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  • Christine Piper

Southern Hospitality

Long known for mountain thrills, Queenstown and its surrounds are being reborn as a world-class food and wine destination where innovation and heritage are embraced. By Christine Piper.

Ayrburn’s picturesque site was formerly one of the area’s oldest farms.

It’s almost three hours into the flight to Queenstown and we haven’t even landed, but I’m starting to understand how the region got its reputation as the adventure capital of the world. First, there are those mountain ranges: wreathed by clouds and capped with a light dusting of snow in early autumn, they unfurl like sleeping dragons as far as the eye can see. Second, there is the descent to the airport: navigating a narrow passage through rows of peaks, requiring several turns, it’s an awe-inspiring ride — until we are hit by turbulence and the small aircraft we’re in is buffeted from side to side. Suddenly I’m wide-eyed, adrenaline-spiked, looking at those mountains in a new light. 


The Woolshed, a bistro within the multimillion-dollar hospitality hub Ayrburn, near Arrowtown. Photography courtesy of Ayrburn.

The region has long drawn adventurists and thrillseekers to its craggy peaks and prized shores. Seven hundred years ago, before the area was permanently inhabited, Māori ventured to these parts in the warmer months to hunt moa (large wingless and flightless birds, now extinct) and seek greenstone — the hard nephrite gemstone found in riverbeds and large boulders in the western part of the South Island.


In 1860, the first Europeans settled on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, a majestic 80-kilometre-long inland lake formed by a glacial trench. Not long afterwards, in 1862, one of the settlers’ farmhands found gold, triggering a rush in the region that attracted thousands.


In 1947, the first commercial ski resort opened on Coronet Peak. In the decades that followed, dozens of commercial operators set up shop, offering activities designed to exhilarate and terrify in equal measure: ski-plane expeditions, jetboating, whitewater rafting, bungy jumping, tandem paragliding, downhill mountain biking, heli-skiing and more.


Ski bums and daredevils will always be present, but a new breed of traveller is now flocking to Queenstown, drawn by the top-notch food and local wines, and the careful preservation of the area’s unique history. 


A view of Lake Wakatipu. Photography by Christine Piper.

Queenstown

Located on the northeastern edge of Lake Wakatipu, the township of Queenstown (population 53,000) is perfectly placed to take in the incredible views: the Remarkables (2,319 metres), Walter Peak and Cecil Peak all tower over glassy, azure waters. But why face the crowds on the gondola to Bob’s Peak when you can see everything from the cosy confines of your hotel suite? Those seeking a place to unwind with top-end dining on site will find it at Rosewood Matakauri, a lakeside retreat seven minutes from the centre of town. The hotel rooms, suites (with their own fireplaces) and larger standalone villas all boast expansive views of the lake and the rugged alpine scenery — best admired from the outdoor jacuzzi. 


Rātā’s Glory Bay salmon with mandarin, kumara and smoked koji foam. Photography courtesy of Rātā.

While Otago is known for its winery restaurants (Amisfield Restaurant and Cellar Door has won numerous top awards), some of the region’s best dining and drinking experiences are smack bang in Queenstown. Rātā was founded by local restaurateur Fleur Caulton and celebrity chef Josh Emett, a Kiwi who earned his stripes at several Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay restaurants. The menu is a journey through New Zealand, focusing on seasonal flavours and fresh local produce, sourced sustainably. Standout dishes include the sourdough bread with Marmite butter and the Glory Bay salmon with mandarin, kumara and smoked koji foam.


Head for cocktails and lunch at Gin Garden, the onsite restaurant and bar at the sustainability-focused Broken Heart Spirits gin distillery, 10 minutes out of town. Both the distillery and Gin Garden are the brainchildren of Joerg Henkenhaf, an ex-pilot who came to Queenstown from his native Germany in 2001 and fell in love with the place. Henkenhaf grew up near the Rhine River, among orchards and cottage vineyards, and made wine and fruit liqueurs at his grandparents’ kitchen table.


gin cocktails at Gin Garden, near Queenstown. Photography by Matthew Pester.

When he saw a vineyard for sale near Queenstown, he knew he had found his calling. He started out making spirits using foraged local ingredients, then decided to focus on crafting high-quality gin using the pure mountain spring waters of Paradise — the fittingly named location of one of the largest aquifers in New Zealand. More than 12 years and multiple awards later, he has since branched out to produce a pinot noir gin, quince gin, rhubarb gin, spiced rum, whisky and vodka.


Sample the spirits in one of the Gin Garden’s creative cocktails, such as the Pink Gin 75 (pinot noir gin, grapefruit juice, sugar syrup, prosecco), or book in for a guided tasting.


Just behind Gin Garden at the end of the road are the Onsen Hot Pools — a Japanese-inspired bathhouse and spa retreat with panoramic views over the Shotover River and Coronet Peak. Soaking in one of the private cedar-lined tubs, a glass of champagne in hand while watching the sky bruise to purple at sunset is an experience I won’t forget.


