city so you have a captive audience,” says Howie. “It feels very New Zealand, and with the rooms and cabins, you feel like you’re living here.”

Two dedicated meeting spaces host 140/150 theater-style.

Located across the bay from Queenstown, the brand new 178-room Hilton Queenstown is modern yet incredibly airy and comfy with lots of natural wood and “schist” stone elements throughout. The rooms all have fireplaces, blackwood mirror armoires and desks by the balconies facing the water. The superb Wakatipu Grill runs along the water at ground level, opening up to a large firepit at the water’s edge. Service needs tweaking but I totally love the mod ambience that brings the outdoors inside.

Next door, there’s another 98 rooms with stainless steel and slate tile kitchens. Largest meeting space is 2,140 sf.

“You probably wouldn’t expect such an edgy hotel here in Queenstown and we love that!” says Mandy Kennedy, director of business development. “It’s something unique for us but it’s still very local with local materials and designers.”

There’s a fun wine room for groups up to 12 people. A rep from Peregrine visited for a round of tastings, showcasing the vineyard’s hand-harvested, certified organic pinots and savs.

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ExploreNZ Sailing

AUCKLAND: CITY OF SAILS

The annual Mercer Report listing the world’s most livable cities places Auckland at #3, and it’s a big deal here. This might be the world’s greenest city of 1.4 million people. Also seems everyone in Auckland owns a boat as we sail one of the 80-foot America’s Cup racing sailboats operated by ExploreNZ, originally used in the 2007 Cup at Valencia. This is always a total blast working together and helping everyone stay upright on the wet decks.

Back in the marina, check out the Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum. “The Exploring Spirit of a Seafaring Nation” exhibits celebrate local skipper Sir Peter Blake who won the 1995 America’s Cup.

Next door, the 165-room Hilton Auckland extends like a cruise ship out onto a wharf within steps of downtown and the Maritime District. The modern business hotel is entirely glass and steel but it feels completely inviting with all of the natural daylight and light-hued interiors. The decor is nautical themed throughout, and all of the rooms have balconies.

The Bellini Bar with all-glass walls opening out to the waterfront terrace is one of Auckland’s chicest lounges, and the new FISH Restaurant is headlined by top-rated chef Simon Gault. Meeting space includes a 7,500-sf ballroom.

Downtown, the 320-room SKYCITY Hotel and 306-room, 5-star SKYCITY Grand Hotel reside within a larger complex housing a 21-room convention center and 21 restaurants. Renovations wrap up in the Grand this summer. We saw the new rooms, all with original artwork and designer furnishings. We especially like the outdoor pool deck and cocktail space for upscale 250-pax functions with towering views over the city.

The Grill by Sean Connolly in SKYCITY Grand exclusively promotes sustainable seafood and chops, like the pasture-fed Wagyu Scotch filet. Try the Bluenose bennie with duck fat fries.

“This is a convention hotel that doesn’t feel like a convention hotel,” says Gillian Officer, director of sales. “It’s really the entertainment district for the entire city, and we’re only eight minutes from the waterfront.”

Our group camped out at The Langham Auckland, also centrally located and minutes from the water. If there’s such a thing as “cozy big brand luxury,” then this is it. The 411 rooms are smart with slight gold and rouge Asian accents and speedy Wifi, and everything feels exceptionally maintained.

The new Eight restaurant is loads of fun with a dinearound concept where diners can choose from different “open markets” to create customized meals. Themes range from Silk Road dim sum to Champs-Elysees pastries and cheeses.

WAIHEKE ISLAND WINE TRAIL

The 105-foot Pacific Mermaid superyacht has hosted luminaries from Sir Sean Connery to England’s PM Gordon Brown. We’re welcomed aboard with champagne, Stilton blue cheese and smoked salmon canapés for the 45-minute journey to Waiheke Island. Called “The Martha’s Vineyard of New Zealand,” Waiheke is rimmed with postcard coves scalloped into the low mountain coastline. We’re met by Steve Robinson with Ananda Tours, who escorts us on “The Premium Waiheke Wine & Food Experience” to Cable Bay Vineyards.

I try the 2008 Chardonnay with a “creamy biscuity mid-palate.”

“I’m not a wine guy,” I tell Steve, “but this seems quite lighter than chardonnay back home, but there’s still some good character.”

“A lot of people here got put off because of too much oak, so these are a lot more fruit driven,” he explains. “I’m a big believer in the restrained use of new oak.” Steve’s a wine guy.

Mudbrick Vineyard should be mandatory for any visiting group. Overlooking grape vines and gardens full of sunflowers, the farmhouse restaurant features a second story terrace and charming loft for 16 diners. Try the Eastherbrook Farm duck breast with passionfruit salsa and parma ham. Farm-to-fork is as old as the hills in Waiheke, and the freshness in the food and air pervades the entire spirit at lunch.

Mudbrick is a bit of a fairytale sustainability story. A young couple, Robyn and Nicholas Jones, planted the vines and built the cafe/house/winery themselves. Kiwis think if you can get three uses out of one building, then “good on ya,” as they say.

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