The 95,000 visitors in New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup, which culminates its 45-day run on Oct. 23, are about to learn a bittersweet lesson. As hard as it is to get to this country on the other side of the world, especially from such distant places as North America and Europe, it can be harder to leave. And not because of the post-rugby crowds at Auckland airport. The place grows on you from the minute you touch down.
It captivated me while still in the air as my flight slipped under the clouds on the last leg of a 30-hour journey from Toronto to Queenstown. The Southern Alps, frosted on many of the peaks, often glowed with a bright, grassy green below the snow line. Ireland meets the Rockies, I thought.
Regrettably, my travels included no rugby games. I had come for two more placid sports, eating and drinking. World Cup frenzy notwithstanding, New Zealand has come a long way since Rod Derrett's 1960s working-class anthem Rugby, Racing and Beer. I was keen to bear witness.
For starters, I intended to eat my weight in fresh seafood. I had heard in particular of a prized delicacy called the Bluff oyster, mainly harvested near the town of Bluff on the southern coast. I was told it's illegal to export the mollusk, and in a contemplative moment while crossing the Pacific on Air New Zealand's non-stop service from Vancouver, I fancifully imagined little hands emerging from their shells to deliver the one-finger salute to the tide of globalization.
My main destination: Central Otago, the world's southernmost wine region and source of some of the most compelling new pinot noirs outside France. If you love pinot, you probably know that finding a few good ones often entails travel beyond your local Canadian liquor store, and planning a vacation around the pursuit can seem entirely reasonable. Like the All Blacks, New Zealand's national rugby team, pinot has a way of breeding fanaticism.
The delicate, highly perfumed variety rises to its greatest glory in Burgundy, where some grand crus literally sell for as much as a discount economy seat to Auckland. Notoriously fickle to grow, the thin-skinned grape favours cool temperatures to preserve its food-friendly acidity and demands well-drained soils to concentrate its berry-like flavours and earthy overtones.
Central Otago, near the bottom tip of this twin-island country, has caused a stir among the pinot cognoscenti during the past decade. It lies at 45 degrees south, similar to Burgundy's latitude in the north. The mountainous region also boasts an asset Burgundy sadly doesn't, reliably sunny summer skies. Ripeness comes easily, yielding concentrated, intensely fruity wines. Thanks to the high elevation, brisk nights also keep the acid in play, pulling the grape back from the jammy, high-alcohol abyss that can be pinot's demise in certain regions of, say, California, Australia and Chile.
This is an ideal time to plan a wine pilgrimage to Central Otago – winter in Canada means summer there. The flight from Auckland, the capital in the north, to the wine-exploring base of Queenstown, at under two hours, is bliss not just for the scenery but also for the security screening, which is to say there is none. Domestic air travel in New Zealand is almost as hassle-free as taking a city bus. The biggest differences: a guaranteed seat and fewer concealed weapons.
Regardless of the season, you'll be sharing Queenstown with no shortage of tourists, especially young ones. The place bills itself as the adventure capital of the world. Located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and easily explored on foot, it's home to such extreme sports as skydiving, paragliding, jet-boat rides and, of course, bungee jumping. Between winery visits, I nervously opted for what I calculated would be the tamest option only to be propelled at 85 kilometres an hour down a fast-flowing canyon river on a shallow-displacement boat that performed no fewer than eight 360-degree spins. It was like being on a waterborne tilt-a-whirl. Mercifully, I was not required to test the buoyancy of my life preserver, but the mandatory full-length spray jacket came in handy. So did the gulp of pinot noir I later downed – still wobbly-legged – at Amisfield, a pretty, stone-walled winery just 15 minutes from Queenstown, where I also ate in the excellent, relaxed bistro.
For such a touristy place, Queenstown takes its food seriously. The eerily named Botswana Butchery is one of the town's best eateries, located in a quaint, cottage-style building complete with a door handle shaped like a meat cleaver. Wai on the waterfront is another prime destination, as is nearby Pier 19, which looks like a pub-grub tourist trap from the outside but defies the stereotype with a local-produce menu and deft touches in the kitchen. The rabbit pasta in red-wine sauce is sublime.
If bungee's your thing, or even if you just care to watch the insane rubber-band diving spectacle, you can combine the experience with a winery visit at Chard Farm, an excellent pinot producer about 20 minutes from town. The estate sits high on a ridge overlooking the Kawarau Bridge, site of the world's first commercial bungee operation. While there I witnessed a tandem jump, two people diving in a locked embrace, and vowed to try it on one condition: should Angelina Jolie ever need a partner. Another worthy stop near Chard Farm is Gibbston Highgate Estate. As with other winery visits beyond the taxi-accessible Amisfield, a rental car is a must, though bear in mind that New Zealanders drive on the left side, which can amount to an extreme sport after just a single pour at a tasting room.
Further out from Chard Farm, you can take in four of Central Otago's best wineries in a single afternoon: Felton Road, Carrick, Mt. Difficulty and Quartz Reef. It's the kiwi pinot grand tour. But plan on booking a full day because you'll probably want to make a sightseeing stop or picnic at nearby Kawarau Gorge, visible from the road high up above the river. The excellent restaurant at Carrick is another good place to have lunch.
It's not all about the reds in New Zealand: There are many great white wines to enjoy in Central Otago, too, especially pinot gris, riesling and bubbly. In addition to its top-ranked pinot noir, Quartz Reef makes a sparkling wine that evokes fine Champagne.
It also happens to be an awesome match for plump and insanely meaty Bluff oysters.
A KIWI FOOD LEXICON
New Zealand menus can read like Greek to a North American. Many ingredients go by Maori names in honour of the country's early Polynesian settlers.
- Kumara: a sweet potato
- Paua: abalone
- Koura: native freshwater crayfish
- Bluff oysters: prized indigenous variety, harvested between March and August
- Whitebait: tiny young fish, usually fried and served whole, but typically smaller and sweeter than the English herring variety
- Tamarillo: yellow tree fruit sometimes called “tree tomato”
Coffee is a point of pride and has a language unto itself:
- Long black: double shot of espresso coffee pulled over hot water, shorter than the “Americano” common in Europe and North America
- Short black: espresso, usually served as a double shot
- Flat White: espresso with steamed milk
IF YOU GO
Air New Zealand runs non-stop service between Vancouver and Auckland. At about 14 hours, it's enough time to settle in, have a drink and meal and catch enough shut-eye to arrive semi-rejuvenated, assuming you're blessed with the constitution to sleep on planes. The wines, all quality Kiwi selections, whet the appetite for what's in store on the ground. In-flight service is friendly and attentive, hallmarks you'll also find everywhere on land. (The company was voted favourite long-haul leisure airline by Conde Nast Traveller readers in 2010.)
Business-class food service includes creations from top New Zealand chefs, including Peter Gordon, the man behind London's Providores and Tapa Room.
If flying regular fare, your more enticing option is to fly through Los Angeles, where you can board a Boeing 777 featuring two new award-winning coach options. The Economy Skycouch is a trio of three seats with fold-away arm rests and a two-position leg rest, including a 90-degree position that creates a bed wide enough for horizontal sleep (depending on who, if anyone, is sharing the row). The innovative Premium Economy section features extra-wide Spaceseats that recline like La-Z-Boys and also swivel left and right. A couple sitting together can turn to face each other for a shared meal on a single fold-out table. Coach has never been this comfy.