From seafood on a superyacht to Sauv Blanc at sunset, Lizzie Pook eats her way around New Zealand in style…
A land of ancient rock formations, sublime forests, mirror-like lakes and staggering mountain ranges, New Zealand has to be one of the most bewitching places on the planet. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s formed the cinematic backdrop for some of the most ambitious films around – from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to his giant-beasts-and-bugs blockbuster King Kong. But the food here is almost as dramatic as the scenery. From tender organic roast lamb to green-lipped mussels hauled fresh from the sea, and with a farm-to-table movement firmly in swing, chefs and food-lovers are getting in a fluster over ‘Middle Earth’. Even travelling here is a gourmet adventure in itself, with the country’s flagship carrier Air New Zealand offering Michelin-starred dishes and lashing of NZ’s famous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on its flights.
We start off our trip by stepping back in time. After a massive earthquake in 1931 – powerful enough to raise shipwrecks and trigger seismographs around the world from Bombay to Kew – the city of Napier on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island was essentially razed to the ground. Remarkably, the small coastal city was rebuilt in pristine Art Deco style and everything still stands today – from retro parking meters to Gatsby-themed function rooms. Even the local dentist’s is Art Deco-influenced.
Local restaurant Bistronomy, with its stained-glass windows, clover-green tiles and hanging Edison bulbs, is a more modern take on the trend. There are pickled plums and jars of fermenting apples lining the walls and Amber, the friendly chef’s wife, delights in telling us how she spent the morning harvesting white strawberries and carting a whole sheep into the restaurant to be skinned. We tuck enthusiastically into a brunch of devilishly tender fried chicken with creamy korma mayonnaise, alongside eggs benedict, served with house-cured pork belly, greens, brioche and beer hollandaise.
Later that afternoon, we take a scenic drive to the Craggy Range Winery in nearby sun-drenched Hawke’s Bay. The area is known for its Syrah, Chardonnay and Bordeaux blends but the food here is impeccable too. Our meal starts with pillow-soft potato focaccia smeared with camembert-infused butter and borage honey (Chef Casey McDonald also visits the neighbouring beach daily to collect water, which he boils down to make salt for the table).
We then move onto pappardelle with broad bean sauce and globe artichoke, and a whole roast gurnard (beady eyes and all), which we devour with a strawberries-and-cream Gimblett Gravels rosé. That night we stay at the marvellous Greenhill Lodge, set amongst sprawling green vineyards and rolling farmland. Built in 1890 it’s a beautiful English-style country manor property, filled with quirky knick-knacks collected by owner John’s family on their trips around Asia. A true home from home, it’s the perfect place to soak up New Zealand’s fresh air and hearty produce by the gallon-load.
The beautiful south
When it comes to wine country, Marlborough on New Zealand’s South Island is an oenophile’s dream. Filled with pretty cherry plantations, spicy-smelling cabbage trees and, of course, vineyards for as far as the eye can see. The area churns out 77% of New Zealand’s wine – 92% of which is the trademark Sauvignon Blanc. You’ll also find 13 Cellar Doors here within a five-kilometre stretch; perfect for wobbling your way around on a bike. After taking a brisk two-hour flight from the North Island, we stay off-shore at the beautiful Bay of Many Coves resort – 11 picturesque apartments tucked away on 128 acres of land, lapped by the tranquil Marlborough Sound. Foredeck, the on-site restaurant is helmed by exacting Argentinian chef Francisco (who gets up early every morning to swim to the opposite island and back).
It has won New Zealand’s Beef and Lamb Excellence award for eight years in a row and is one of only 53 restaurants in the world licensed to sell Ora King salmon (and one of only two licensed to sell delicious New Zealand scampi). Suffice to say, it deserves its plaudits. By evening we embark upon elaborate feasts; meandering through beautifully pink lamb loin with celeriac puree; goat’s cheese mousse with balsamic caviar and poached cod with vinegar fried potatoes. All accompanied by (seemingly endless) bottles of crisp Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc.
Overnight, furious storms rage, shaking the windows and rattling the shutters. I’m woken at 5am when all goes deathly quiet, until the shags nesting in the nearby trees descend to bathe their chicks in the water with a cacophony of squawks. Later that morning, when the sun sends shafts of light bouncing off the water like swords, we set sail on Tarquin, an aptly-named 70ft superyacht (run by Marlborough Travel), through the glittering waters of the Sound.
