New Zealand, the Land of the White Cloud

Milford Sound

The faint but distinct scent of burning wood always seems to linger around most ski resort towns, evoking that wrapped-up-in-a-wool-blanket-by-the-fireplace kind of feeling. In Queenstown—my first of many stops in New Zealand—I found myself captivated by remarkable snowcapped mountains, stunning landscapes, and a sense of adventure that many visitors find contagious.

QT Hotels & Resorts, known for their outstanding culinary programs and quirky integration with the local art scene, operate three boutique hotels in New Zealand—plus many properties in Australia—in Queenstown, Wellington, and Auckland, and these served as my cozy home bases while exploring further into the country.

QT Queenstown sits on Lake Wakatipu’s pristine shoreline and the view from my room definitely makes the most of the location. I find the view so mesmerizing that, for the first time ever, I don’t believe I ever once shut the drapes. Rising with the sun and taking in that view instead of immediately reaching for my phone in the morning was a welcomed consequence of being so in tune with my surroundings.

 Days spent in Queenstown are full of beauty at any time of year. A bustling ski resort, it’s also remarkably so during their spring and summer months. Renting a car is a must, even if only to make the gorgeous drive to Glenorchy—certainly rivaling the drive to Big Sur here in California—making sure to stop at Mrs.Woolly’s General Store for local wares. Morning walks along Lake Wakatipu seem to have magical mind-clearing properties and cruising the lake on TSS Earnslaw—a 1912 Edwardian coal-fired steamship which takes passengers from Queenstown several times per day—offers an easy way to take in the scenery while resting those legs after a long day of hiking and thrill-seeking. One adventure not to be missed is a daytrip to Milford Sound—an easy forty-or-so-minute flight from Queenstown to a must-see, unspoiled fjord (part of Fiordland National Park) known for its towering Mitre Peak, rainforests, and waterfalls.

 A true highlight of my visit to Queenstown was heading about a half-hour away to the quaint historic gold mining town of Arrowtown in Central Otago. Home to world-renowned wineries—and one of my personal favorites: the pinot noir from Amisfield—there are also some beautiful vineyard restaurants worth the drive, like Mora Wines & Artisan Kitchen. Take in the scenery along the lovely walking paths around town and stop in to Royalburn's Farm Shop to grab local goodies to put together a picnic, as well as straight-off-the-farm produce, meats, eggs, charcuterie, and the best kind of souvenirs to haul home: wool blankets and honey

Royalburn Station, just outside Queenstown, photo by Matt Queree

I was lucky enough to be invited to Royalburn Station, an alpine farm situated just outside town between Wānaka and Arrowtown, to meet celebrity chef Nadia Lim and her partner, Carlos Bagrie, who are deeply rooted in farm life with their family. From meat, eggs, honey, and wool to vegetables, grains, and seeds, there is a ton going on here, and it’s all being done in an incredibly thoughtful way. Their goal of circular farming is lofty but achievable—aiming to regenerate the soil, minimize environmental impact, and have a real sense of control over the quality of food. For instance, the final days of an animal’s life greatly impact the taste and quality of the meat. As I’m told, and as I experienced firsthand tasting their lamb, less stress on the animal produces a sweeter, richer tasting meat. Lambs are born and slaughtered—in truly the most humane way possible—on the same farm, a rare feat that greatly minimizes environmental impact compared with many farming operations. As Nadia tells me: they’re still figuring it out, but from the looks of it they’re exactly where they’re meant to be, having the time of their lives pushing the envelope and connecting more chefs and consumers to sustainable farming practices. I left Royalburn Station inspired, hungry, and wishing I could remarry my husband just so I could have a wedding on their stunningly beautiful property.

 As it happens, QT’s restaurant Lil Red is one of Royalburn’s customers and I’m in for quite the dinnertime treat. When I ask executive chef Ryan Henley what his favorite Queenstown ingredients are, he tells me, “The lamb from Royalburn Station is definitely my favorite. The end result is amazing, the flavor of the meat is incredible, the texture, even down to the way it is farmed and killed…At Lil Red we buy [the] whole animal and age it for a minimum of a month, which adds even more flavor and texture to the lamb. Royalburn are the best supplier we work with by way of their farming practices…We get our lamb, beef, eggs, sausages, and vegetables when in season.” My dinner at Lil Red was phenomenal, and it is clear that each ingredient is lovingly crafted into the best little thing it can be. One of my favorites was the paua (like abalone) doughnut, which at first didn’t look like much but wowed me from the first bite. As Chef Ryan says, “we were on the boat with the team from Gravity, who I often go out fishing with, and after (quite a few) beers, we decided to put the creamed paua into fry bread that had been cooked in mutton bird fat. It was so delicious, I went and experimented with a brioche doughnut. Now you can try it in Lil Red and Reds Bar, served with a beautiful, creamy brown butter emulsion.” It really is stunning—and it pairs beautiful with a glass of Central Otago wine or a cocktail at Reds Bar, which is the place to be at sunset overlooking the lake below.

