Our 737 wheels and banks, bursting through the low-hanging clouds with a stereophonic roar, and heads straight for a mountain. After a few seconds, it dips, turns right, and then twists left again, following the meandering river valley beneath us and diving towards a rocky outcropping.
The flight from Auckland to Queenstown is not for the squeamish.
We'd been delivered from our Auckland hotel to the airport with scant minutes to spare, thanks to an enormously inefficient airport shuttle. But New Zealand is not the post-9/11 United States, and we simply walk to the gate with our luggage, then walk onto the plane with nary a glance askance. Ah, I remember the days…
Unfortunately, what should be a truly stunning down-island journey is marred by nearly unbroken cloud cover. The triad of volcanic peaks south of Taupo are visible through small clearings, as are Mt. Egmont and the sandy sickle of Farewell Spit, but other than a few cloud-piercing peaks in the Southern Alps, all the rest is a carpet of gray. The excitement of the landing diminishes any feelings of disappointment, and soon we're skidding to a halt on a lonely Queenstown runway. It feels like we're in the middle of nowhere.
The airport is something one would imagine in Alaska, or near some non-luxurious Colorado ski resort, rather than servicing the prime tourist destination of New Zealand's South Island. In the cramped terminal, a swarm of floppy-hatted Chinese women flows around us like a flock of startled pigeons, blocking off the main hallway as they gather around their guide. We squeeze past and work our way towards the car rental desks.
Who coined "deplaning," anyway?
There's a certain amount of fear involved in this otherwise rote activity. Driving on the left, which neither of us has ever done, has long been a matter of speculation and discussion, but now we're actually faced with it. We've chickened out and rented automatics throughout our vacation (though by the end we're convinced that we made the better choice, as the constant shifting on hilly single-lane roads would have driven us crazy). We walk to the car, put our luggage in the trunk, and spend a few long minutes getting acquainted with the dashboard. Those minutes are, apparently, long enough that our rental agent emerges from the terminal and knocks on our window, asking if everything's OK. It is. And immediately thereafter, we're inching into the airport driveway at a breakneck speed of four kilometers per hour.
"You could go faster," I remind Theresa.
"Do you want to drive?" she snaps.
Nervousness aside, it's not nearly as scary as it seems, and by the time we get to Queenstown itself, the fear has diminished to a mild wheel-gripping tension (though Theresa requests that at each intersection and rotary I say "left," which saves us more than a few times from going the wrong direction). The scenery doesn't help; despite the gloom, it's dramatic and distracting, with mountains that fade from green to rocky brown cradling a lake-filled valley. We're too early to check into our hotel, and so we park on a residential street and wander into the crowded, bustling commercial center of town. Queenstown reminds us of any number of remote ski villages, with the exception of the ubiquitous signage advertising all manner of flying, dangling, bouncing, speeding and falling activities, and the fact that it's late spring and the ambient precipitation is a light, cooling rain.
Peckish, we duck into the Naff (62 Shotover St.) for a quick bite. I call it "Naff" because no one can seem to agree on what it's really called, variously choosing the Naff Café, Naff Caff, or The Remarkable Naff Café. Even the signage on the establishment itself isn't consistent. Rock and pop music are warmly piped into a small, chaotic space, around which are scattered a few tables (more of which are outside, fully-occupied on less drizzly days). A small collection of cute waitresses serve up light snacks and acceptable coffee. I remember thanks to my Kiwi/American dictionary to order a "short black" – which could be a little “shorter” – but Theresa's cappuccino is fine. We nosh on a few slices of quiche, and then exit out the back to do a little more exploring. The rain fades away and back again, just on the edge of being annoying, and so we return to the hotel, wedge our car into a precariously narrow parking lot, and check in.
And the children shall lead
The Mountvista is a very obviously new hotel perched on a quiet residential corner of the Queenstown Gardens. And, by all appearances, run by a collection of college students on holiday. We're checked in by an enthusiastic young man who we'll never see again, and in fact the desk remains mostly unoccupied through the rest of our four-night stay. We're downstairs, in a spacious and modern room equipped with a large and vaguely European-style bathroom, a small fridge, and patio doors opening to a table and chairs looking across town towards Bob's Peak. It's an enormously comfortable space in what is set up more like a B&B with hotel-style rooms than an actual hotel, and the bed proves overly enticing for Theresa. She settles in for a short nap while I explore the hotel.
