Best for river journeys
executive summary by darmansjah
I’m strapped into seven layers of clothing and jackets, pulling on my leather gloves as my jet boat driver Brent passes me a beanie’s so your hair doesn’t get in the way of fantastic views!’. We’re standing at the dock of Lake Wanaka located in the lower part of South Island, gearing up for our impending journey that will take us through views of Mount Aspiring, glaciers from the ice age and the Matukituki Valley, the latter featured in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. With the weather increasingly chilly and ominous clouds above, our journey changes instead to a ride along the Clutha River. Joining us is Alfred, a 24-year-old Israeli student who initially planned to tackle the morning slopes a The Remarkables located an hour away, though the rain thwarted his plans and brought him here instead.
Brent, also the owner of Wanaka river Journeys – a wilderness jet boating company – begins a short safety demo. He then raises his right hand with index finger pointing skywards, and circles in a clockwise direction. ‘When I do this,’ he yells over the motor, ‘we are spinning 360 degress, so hold tight!’. The wind teases my eyes to a narrow slit and I slide deeper into my jacket, grabbing onto the heated handrails as Brent jacks up the speedometer quickly to 80 kilometres per hour, stopping to point out glaciers and soaring paradise ducks, all the while speaking with great pride about the history of the natural forces that shaped this area. We reach the river mouth and slow abruptly to match the speed limit of eight kilometers per hour, since waters are extremely shallow here. Glacier waters are stunningly clear at this point, my vision reaching all the way into the bottom of the lake. Maneuvering out, Brent zig-zags his way through the often rushing waters, expertly avoiding high-sitting riverbed rocks and throwing in a few mind-boggling high-speed twists – resulting in us all receiving glacier water facials, and I absolutely delighting in every second of it.
Despite the fun, Alfred has been quietly videotaping the entire ride down without so much of a squeal, though his eyes widens in curiousity when Brent points out a roundabout area where boaters ride out to sift out the gold lying upon the lakebed. And the man literally stands up when Brent spots a friend bent down low along the river banks – gold panning. Gold was first discovered at Lindis Valley in Central Otago, where Pembroke (the town renamed to the existing Wanaka in 1940) served as the service centre for regional miners in the height of the gold rush. The Kiwi tells us he has been at it for hours, and comes by pretty regularly as a weekend getaway – before asking us not to spread the word. We wave our goodbye, and Brent chuckles at our luck of revisiting a piece of history even on our short one-hour trip.
Out of Wanaka and about 40 minutes away is Arrowtown, another former gold-mining town where 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold along the Arrow river. With a population of just over 2,000, the small town now enjoys a reputation as much sought after spot for locals to build holiday houses, as well as attracting the world’s gourmet connoisseurs to Saffron.
Helmed by Chef Peter Gawron, Saffron ranks high on the must-dine list of many Kiwis I meet. The entire restaurant booked out the night I visited although we made our reservations weeks before. Making a kind exception, Chef peter makes arrangements for us to eat instead at The blue door, the second of three dining establishments set up by himself and his lovely partner, Melaine Hill. Located at 18 Buckingham Street, waiters move around the eateries via a cozy alleyway, and they serve us a delicious entrée of crispy white bait, which we wash down with a special concoction of oyster mixed with Bloody Mary shots, prepared by Blue Door’s resident bartender. The rest of the night does down in a merry swirl as I enjoy my gigantic blwl of green lip mussels soaked in glorious spiced gravy, and the head turning Trio of Curries: red duck and pineapple curry, Massaman curry with candied pork belly, and Chiang Mai curry of soft shell crab and lime leaves. Taking a few months off yearly to explore the worl’s cuisines during Queenstown’s low ski seasons, chef Peter has travelled to Morocco, Thailand, China and more, adding international dimensions to his contemporary creations. While flipping through his sold-out cookbook Saffron, Chef Pete bounces in with a winsome smile and sees our eyes drawn to the chocolate soufflé. Though not on the menu, he immediately informs us that 12 minutes is all it takes and that we’ll be enjoying our desserts in no time at all – before heading back to Saffron’s main kitchen to whip up the tricky dessert.
Topping off the already fabulous night, we pop upstairs into Dorothy Browns, a boutique cinema airing a selection of contemporary and art house films. The cherry topper is this: intermissions are still in use here, allowing you to pop out for toilet breaks, get a cheese platter or champagne from the bar, before returning to your show.
Where to Eat Grain & Seed a 30-minute journey en route from Queenstown to Wanaka is the picturesque Old Crown well Town. Wander all the way in, past a pebble-filled walkway and towards this cozy little café on your left, selling your standard range of coffees and lovely potted teas perfect for revival after long drives. Hungry ones can dive onto hot sandwiches, jumbo sausage rolls and the simple but delicious toasted cheese roll. Don’t leave without trying the divine chocolate cake, best paired with a cup of hot mocha (from US$2.50; David, 64 3445 1077).
Wilderness walks beneath the mountains and thundering waterfalls of Matukituki Valley are available, as are helicopter rides up for close up view of Mount-Aspiring (Wanakariverjourneys.co.nz).
Within an hour of Wanaka re the skiing slopes of The Remarkables and Coronet Peak, though if bad weather ensues, the bustling Lake Wanaka Center is a great place to get some shopping done, have lunch and even enjoy a myriad of activities from kayaking, biking to fishing trips (Lakewanaka.co.nz/new-zealand/i-SITE).
Sweet-toothed fans will thoroughly enjoy stepping into The Remarkable Sweet Shop in Arrowtown, filled to the ceiling with chocolate bars, jelly bean jars, candies in gorgeous tins and even a fudge-tasting counter – somewhat of a Willy Wonka Factory like experience.