Wednesday, April 30, 2014


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 (

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 (

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.

For more information on Wanaka and Arrowtown, log on to;

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Best for adventures

executive summary by darmansjah

FRESH off a quick one-hour domestic flight into Queenstown, we bundle into our rental Toyota Aurion and head down town. Tucked amongst surrounding mountains and adorned by the stunning Lake Wakatipu – New Zealand’s second-largest lake – my Kiwi guide Shona informs us that Queenstown is known to be an adventure capital, confirmed by the numerous signs selling ‘extreme green rafting!’ and ‘the world’s most exciting jet boat ride!’ as we drive towards the town centre.

A vibrant winter playground for skiers and perfect adventures host all year round, this top tourist town offers thrill seekers options ranging from paragliding, skydiving, canyon swinging, zip trekking, two-wheel dirt biking, bungy jumping, river surfing and white-water rafting – the possibilities are endless. Despite the gloomy weather, buses packed with tourists joint the queues for water adventures in the Shotover River, Kawaru River and the Landsborough River, with excited peals of laughter and squeals echoing off the canyon. What’s coming to New Zealand without attempting a bungy jump? For the best jump-off location in town, head straight to the Skyline Complex. Accessible from central Queenstown via a scenic gondola ride 450 metres up to Bob’s Peak where clouds drift dreamly, nature’s wonder simply takes your breath away as you admire the vistas of ski-paradise Cornote Peak and the Remarkables mountain range with its stunning deep blues and turquoise across Lake Wakatipu and Walter Peaks to the southwest. Before leaving, be sure to catch one of the Kiwi Haka performances – a fascinating 30-minutes cultural showcase of the Maori people, New Zealand’s earliest settlers since nearly 1,000 years ago.

Back down to earth, we zip back into the bustling heart of town, spending an hour loading up on food an shopping, the buzzing area spanning a good mix of fashion and adventure wear, ski gears shops, tourist stops, cozy cafes, fast food giants and eateries, quirky gift stores, companies selling two-wheel drive packages and even a small casino. Shops are neatly arranged into clear lanes for easy navigation, with popular brand names the likes of Global Culture, Hallensteins, Glassons, Witchery and even a Louis Vuitton duplex amongst them.

Flushed from the cold mountain air and slight drizzle, we take a slow 10 minute drive towards the nearby Onsen Hot Pools, where a crowd of post-skiers, hikers and weary urbanites are already signing in to get their robes and keys to their pool room. Pre-booking allow the flexibility of having the staff adjust waters to bubble at your preferred temperature, and after soaking in comfortably, you can adjust the retractable roof for glorious, unhindered views of the mountains.

With an increase in the number of tourist seeking luxury services in New Zealand, I decide to indulge in one my self, signing up for a private wine tour with Black ZQN. Armed with a fleet of all-black European luxury vehicles spanning the gamut from Bentleys, Rolls-Royce, Range Rovers and Mercedes to Jaguar rides, the choice is yours for a photography expedition along the various Lord of the Rings trilogy shooting locations, art tour s and even customizing a white wedding journey among the snow-capped mountains. Today we are slotted in for a two-hour winery tour with our private chauffeur cum guide Frank Anderson, who is all suited up behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Caravelle.

Driving along the Central Otago region known for its continental-style climate and at 45 degrees South also one of the southernmost wine regions in the world, Frank fondly recounts how former journalist Alan Brady from Northern Ireland had given up his career in his prime despite public sceptisim, planting some of Gibbston Valley’s first grape vines in 1981. With the first bottle capped six years later, what had begun as a liability has now become Brady’s asset in just 25 years, also propelling the region’s winemaking industry. Our first stop begins at Chard Farm, where I part with just US$31 for my bottle of Vipers Vineyard Riesling 2010, an intensely aromatic white with its sweetness derived from apricots and honey. We lunch next at the unlikeliest of spots – a former Presbyterian Church from Wangaloa on the South Otago coast, relocated and now used as a tasting room operated by Waitiri Greek. Sitting at the eastern side of the picturesque Gibbston flats, our charming and highly knowledgeable Waitiri manager, Jason takes us through the wines harvested here, individual wine compositions and recommended pairings. The menu is simple but deliciously divine – mussels swimming in generous portions of liquid coconut and tossed chilli, while our platter of Whitestone cheese and meats went brilliantly with our Pinot Gris. I marvel at Frank’s self-restraint from the delicious wines, then laugh when I realize he has already arranged for a carton of his favourite reds to be shipped home the very next day.

