Queenstown: Romantic escape
THE planets are aligned. Our diaries free. The moment there to be seized.
"Let's escape to Queenstown."
Now the middle of summer is not normally when I think to head south. Winter for skiing. Autumn for glorious golden leaves and light. But summer. Who knew?
Big, bold, clear blue days, where the early morning sun casts playful shadows on towering bare brown mountains and provokes painterly thoughts, then burns all day refusing to disappear until gloriously late at night and still with a warmth you don't want to let go of.
There's an old-fashioned charm about life on a lake, something serene compared to the pounding waves of the seaside.
The Hilton Queenstown, the sanctuary for our spontaneous escape, exudes this sense of respite. Just a 10-minute water taxi ride from the town centre - which buzzes with tourists decked out in tramping boots with earnest looks in their eyes - it feels a blessed million miles away.
The sprawling complex rests in all-day sunshine, its toes tip into the ice-cool Lake Wakatipu. Elegant willow trees trail fingers across the watery surface, creating shady coves where boats are tied to jetties pointing across the lake.
The Hilton and its neighbour hotel, the Kawarau, combine to create the feeling of an European alpine village. There's a corner store full of tasty local goodies and a handful of restaurants and bars that are frequented by locals just as much as out-of-town guests. With the fresh, crisp morning air we are transported to an era when one went to the mountains to take the air and convalesce, and we fall easily into a pleasant state of inertia. Basking in the sun there is no desire at all to join the throngs out there jumping from bungies and inducing surges of adrenalin with their death-defying actions. No. Doing as little as possible suits us just fine. And. We. Soak. Up. The. Calm.
The resort pool stretches our tired muscles and together we succumb to the temptation of the hotel's Eforea Spa. Dressed in our white robes, we recline on couches, sip tea and agree the meditation massage is just what the doctor order to transport our bodies and minds to yet another level of bliss.
Side by side we lie, sinking deeper and deeper away from reality, as our masseuses perform a flowing, rhythmic traditional Aborigine massage. I gather the mental aptitude to wonder why an Aboriginal massage in Queenstown ... but don't have the energy to pursue the thought. I am already in Dreamtime.
This heavenly state continues as the days pass in a delightful haze. Each morning we are drawn to the Wakatipu Grill - the Hilton's flagship restaurant which, under the guidance of leading chef Peter Thornley, is a celebration of local produce presented at a truly international level. The breakfasts set us up for the day - fresh juices made in front of you, mouthwatering pastries straight from the oven, while chefs whip up whatever omelette combination your imagination can stretch to. And though we have every intention of exploring restaurants further afield in the evening, each night we are drawn, like moths to a lamp, to Thornley's dinner menu.
Starters that tempt include whipped goat's cheese with ciabatta, extra virgin olive oil and harissa, while beef carpaccio with parsnip walnut remoulade, Crescent Dairy Parvenu cheese, watercress and rocket leave us wondering if we truly have died and gone to heaven.
We've watched the rotisserie porchetta turn slowly on the grill all day, and are rewarded with the best crackling ever and meat full of flavour - wild sage, smoky paprika, lemon zest, fennel seeds and delicious grilled local Bella Rosa apricots.
Another night we toast local farmer Bill French and his Perendale lamb as we tuck into the tenderest of meat served with smoky chopped aubergine, tarragon tzatziki, beans, mint and caramelised garlic.
We nibble our way through the Port Heilala vanilla cheesecake with passionfruit sorbet, fresh strawberries and almond crumble. And sip on a decadent sticky wine as we dive into a bitter chocolate tart with raspberry sorbet and rosewater cream. We sit around the outdoor fire in the "pinot pit" mesmerised by the twinkling lights across the water, unable to move.
The time has come, we admit the next morn, that we really must join the human race. But must we? We vote to "Cycle de Vine" and find ourselves free-wheeling down the dusty back roads of the Gibbston Valley on stylish cruiser bikes passing through farmland and vineyards, through scenic snapshots worthy of Graham Sydney.
Our guide Hamish from Fat Tyre Tours is more used to heli-biking on extreme dirt tracks, but adopts our leisurely pace and is wonderfully easygoing, as is the terrain.
Tastings at various cellar doors keep us lubricated enough to tackle each leg with vim and vigour. Our bike panniers soon fill with pinots and rosé from each vineyard. Lunch is a simple roll, eaten in sunshine on a rock by some overgrown vines. There is a wonderful sense of satisfaction and no roll has ever tasted so good.
Keeping the pace slow and adding to the air of yesteryear that seeps into every corner of this trip, that evening we board the Million Dollar One - a beautifully restored wooden boat originally built in England in the 1950s - and owners Wayne and Betty take us for for a twilight lake cruise. What fun. What hosts.
It's Betty's birthday and Wayne keeps us entertained with endless tales and local gossip. Our lips are sealed, we promise, when with much laughter they drop us at the Hilton jetty and we wander hand in hand to the pinot pit for a nightcap. Such habits are wonderfully addictive.
On our last day in paradise we are flying high. Quite literally.
"We're going over the top, old boy," I say, with Over The Top helicopters. What joy. What a blast. We're at one with the birds as we skim across the the lake and climb the deserted Cecil Peak where our pilot, leaves us. Quite literally. Alone. Gloriously alone, with just a sumptuous platter and champagne for company. And an old-fashioned gramophone playing jazz.
We giggle. We dance. We holler at the top of our voices, trying to fill the vast sense of space. Clouds we can almost touch glide by, time stands still. Truly giddy with joy, there is no place we'd rather be.