Traveling on to New Zealand’s capital, QT Wellington is like walking into a cool local art museum. Located in Wellington’s waterfront, it has a beautiful view and is just a stone’s throw away from one of the country’s best museums, Museum of New Zealand, locally called Te Papa. Every bit of wall space in the hotel’s lobby seems to be covered in art of all sorts, each floor of the hotel offering something wildly different.

Executive Chef Sylvester Nair of Hippopotamus
photos courtesy of QT Wellington

On the third floor sits Hippopotamus, the hotel's restaurant, which is its own beast with plush pink furnishings, sparkling chandeliers, and peacocks. I was impressed by the creative use of fermentation on both the savory and sweet sides of the menu. Executive chef Sylvester Nair shares, “It intrigued me to see how natural flavors can transform and be enhanced with just salt, sugar, and time through fermentation. For our new menu at Hippopotamus, we put an emphasis on ferments as accompaniments to the premium New Zealand produce we already use—Ora King salmon, Lumina Lamb, Whitehart Kurobuta pork and Pure South beef.” One of my favorite bites at dinner was the bursting-with-umami chicken dish which featured their made-in-house sunflower miso.

One of my favorite days spent in Wellington started off with an easy walk to the Wellington Cable Car, which took me from Lambton Quay, the city’s main shopping street, up to one of the entrances to Wellington Botanic Gardens and gorgeous views of the city below. I could have spent hours exploring the gardens and hiking the many little trails within, but I had a time limit since I needed to get on one of the free shuttles to Zealandia, the world’s first fully fenced urban ecosanctuary with an extraordinary vision to restore the area as closely as possible to its pre-human state. They’ve restored quite a few species of native wildlife back into the area and there is a ton to learn about New Zealand’s diverse wildlife while walking around the ecosanctuary.

Before I head back to the hotel, I can’t forget a quick tour of the world-famous Wētā Workshop, a special effects and props company with a long list of film credits including, of course, the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. If time allows head east of Wellington to the quaint town of Martinborough, known as one of the country’s best wine regions.

QT Auckland, my last stop before flying home, is a lovely harborside base from which to explore the city and plan many day trips. Their restaurant, Esther, is a Mediterranean-inspired gem that I’ve found myself thinking about since I returned home. Chef Sean Connolly, influenced by his travels through the Mediterranean, puts together the kind of meal I could eat every day of my life. A shareable feast, lots of different bites, and simple food done perfectly.  Hot puff bread comes straight to the table from the oven, and I get to rip it apart and dip it into taramasalata while I sip on a pinot blanc from Central Otago and wait for the cucumbers, crudo, green deviled eggs, and piquillo peppers with olives, anchovies, and buffalo curd. The next day, their breakfast pide was a stunner—wood-fired ‘khach-a-puri’ stuffed with hens’ eggs, feta, Massimo’s mozzarella, and ricotta—and fed me well before embarking on my daily adventures.

Line-caught snapper from Ester’s restaurant at QT Auckland

For a fun Saturday jaunt, don’t miss the Matakana Village Farmers Market, a short drive north of Auckland. Take a midday ferry to Waiheke Island and enjoy a long, lingering lunch at The Oyster Inn or one of the beautiful winery restaurants like The Shed at Te Motu Vineyard, or head to the eastern end of the island to experience Man O’War for a unique beachfront wine tasting. Another day, plan to venture out to some of the country’s most popular tourist destinations like the Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Hobbiton Movie Set Tours.

Back in the city, a rainy day brought me to Honest Chocolat where I stocked up on holiday gifts and enjoyed a luscious, decadent dark hot chocolate before heading back to the hotel. Exploring the city on foot is easy and I tried to take in all the museums and little cafes that I possibly could. In my eyes, the most beautiful parts of New Zealand exist outside the cities, in untouched nature that is usually bursting with color. It’s the sign of a great trip when I leave wanting so much more—making grand plans to return for an extended vacation with my family to explore all the nooks and crannies of such a beautiful country and trying more of the world-class cuisine I only had a glimpse of this time. I remain truly impressed by the country’s sense of connectedness with nature and the common goal of being more and more sustainable as years go on.

Glenorchy, a scenic drive from Queenstown, photo by Miles Holden

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