Where to eat FERGBURGER It’s impossible to miss the store front, distinguishable by the snaking queues and a prominent tagine ‘in Ferg We Trust’. Originally whipped up as a staple to thlep famished drunken souls, the burgers are unusually large – the bun is as large as a grown adult’s face. Burgers are cooked on the spot as you place orders, with choices of chicken, beef and even a vegetarian option (Holier than Thou). Or conquer the ultimate Big Al – double beef patties, ‘lashings of bacon, a whole lotta cheese, two eggs’ and typical toppings of onions and tomato relish (from US$9).

Families travelling with children can pop into the Wakatipu Toy Library near central Queenstown, where toys are available for loan during your stay.

Reservations for Onsen Hot Pools are required, with free hourly shuttle service from the Station Building, central Queenstown.

A 20-minute drive from Queenstown brings you to the Kawarau Bungy Centre, where the world’s first commercial bungy jump was initiated in 1988

For more information on Queenstown, log on to

Monday, April 28, 2014


executive summary by darmansjah

Preparing for my trip to New Zealand’s South Island, well-meaning friends advised me to allocate just a day for Christchurch, because after all, what could a city do in just under two years, following not one, but two devastating earthquakes in September 2010 and February 2011 Plenty, it turns out. While a portion remains cordoned off in the Red Zone – iconic architectural attractions such as the Cathedral and Arts Centre remain closed indefinitely – the indomitable Kiwis are rebuilding their beloved city brick by arduous brick, this spirit of hope displayed most brilliantly at Re: START.

Though in this case, bricks were not used, but rather, shipping containers. We park at Lichfied Street and proceed to walk through luxury department store Ballantynes towards Cashel Street, all the while trying to conjure a mental image of how an entire shopping area could possibly consist solely of boring rectangular storage solutions, stacked and sexy. With a start, I realize I have in fact just walked into a container store – and a few minutes later emerge to find the ‘pop-up mall’: a colourful, Lego-like, boxed-up maze of 40 boutique shops housing well-known retailers like Head Over Heels, Trelise Cooper and Toi Toi. Stopping to get my morning caffeine at Hummingbird Coffee, I find a comfortable crowd already enjoying their cuppa while basking in the sunlight-drenched alfresco area, where regular live music shows and street acts will liven up this funky shopping precinct when weekend arrives.

A 30-minute drive north out of Christchurch takes us towards Waipara Valley, a fast-growing grape region home to award-winning vinery Pegasus Bay. A family-run enterprise, founder Ivan Donaldson planted the first vineyard in the Canterbury region in the mid 70s; the winery now produces mostly Riesling and Pinot Noir varieties. Wine tasting is a truly decadent experience here, where knowledgeable staff will walk you through your Cabernets (toasty-flavoured black currants) to Gewurztraminers (great with curries) with great flair. Holding my choice red, we proceed to the cozy cottage-like restaurant where restaurant manager Juliana has already prepared a lunch feast, the gigantic Pegasus Bay Platter for two possibly the tastiest antipasto platter I’ve tried. Winner of ‘NZ Winery Restaurant of the Year’ by Cuisine Magazine for five years straight, it was tough trying to put more into our bursting tummies. Thankfully, a sensible scenic post-meal walk around the lush, expansive blooming vineyard amidst gentle winds finally put some bounce back into my stride.

Don’t miss a trip to the Riccarton Market, located 15 minutes from central Christchurch and the biggest of its kind in new Zealand. Open on Sundays, over 250 vendors sell everything goods and art, to plants and fashion. 

Step into a negative 30 degree Celsius climate even during summer at the International Antartic Centre, with cute little Blue Penguins and exciting outdoor rides on the all-terrain amphibious vehicle – the hagglund.

For more information on Christchurch, log on to

Where to eat PESCATORE Set with the luxurious boutique hotel of the George, patrons come here for the restaurant’s scenic views of Hagley Park, and also in anticipation of the chef’s creative interpretations on food, taking inspiration from classic cuisines to the latest food techniques. Ours was the middle menu, starting with a ham salad consisting of onion, beetroot, apple and prosciutto. They were masterfully dehydrated, every bite a wonderful intense burst of flavor. The Canterbury lamb trio was succulent, before ending off with 7 lemons, a refreshing zing to your meal (from US$89).