Queenstown: A Solo Adventure


I intently stared out of the window, camera in position as we descended out of the cloudbank and into view of the vast snow tipped mountains called the Remarkables. This landscape is absolutely extraordinary.

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The plane began to shake as we entered the windy valley between the incredibly close mountain ranges, then all of the sudden, oomph. My head smacked the side of the window and my tray table unfastened itself from the locked position. Panic. We must have dropped a few feet before leveling out again. “Don’t worry,” said the flight attendant over the intercom. “It’s just the wind between the mountains, nothing to be alarmed about.”

Welcome to Queenstown! A buzzing town of snow bunnies crossed with adventure sports, breathtaking scenery and world-renowned pinot noir sipped against the backdrop of white capped peaks.

“Are you skiing?”  “Snowboarding then?” “So, what are you doing here?”  My reply was simple, I’m here to eat well and drink wine. Snow Sheep Queenstown In a town where every other backpacker, boys weekend or family vacation seem to hit the slopes or jump off either one of the tallest or oldest bungy’s in the world, is it possible to enjoy yourself as a single traveler not in the slightest interested in the above? Sure is. I’d even rate Queenstown as not only my number one favorite destination in New Zealand but at the top of my books all around. So what’s there to get up to?

The Bars:

I hung with the locals at Atlas Beer Café, deemed Queenstown’s home of craft beer including microbrew Emerson’s (go with the English Porter on the hand pump) along with some guest taps and locally sourced food, like the lick smacking steak with demi-glace and Café de Paris butter, served with a side salad and fries.

The Find, previously known as The World Bar, was a great place to go solo. Maybe it’s just because Queenstown, unlike many Aussie bars, actually have bar stools at the bar. There’s nothing better than saddling up at the bar for a snack staring up at the teapots which house cocktails for the backpackers who trickle in later in the evening.

And lastly, cozy, dimly lit places like The Bunker  and Bardauex offer extensive New Zealand wine collections and a soothing, chilled out atmosphere with big comfy sofas around outdoor fire pits or indoor blazes.

This is between all of the countless bars and nightclubs including Cowboy’s, Winnie’s and Searle Social Club amongst many other late night spots where you can find inebriated late teens and early twenty-something’s, and myself on one or two occasions, dancing the night away.

The Wine:

But then let’s not forget it was the wine I came for.

The Winery is a storefront that offers a taste of over 80 different New Zealand wines. Grouped by variety, the philosophy of this place is simple, yet expensive. Insert your “wine card” and choose from a taste, half glass, or full glass of some of the most desired wines in the region. At about an average of $5 a taste, I tried a few high-end Pinots then called it day.

This was after I went on my Queenstown Trail: Original Wine Tour just the day before. Lance, a 20 year wine-guide veteran led us to four different wineries in the Gibbston Valley, Central Otago. I’d rate them as such:

Best Tasting Room: Gibbston Valley Winery – set in New Zealand’s largest wine cave

Best Tasting Host: Waitiri Creek – Jason, the vineyard manager of this family owned winery passionately and simply broke down the chemistry of wine making into terms us normal-folk could understand

Best Wine: Remarkable Wines – only winery where I enjoyed the whole range; walked away with the 2009 Pinot Noir

Best Notoriety: Amisfield – while I can’t afford their both delicate and elegant vintages, Will and Kate famously made a stop here on their recent visit

The Food:

When in New Zealand it’s all about the lamb, oysters and prime cuts of beef.

I felt I was back in Melbourne while dining at Madame Woo, an eclectic modern Asian restaurant with delectable sticky pork belly dishes and thick curry’s set to tune of some of my favorite bands like the Kooks and Cold War Kids.

While Vudu Café is rated the number one brunch spot, you’d be lucky to score a seat. Instead, Bob’s Weigh Café was a smaller, simpler option serving great muesli and rumored the best coffee in town.

The Great Outdoors:

Skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing aside, in town there are still a few options.

While the number one activity is to ride the Skyline Gondola up Bob’s Peak, I decided to take the bolder way up: my two feet. It took an hour from the base to zig zag through the forest up the mountain following the Tiki Trail. I’m not going to say it was easy, but nothing any reasonably fit person couldn’t handle with a few huff and puff’s in between Gatorade guzzling breaks. Even better, the trail was absolutely quiet. Only every so often I’d run into another hiker passing down on the trail. The best part was finally reaching the top and the breathtaking views over Lake Watakipu. Lake Wakatipu Once at the summit there are a few options from dining, bungying, zip-lining, more hiking or the luge. And while the luge came highly recommended from a charming traveler I met, after standing in line for an hour in freezing rain sandwiched between two families with small, irritating children, my ride down the ‘scenic track’ was more of an escape effort if anything. With the rain coming down too heavy to hike back down Bob’s Peak, I coughed up the steep fair of $19 for the Gondola ride back into town. Queenstown Luge The People:

And none of my above experiences would have been so great if I was truly alone in it all. There were kind, approachable people that I met along the way. From an impromptu pub-crawl to discover the town with a friendly Norwegian, to the American and Aussie girls from my wine tour who invited me along to dinner and the handsome Irish boy who bought me chocolate/chocolate-chip ice cream. It was only on the last day as I sat in a café to escape the cold and rain before flying back to Australia that I had a sense of being alone, but luckily a book and one last English Porter did the trick.