A bike ride through bucolic scenery in Arrowtown. Photography by Christine Piper.

Arrowtown

No visit to Queenstown would be complete without stopping at Arrowtown, the quaint village with a colourful past, just 20 minutes away by car. It was here that Jack Tewa, a Māori shepherd, found gold in the Arrow River in 1862. Within a year, more than 7,000 prospectors were crammed into the frontier town. When the West Coast goldfields took off in 1864 (the setting for Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Booker Prize-winning novel, “The Luminaries”), many Arrowtown miners packed up and left, prompting the Otago government to invite Chinese prospectors to move into town to maintain the economy. They were housed in tiny, rudimentary huts on the river’s south bank. Both the Chinese settlement and European miners’ cottages still stand and make for fascinating viewing. 


A European miner’s cottage in Arrowtown.

Arrowtown’s colourful heritage buildings have been painstakingly preserved, including the 1915 post office and the gold-rush era general store that’s now the Gold Nugget gift store. Stop in at the Remarkable Sweet Shop, offering a cornucopia of old-world treats like hokey-pokey, Jaffas, rock candy and fudge. 


Kina pappardelle with crispy leeks, hen’s yolk and shaved Stewart Island paua at Aosta in Arrowtown. Photography courtesy of Aosta.

Tourists still come to Arrowtown to pan for gold, but the area is becoming known for a different type of fortune hunter: restaurateurs. At the eastern end of the street you’ll find Aosta — the lauded eatery named for the northern Italian town where chef Ben Bayly once lived, coincidentally on the same latitude as Arrowtown. The kitchen uses premium New Zealand ingredients and Italian techniques. It’s hard to go past dishes like the kina pappardelle — handmade pasta paired with creamy sea urchin roe, egg yolk, crispy leek and shaved abalone — and the salted caramel tiramisu that’s constructed tableside with a spinning plate. If you’re travelling with kids, head to the more casual Little Aosta next door, which serves woodfired pizzettas and family-sized portions of pasta.


The Southern Alps provide a majestic backdrop to The Woolshed bistro at Ayrburn. Photography by Vaughan Brookfield.

The region’s newest drawcard is Ayrburn: a multimillion-dollar heritage dining precinct that opened in December 2023, with four bars and restaurants, an ice cream parlour, a winery and vineyards, with more venues to come.  Located 10 minutes from Arrowtown village and 20 minutes from Queenstown, Ayrburn has a shuttle and bus service that runs until late.


Spreading over 60 hectares, the bucolic location is hard to beat: a burbling creek flows past manicured lawns and shrubs and dozens of mature trees. An alfresco lunch at The Woolshed is a glorious affair, as you tuck into fresh, balanced dishes such as cured king salmon, spiced crème fraiche and apple cubes, and quaff the excellent in-house wine range (the 2022 Ayrburn Pinot Gris is exactly as the sommelier describes: “slippery, smashable”) while gazing at the breathtaking Southern Alps.


Ayrburn owner Chris Meehan in The Woolshed. Photography by Vaughan Brookfield.

History is at the heart of Ayrburn: it occupies the site of one of the area’s oldest farms, established in 1864 by a Scottish settler named William Paterson. Great care was taken to preserve numerous historic buildings and repurpose them as hospitality venues. “They’ve had to be taken apart, earthquake-strengthened and rebuilt, basically,” says Chris Meehan, the visionary behind Ayrburn. He points to a former cartshed turned cellar door and tapas bar, now known as The Manure Room, and explains that the old roof was 3-D-modelled and replaced with a new one that undulates to mimic the sag of the original roof. 


Every building has been meticulously restored, from the 1864 cottage that originally housed the Paterson clan (now the charming watering hole The Burr Bar), to the larger 1890s homestead, which is soon to open as the 144-seat fine-dining restaurant Billy’s. With all the interiors by Australian firm Alexander & Co, the elegant luxe-meets-rustic chic aesthetic is reason enough to visit.


A seasonal Plum Sour and a Coconut Paloma cocktail at new Arrowtown hotspot Ayrburn. Photography courtesy of Ayrburn.

Ayrburn is Meehan’s passion project. He purchased Ayrburn in 2015, intending to make the historic farm his home. But bigger things beckoned: he wanted to bring people together over world-class food and wine in a setting of unparalleled natural beauty. “To make it work, you need to give it a heart and soul, make it the centre of town from day one,” he says. As the CEO of Winton, a company that builds large-scale residential projects, Meehan knows what it takes. Markets and live music events are regularly held at a central gathering place called The Dell, while The Barrel Room can be booked for tastings and events. A bakery and butcher’s shop is slated to open soon. 


It’s all about communal fun — people coming together, just as they did decades ago. 



This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our twelfth edition, Page 144 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Southern Hospitality”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  

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