We pass aquamarine inlets, pods of Hector’s dolphins and diving seabirds until we reach Motuara island, and hike the teeteringly-steep path up to the top of the mountain, where Captain Cook placed his flag to claim the land over 200 years ago. It’s tough work, but we’re rewarded by gasp-worthy aquamarine seas spilling across the horizon, dotted with tropical looking islands and stretches of lush fern-green forests.
The flight into Queenstown – aka the ‘global adventure capital’ – is, shall we say, bumpy. But thankfully, I am thoroughly engrossed with what’s happening outside my window. The landscape below is a crash of staggering tiramisu mountains, dotted with ice blue lakes and patchworks of neatly-preened farmland.
Our base, the historic Hulbert House, built in 1888, has had many incarnations, including as a war refuge and a luxurious Victorian villa. Nowadays, walls are a riotous mix of clashing prints and the central lounge is festooned with jungle leaf wallpaper, hanging pineapple chandeliers and Asian-inspired carpets.
The main draw here, however, are the outdoor activities, from skiing and snowmobiling to hiking and paragliding. We, however, are here to eat, which we do quite splendidly on our first night at Rata, a slick copper-and-foliage-filled restaurant known for its local meats, sake cocktails and fluffy goat’s cheese profiteroles. We start with a surprisingly delicious smoky and sweet treacle bread with crusted maple butter (it tastes like bonfire night) followed by grilled octopus with a black olive crumb. Mains come in the form of melt-in-the-mouth parmesan ricotta gnocchi and pan-fried butterfish with Cloudy Bay clams.
The next day we’re up early with jangling nerves to take the scenic flight across to the Milford Sound – a vast fjord surrounded by Avatar-esque rainforests and theatrical waterfalls. In our tiny six-seater plane, we fly over gunmetal grey lagoons high up in the mountains, and pass Shotover Canyon, which in its heyday was mined by thousands for alluvial gold, making it the richest river in the world. The Humboldt mountain range causes a few turbulent bumps in the ‘road’, but we soon enter real Lord of the Rings territory (Peter Jackson used much of this landscape to represent Middle Earth in his trilogy). Flying through snow-showers we spot turquoise glacial rivers and inky mountaintop lakes, before everything turns green and we find ourselves coming into land over the tropical rainforest of the Fjordland National Park.
Once on land we take a boat with Southern Discoveries out onto the Sound which, due to its receiving more annual rainfall than the Amazon, is one of the wettest places on earth. The microclimate here creates a dark brackish water, with haunting overlying cloud and glacier-carved valleys. It’s really quite magical. As we chug on we spot leathery seals sprawling on rocks and rare fjordland crested penguins. It’s all topped off when, on our way back to the dock, a pod of huge bottle nose dolphins come to surf our bow wave.
A great escape
Lake Wakatipu, just 30 minutes down the road from Queenstown, is the sort of place that’s good for the soul. Snow-topped mountains preside magisterially over the cool, glittering lake, while oyster catchers and elegant paradise ducks potter about the banks. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite so beautiful, quite so tranquil, and with air quite so damn fresh.
Blanket Bay is the place to stay here – an imposing mountain lodge filled with dusty old books, model boats and intricate chandeliers crafted from huge antlers. What’s most remarkable though are the views – suites and chalets come with comfy armchairs positioned directly in front of the lake, like some sort of HD landscape TV. Guests can ride horses, hike or take a helicopter ride to the top of a glacier for a picnic. But the more humble among us might like to simply lie on the lawns at night and watch the theatre of shooting stars streak across the sky.
The chef in charge is Cory Hume, and his five-course tasting menu changes daily. Fittingly, we spend most of our time here eating, and as we settle into our al fresco table on our final night, next to glowing patio heaters and with our knees under cosy blankets, we’re treated to a feast of wild Atlantic scallop sashimi, miso infused Wakanui beef with ramen gnocchi and a gloriously sumptuous cheese plate for afters. All suitably decadent fare, given the magnificent surroundings. You really can’t get more Middle Earth than that.
Thanks to Air New Zealand’s partnership with Singapore Airlines, you can pick up flights to New Zealand via Singapore from both London Heathrow and Manchester airports. From £839 in Economy and £2,322 in Premium Economy. For more information and bookings, visit www.airnewzealand.co.uk. All accommodation can be booked through Small Luxury Hotels. For more information, visit slh.com.