Surrounded by steep snow in winter, it’s no wonder Queenstown is often hailed as New Zealand’s skiing and snowboarding capital.
But, to have an unforgettable time in this gobsmacking beautiful town, you don’t even have to go anywhere near the slopes. Our adventure began as the aircraft loomed over the mysterious inkiness of Lake Wakatipu and descended between sheer powdery mountains to Queenstown’s Lego-sized airport.
Waiting to fetch us with his allblack Land Rover was the suave Kieran Gardiner, head concierge for The Spire Hotel, the most coveted address in town and our home for two nights. The weather was closing in but that was fine as I could have happily hibernated for the entire stay in the bedroom.
A stylish blend of mid-century and contemporary elements, the space, although expansive, was warm and cosy, with thick carpets and a vast, comfortable bed. As a gas fire flickered in the grate, sliding doors framed views of the cloud-shrouded mountains and a sliver of lake.
It came as no surprise to discover that the Spire was declared New Zealand’s Best Luxury Romantic Hotel at the 2016 World Luxury Hotel Awards. As one might expect from a hotel with only 10 suites, the Spire emphasises a personal, bespoke touch, with warm and attentive service from the moment you’ve arrived.
Once checked in, Gardiner assured us he was only a call away should we need anything. Fortified by peppermint tea, we decided to brave the elements for a spot of exploring. The Spire is perfectly located within spitting distance (almost) of the lake shore, right in the heart of the town.
A myriad restaurants, bars and shops in the vicinity are frequented by a curious range of humanity, from pink-cheeked backpackers to posh middle-aged skiers.
A 10-minute stroll away is the base station for the Skyline gondola, which whirs you up the mountain. Over the next couple of days, we would explore Queenstown on foot – snacking on hot cookies from Cookietown and slurping feisty chilli-speciality hot chocolate at The Exchange café.
The only thing that could beat the dulce de leche ice cream from Patagonia chocolates were the sweeping lake views from the upstairs seating area of its flagship café. One night we joined the queues stretching out the door of Ferburger, a gourmet hamburger takeaway outlet that’s also Queenstown’s most famous eatery.
And for good reason. Queenstown is a marvellous launch pad for nearby activities: lazy lake cruises, kayaking, hiking, and for, the super-flush, helicopter flips.
Early one morning we headed to Onsen, perched high above the Shotover valley. For an hour, we wallowed in our own hot pool. When it got a bit too toasty a jet of water from the roof spattered over us, cooling us down.
A day later, we would revisit the valley for a ride on the iconic Shotover jet boat, which has been enthralling visitors since 1965. For 25 exhilarating minutes we surged at up to 85km/h over glacier-green water – sometimes only 10cm high – twisting through the canyon, within heart-stopping proximity to the rock sides, and swirling and skimming in dramatic 360º turns.
A more sedate but equally dramatic experience was a day trip to the Milford Sound in the heart of the Fiordland National Park.
The glass-covered bus ride was worth the trip alone taking us through thick forest before climbing steadily up and through the Southern Alps and then twisting down to the sea.
A boat took us along the fiord, which was sided with steep cliffs cloaked in dense rainforest.
Turning back when we reached the Tasman Sea, we nudged up against a waterfall as we made our return journey. On the last night at The Spire we headed to its bar-restaurant at 5 Church Lane where hotel guests can have a complimentary drink every evening.
From mixologist Jake Page’s extensive cocktail list (which includes absinthe-inspired tipples), we enjoyed a whisky-driven Vieux Carré as sultry as New Orleans itself; and an excellent local pinot gris.
Executive chef Will Eaglesfield’s menu embraces his passion for showcasing local produce. Happily, for those as indecisive as I am, he offers a “trust-the-chef” mezze selection, shared by the table and served up in three courses.
Highlights included local pinot noir-infused wild Fiordland venison liver pâté with rhubarb relish, walnuts, spiced wine jelly and sour dough. The local chargrilled lamb ribs were also good – accompanied by crispy hand-cut chips with red pepper aioli and long-stemmed broccoli.
Before departing Queenstown, we paid a visit to Eichardt’s Private Hotel, The Spire’s elegant sister on the lake front, housed in one of the town’s oldest and most beautiful buildings. A 240m² penthouse sits atop the hotel’s glamorously modern extension which, on its ground floor, houses the meatfocused The Grille.
We breakfasted in the hotel’s bar-restaurant, warmed by the fire. Daylight seeped in from the French windows through which we could admire the tranquil lake. I drank the perfect flat white, feasted on delicious wild boar with spicy tomato relish and poached egg on fresh, fluffy sour dough. It was the perfect way to say goodbye.