Right next to our room is an expansive library/sitting room dominated by a large stone fireplace and opening to another patio, this one facing the Queenstown Gardens. In the winter it would be irresistible, but even in late spring it's good for quiet relaxation. I pick up a copy of Cuisine magazine and thumb through it, enjoying a truly epic anti-Robert Parker rant penned by James Halliday, then thumb through assorted back issues and read about some of our destinations. After an hour of this, I wake Theresa up, and we drive back to town (the rain has picked up) to purchase food for breakfast and for the following day's long journey; the weather forecast predicts unbroken sun tomorrow over Fiordland National Park, and in honor of this exceedingly rare event, we're going to take advantage of it by driving to Milford Sound.
Peaking at Bob from our hotel
But first, we have to get through dinner. I'd learned about The Bunker via a link to its overdesigned Web site, but no one I ask prior to our trip can tell me anything about it. "No one" also includes our enthusiastic desk clerk, who responds with a blank stare when we ask his opinion. Nor does it appear to be in the hotel’s phone book. But we've made a reservation, and so we hope for the best.
Finding The Bunker is its own adventure. Cow Lane in Queenstown, while directly adjacent to the busy pedestrian mall that quarter-circles the town's Lake Wakatipu docks, isn't exactly a destination street; mostly, it seems to run between the posteriors of businesses on other, more desirable streets…though there is a suggestion of some club-like nightlife that looks significantly unlively during our passage. Plopped nearly in the middle of this alley-like street is a a structure that looks like nothing so much as a giant black shipping crate, with a ratty truck parked in its weed-covered driveway. There's no sign anywhere, and we have to search for a street address.
"Do you think this is it?"
"I dunno. It looks shady. But I smell food."
"Well, only one way to find out."
Squeezing past the truck and into a dubiously-located doorway, we're confronted by a staircase and a bar. A waitress spots us; do we have a reservation? Why, yes we do. Past the warm glow of a rather large fireplace surrounded by a sofa and several comfy recliners, we're seated at one of the few tables. It's the ultimate in comfort dining, and throughout the night the surrounding tables are never completely full, though the fireside seats are always occupied by a younger, cocktail-swilling set. What other patrons there are seem to be primarily Americans.
The menu is clever and adventurous, the sort of menu that encourages grazing and sampling. Over a plate of Clevedon oysters – meaty, ultra-dense and totally unlike any other oyster I've ever tasted (though I remain undecided as to whether or not I like them) – we sip some sparkling wine and consider our choices.
Deutz Brut "Marlborough Cuvée" (Marlborough) – Very fruity and ripe; kiwi mixed with some sauvignon blanc-like herbal/lime characters, which are out of place and unnerving. The acidity is spiky and disjointed.
I start with a spice-encrusted venison loin with a sort of "chutney" including olives and blueberries; it's bizarre, but heavenly. That's followed by a terrific smoked confit duck leg glazed with Manuka honey and star anise sauce, nestled in a pile of mushrooms and lentils. Despite the standard confit/lentil combination, the flavors and approach are unique, and I'm captivated by the brilliance of the interplay. With these dishes Theresa and I pick at a side plate of fresh spring asparagus dressed with a simple béarnaise, and guzzle a delicious local wine:
Felton Road 2001 Pinot Noir Block 3 (Central Otago) – The nose is Burgundian: complex, rich, and earthy with concentrated dark fruit aromas. On the palate it turns lighter, showing red cherry and, with long aeration, some loganberry. One of the most promising young pinots I've ever tasted from a New World producer.
The wine list is long, featuring both local and international products, and offering prices both humble (Waipara Hills Pinot Blanc for $34 N.Z.) and extravagant (a possibly dodgy '66 Margaux for $1990 N.Z.), with everything in between well-covered. We're most interested in something local, and our waitress is knowledgeable about the Central Otago selections and helps us select the Felton Road. She expertly decants (for air, not sediment) the wine without our having to ask, and it helps tremendously, as the wine builds and expands throughout the evening.
It's an incredible meal, all the better for its once-again absurdly low price vs. comparable dining in the States, and we feel relaxed, stuffed, and a bit sleepy. The nightlife is just starting to pick up – along with the downstairs fireplace and its seating there's a cozy upstairs bar with its own fireplace – but we're mostly in the mood for sleep. We head back to our hotel and drift off to dreamland in front of the television, which is currently showing The Sopranos.