My Tasmanian Secrets


Tasmania is not in Africa. It’s is not a remote tropical island in Southeast Asia either. If fact, Tasmania is just another state within Australia.

Often the butt of insensitive jokes by many Australians about inbred farmers, backward small town ways and the like, my recent visit was nothing of a joke though. I came purely for the Pinot Noir but left with so much more.

Hobart

A flight from Melbourne to Hobart round-trip cost me less then accommodation for one night in Launceston. It’s cheap and conveniently an hour away. I’m also lucky my friend David has a corporate apartment downtown so that was a gracious offer that made things very easy.

But with less than 48 hours in Hobart we had to narrow down our options and I would highly recommend the below:

Salamanca Place: for a small town, this is where the action happens. An old historic square with cafes, restaurants and bars around the parameter its one of the few areas open late and bound to have some people around, especially when we flew on a Thursday evening. On Saturday mornings the Salamanca Market is one of the most famous in Australia, with over 300 stalls of local crafts, produce, street performers and more. For drink and nosh I recommend Cargo Bar Pizza Lounge and Grape Food and Wine.

Criterion salted caramel waffles

Criterion salted caramel waffles

Criterion Street Café: was literally the best breakfast I’ve had in my life. After a friends recommendation to try the caramel salted waffles with vanilla mascarpone I was immediately smitten. We also wanted to try to the corn and green chili fritters since after all, it was breakfast. The service was impeccable, anticipating we wanted the fritters to share at the start and the waffles for dessert; they brought out two separate, huge servings and didn’t even charge extra. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so full, but I would get on a plane right now to eat there again.

Museum of Old and New Art (MONA): This is the place known for being weird. Australians flock to Tasmania to visit the one true modern art gallery in the country. Those who have visited places such as MoMa and the Tate think it’s nothing too different but if you’re in Hobart this is a must visit.

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While you can drive, one of the best parts of the experience is to hop on the Mona Roma, the high-speed ferry that takes about 40 minutes to reach the museum. While not only being an educational ride with commentary about the landscape, the ferry offers decorative artwork, a funky interior of leather stools, a live parrot and even fake sheep as seats (cattle car) in addition to serving Moo Brew and Moorilla Estate wines on board. On the MONA property you could literally spend a whole day in the exhibits alone, everything from a room of TVs singing Madonna acapella to a poo machine, a project simulating the digestive system of the human body. But then there’s the food such as wood fired pizza, local cheese and meat platters and even fine dining; and the drink, like wine tastings from Moorila Estate and beer flights from Boo Brew; and the scenery, overlooking the water, the vineyard and the town in the background. Saturdays they host markets on the lawn, where on occasion are live performers and it’s just a great place to relax in the sun and enjoy chilled out Tasmania.

East Coast

After leaving Hobart we decided to drive up the east coast to make our way north to Launceston. It all happened in just one day and was jam-packed. I definitely recommend spacing it out if you’ve got the time.

Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park: There’s a reason why I love and thoroughly read my in flight magazine. In this instance, without doing so I would not have known to visit and contribute to saving the endangered Tasmanian devils. They’re only found in the wild in Tasmania, so what a once in a lifetime experience. The entrance fee was a bit steep at $33, but knowing the proceeds went toward a good cause made it worth it. The dog like animals, many of which have a contagious facial cancer were interesting to watch, as they are the largest meat-eating marsupial. While in heat they made loud, screeching noises while barring their razor teeth and were quite aggressive during their feeding time, which we got to watch (dead possum, yum). There were some other animals at the park as well such as kangaroos, wallabies, and birds so there is enough wildlife to kill an hour or so to make it worth the visit.

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Port Arthur

Port Arthur

Port Arthur: is a historical site about an hour and half southeast of Hobart that used to house convicts. Not just any convicts, but those that had already committed a crime and their first punishment was to be sent to Australia in the first place. If you committed another, Port Arthur was your likely destiny. The admission fee included a 40 minute guided tour, which was enough to help us understand what we were looking at and where we wanted to spend the remainder of our time while exploring the grounds. Unfortunately, because we had such a long drive ahead of us it meant we didn’t discover much, but even dropping by made for a beautiful drive and an educational experience.

Freycinet National Park: is a beautiful national park on the east coast of Tasmania about 3 hours north from Port Arthur. Our sole purpose was to visit Wineglass Bay, an outlet of Cole’s Bay shaped like a wineglass. Our plan was to drive up the coast, have a hike around the national park, watch the water shimmer against Wineglass Bay and then travel on to Launceston. But we arrived too late. Dusk was starting to set and frankly, Wineglass Bay didn’t look like anything special. The park information center was already closed and we didn’t have a permit to park. We went for about a 5-minute hike, or more specifically it was just a walk to the water’s edge, and decided to call it a day. Luckily the Edge Restaurant at the Edge of the Bay Resort was open for dinner. We figured, at the least enjoying a delicious meal overlooking the bay would make the long travel time worth it before we had to head back into the car to make our way further North. I had the local specialty of the blue eye trevalla coupled with the Freycinet Valley’s own, Gala Estate Riesling.

