Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bungee Jumping and Wine Tasting in Central Otago, NZ

(Feb. 11, 2010) “Embrace the fear,” is the slogan that greets you as you drive through Queenstown, capital of Central Otago, which is known globally for its amazing pinot noir and as the birthplace of bungee jumping. Our travel book described Central Otago as being filled with young people pursuing extreme sports. This turned out to be more than true, because as soon as we arrived on a bright sunny morning we saw hang gliders, parasailers, and jetskiers on shining Lake Wakatipu, and many people walking around with bandages and casts on legs, ankles and arms – trophies of participating in extreme sports.

The small charming downtown curling along the pebbly lakeshore is filled with shops selling extreme sports clothing and equipment. Young people lounge in sidewalk cafes and crawl the many pubs and bars at night. Outside of town, there are many ski resorts for snow-boarding, skiing, snow-mobiling, and riding the luge. We also passed several 4-wheel drive centers and multiple bungee-jumping locations. Still we had come to Central Otago to taste pinot, and with more than 50 wineries, and many excellent restaurants, we were not disappointed. Though we did not participate in any extreme sports, I couldn’t help but think that Central Otago would be a great vacation spot for parents who enjoy wine, but travel with teenagers who crave adventure.

Our flight from Auckland was only 1.5 hours, and it took only 1 minute to collect the car keys from Budget because I had booked with FastTrack. Mike was slightly dismayed to learn that the car was a manual shift, because he had never tried to drive on the left-side of the road while shifting. However, he quickly got the hang of it -- and except for turning the windshield wipers on when attempting to signal a turn – we did quite well with our car rental for the next 3 days.

Driving from the Queenstown airport to the St. Moritz Hotel only took 15 minutes, and we were able to check in by 12:30. A friend had recommended we stay here, and we were impressed with the Swiss style architecture combined with modern NZ lines. The lobby is intriguing with black and white colors, including cow hide pillows around a large fireplace. The hotel is rated as 5 stars and we decided to splurge when I was able to get a $176 US rate on However, we discovered this was a back room with no view and when I expressed my disappointment, the front desk quickly upsold us to a lakefront suite with kitchen for an additional $70US per night.

The suite was wonderful, but we were slightly dismayed to discover the hotel is above an old apartment complex which is in front of the lake – so there is no pure lakefront view. Instead you look over the roof of the apartment and laundry hanging in the backyard. Not exactly what I would expect from a 5 star hotel. However, the service was fine, and we had a wonderful anniversary dinner at their beautiful restaurant, Lombardi. We also enjoyed the old-fashioned hot tubs while watching an orange-pink sunset above the stunning mountains. Finally it was convenient to leave the car in the $10NZ per night hotel garage, and take the short walk down the hill to the lake and town.

The setting of Queenstown takes your breath away – it is that beautiful. In fact, they say the town was named such because it was beautiful enough for the queen. Huge mountains rise up on every side of Lake Wakatipu – which is said to breathe, because the water rises and falls every 5 minutes due to unusual atmospheric pressure. An old steamship, the TSS Earnslaw, still plows the waters providing tours for visitors. A very steep tramway climbs the mountain behind town to the Skyline Restaurant and panoramic view. The beautiful Queenstown Gardens with ancient trees, flowers, and fountains is on a small peninsula opposite the beach. People relax on the white pebble beach soaking up the sun (a few daring enough to swim in the frigid glacier water), and there are countless restaurants all serving fresh fish, lamb, rabbit, and the famous green-lipped clams.

We discovered that the food and wine prices at all the restaurants were almost identical regardless of whether it was fancy or casual. Therefore on the first evening, we ate at Prime, which had great views of the lake and where I indulged in the green-lipped clams with a coconut Thai sauce washed down with a glass of sauvignon blanc. Mike had salmon with pinot noir. If we had arrived earlier, they did advertise an early bird dinner for $19.50NZ – which was the best deal we saw.

We found the food prices in NZ to be comparable to the US – not a great deal, but not overly expensive (based on our exchange rate of .69 cents US to the $1NZ). Wine by the bottle was quite expensive, e.g. $60NZ for Riesling!; however wine by the glass prices were also similar to the US, so we adopted this method. Indeed, we were able to get a glass of 2008 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc at Lombardi’s for $14NZ (approx. $9 US), which is a good deal for such a legendary wine. Our dinner at Lombardi’s the next evening was excellent – with an incredible view, attentive service, and some of the best food we had during the whole trip. I had the lamb and Mike had the local venison –both with 2008 Earth’s End Pinot Noir, which was fruity, easy-drinking, and enjoyable.

Queenstown was a perfect location to take daytrips to the wineries. We wished we could have stayed there for several more days, so we would have had time to drive to the West Coast and visit Milford Sound, The Fiordlands National Park, and try out some of the incredible golf courses. Mike told me that NZ has more golf courses per capita than any other country in the world. Oh well….a good reason to plan another trip! The following blog entries highlight our winery visits.

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