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No one told us in advance not to drive at night though. I will tell you now, do not drive at night! It was another two hours after we left Cole’s Bay to Launceston and we figured easy enough. But once on the road, winding our way away from the coast inland and north the GPS took us through another national park. Pitch black, there was no one else on the slow, curvy road. I put on my glasses because at that point I had one official duty, to watch the side of the road for animals. Carcass after carcass of dead animal bodies lay splattered on the road ahead of us so we decided to slow down even more, going no more then 40 kilometers while the radio blasted Saturday evening techno music. It was going to be a long 2 hours, and despite our best efforts before we knew it, boom. Regrettably, a huge kangaroo ran into the car from the side. Luckily he hopped away and we are still praying he is okay.

Launceston

I recently discovered that Tasmanians from Hobart and Launceston have a city rivalry. With just a short amount of time in both cities, I’d put my money on Launceston.

Tamar Valley: Pronounced tame-er, out of all the wine valleys in Tasmania we chose to tour this one. Their Pinot Noirs can be described as heavy and earthy, similar to those of Oregon in the Northwest of the US.  I had high hopes and anticipated shipping home cases and cases, but I left with just one bottle in my suitcase (interestingly from the Coal River Valley outside of Hobart). I’m not sure if my disappointment was because I don’t fully understand my own pallet, or simply because I was more surprised to learn and love their dry Rieslings, interesting Fume Blanc’s and mild Sparkling. I even revisited my old friends Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio and learnt in more detail the actual difference of the two.

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We booked a tour with Prestige Leisure Tours, and by luck we were actually the only ones booked in for the day. That meant we could customize the tour to our liking and our number one priority was to visit Bay of Fires, one of our top picks from the Pinot Palooza event we attended back in September.  But first we made a stop a Josef Chromy, the worldwide winner for their 2011 Chardonnay that was obviously, but unfortunately not available for tasting. I did however purchase the 2013 to hold on to in the hopes it will mature just as nicely as I’m told that Chardonnay is Tasmania’s best kept secret.

The favorite of the day was Dalamere Vineyard, a small family owned winery in the Pipers Brook region. We got to sit with the winemaker Fran and chat in detail about their handpicked fruits and it was pleasant to just be in a casual, non-touristy setting. Despite them being known for their excellent sparkling, I left with the most interesting of them all, the 2013 Fume Blanc.

We had lunch at Piper’s Brook Vineyard, but I was less impressed with their larger scale production and average food. We then moved on to Leaning Church, another small, picturesque vineyard with amazing views, but I found none of the wine too memorable. At the least, our fabulous driver Michael was helpful in providing recommendations on how to spend our last 24 hours in Tasmania.

Dickens Cider: offers amazing, locally produced ciders and the cute bar in downtown Launceston was a clear next stop once we returned from the wine tour. This is real cider too, thick, cloudy and only natural sugars, it was a refreshing alternative to the bottled stuff I usually drink on other occasions.

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The owner recommended and made reservations for us at the Black Cow Bistro, one of the town’s best upmarket restaurants offering Tasmania’s finest steak. Oh my, truffle béarnaise sauce on lean Tasmanian beef, despite us being quite a few drinks deep we still enjoyed the deliciousness of it all. We made one last stop off for the night, despite it being a Sunday and stumbled over to St. John Craft Beer. I was so excited to try some different beers offered on their ten or so taps but left frustrated and disappointed. The two brothers who owned the place were quite rude and unhelpful, assuming I would want just an average lager and didn’t offer tastings. It was like pulling teeth before I got handed over the amazing Kooinda Black IPA.

Coal River Valley

It was only 2 hours south down the middle of the state to the quant town of Richmond before we turned off to visit much acclaimed Frogmore Creek Wines. We had a couple of hours to kill before our flight back to Melbourne and I refused to leave without a Pinot Noir, despite the other 3 bottles of white wine in my suitcase. Unfortunately their restaurant was closed so we had a quick tasting, I bought a bottle of the 2012 42 degrees Pinot Noir and we moved on.

Coal Valley Vineyard

Coal Valley Vineyard

Coal Valley Vineyard was just a kilometer or so down the road so we turned off to enjoy an amazing cheese platter and a glass of pinot in the sunshine overlooking the vines. This was the perfect way to close off the vacation. Shortly afterward we made our way over to Barilla Bay Oyster Farm, literally a five-minute drive from the airport to try some fresh oysters before boarding our flight. The restaurant didn’t open until 5 unfortunately, so we got a plate of 12 fresh oysters from the take out counter and sat and enjoyed them on ice with a squeeze of lemon.

The Qantas Lounge in Hobart’s airport is only open until 4 pm fyi, which was really disappointing. We still had some time until our evening flight departed so sat in the airport enjoying one last pinot, Abel’s Tempest Pinot Noir, the same wine we had on our first night in Salamanca to close out the trip in a very Tassie way.