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Good morning, Fiordland

Going deep on the Southern Scenic Route

by Thor Iverson

Chased by dinner

Teeming fleets of titi (last night’s dinner) surround our ferry, winning the speed contest and then either skidding to a stop on the waters of the Foveaux Strait or circling back for another go. No wonder they’re so chewy. Our captain explains that they’re after their sole meal: the fish churned up in our catamaran’s wake.

No wonder they’re so fishy.

A stunningly beautiful, sunny, and warm morning heralds our departure from Stewart Island, with the low fire of the sun blazing a sizzling gold across the remarkably still waters of the Strait. Long black strips of muttonbirds upon the water bracket our passage, and we receive occasional visits from one of the smaller cousins of the albatross family. The morning is as peaceful as it is nostalgic, and under clear skies, we can see Mt. Anglem – Stewart Island’s tallest peak – jutting towards the northwest with a necklace of cloud, and to its north the rough and rocky southern coast that is our destination.

[flock of titi]

Dinner for twenty
[Mt. Anglem]

Mt. Anglem
[ocean & Mt. Anglem]

Strait on ‘til Stewart
[stones at Colac Bay]

Roll ‘n’ rock

Back in Bluff, our rental car roused from its rest and our bags once more stowed in the trunk, we shake off rusty driving muscles and begin a dreary drive northward towards Invercargill. The city itself is rather architecturally shiny, with a clean glow of urban renewal that kicks the sand of modernity into the face of its remoteness from…well, just about everywhere. I’m not sure it’s fooling anyone, though. It looks well worth a stroll, but we’ve got many long miles ahead of us today, and we – somewhat regretfully – leave the visit for another time.

The depths of higher ground

Route 99 starts just north of Invercargill, and describes a beautiful and – for New Zealand – surprisingly uncomplicated and drivable arc around the southwestern corner of the South Island, hugging the ocean for the greater majority of its length. We stop when the mood strikes us – a stroll to admire the perfect roundness of wave-eroded stones at Colac Bay and Pahia Beach, an overlook to admire the surprisingly nearby spur of Mt. Anglem and the low expanse of the uninhabited mass of Stewart Island, a pause to appreciate the endless sapphire of the sun-glinted ocean and the infinite sky reflected in it – and drive with contemplative speed in between. At Te Waewae the road turns decisively north, leaving the ocean for a drive full of solitude and growing majesty, the unapproachable peaks of Fiordland to the west and a less forbidding ebb and flow of mountain and farmland plain to the east.

The gentle breezes of the oceanside morning are gone, replaced by a variably gusty wind that is, at times, difficult to handle on particularly exposed stretches of road. We take a short, restorative break at Clifden, admiring the rough-hewn span of an historic bridge crossing the power-generating Waiau River (here little more than a wide, gentle stream), then turn down a dirt road for a half-hour westward diversion into Fiordland National Park and to a likely picnic spot.

Lake Hauroko is the deepest lake in New Zealand. It is unquestionably one of the prettiest we’ve ever seen, with unbelievably clear waters flawlessly reflecting the surrounding forest of peaks, yet transparent below the surface to the very limits of sight. We dine on a half-submerged dock, finishing odds and ends from our island sojourn with a little bit of wine from much earlier in the trip.

Kennedy Point 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Waiheke Island) – Shy, with gooseberry and grapefruit but showing decidedly less vivid than either the version tasted at the winery or a previous bottle. I’m not sure what’s up here. Low-level taint would be the natural suspect, but this wine’s under screwcap. Multiple bottlings? Another sort of taint? Barometric pressure? Gremlins?

[Pahia Beach]

Waving at Pahia
[Theresa at McCracken’s Rest]

Theresa does the rest
[Orepuki Beach towards Fiordland]

Fiordland, ahoy!
[99 ends]

“99 New Zealand roads on the wall…”

North of the lake, winds pick up strength as the landscape becomes more recognizable as that of Fiordland: distant snow-capped peaks framing impossibly steep glacial lakes, and all around hilly, rocky fields good for nothing except meager grazing. At Blackmount, the wind is so strong that we can’t even open our car doors without a careful realignment of the automobile. A looming sense of altitude grows to the west, and begins rising in the north and east as well. Sudden emergence into the sparse civilization of Manapouri allows us a much-needed refueling break, and we rest by the cool waters of the town’s namesake lake – one with which we’ll become much better-acquainted in a few days – for a few minutes, enjoying the bizarre juxtaposition of icy mountaintops and waving palm-like fronds on the lakeshore. There are even a few intrepid beachgoers today, though the beach itself is an uncomfortable jumble of ground-up glacial rocks.

Primed for the last stretch, we slowly drive the few kilometers north to Te Anau, completing a full circuit of the Southern Scenic Route that was begun four days ago in Dunedin. From there, the roads are familiar, as we turn eastward through the semi-mystical un-town known as The Key, then turn northward again at Mossburn. It is, after all, the only road. Here, lofty green and brown waves of grassland are consumed in neck-stretching wonder, first by the vertiginous skyscrapers of the Eyre Mountains to the west, and then the aptly-named Remarkables on the east, as the mountainous slopes plummet at last towards the icy mirror of southern Lake Wakatipu.

Our road winds and twists, as difficult for its death-defying drops and turns as for its breathtaking scenery, and we stop as frequently as possible to admire views that are becoming increasingly familiar as we snake northward. And finally, around one last gut-churning bend, we see the growing sprawl of Queenstown, nestled against its protective hillside. We are, at long last, here.

[Tuatepere sausage sign]

Does this even need a caption?
[Clifden Bridge]

Bridging the norm at Clifden

Nuclear summer

We’ve rented a house for what is to be a ten-day stay in this multi-faceted wonderland, and the views out every window are quite literally jaw-dropping. From floor-to-ceiling windows on three floors and from three separate balconies, our horizon encompasses all visible parts of Lake Wakatipu, the rusty blue-brown jumble of Cecil Peak, the greater portion of downtown Queenstown, and the incomparable, ever-changing Remarkables. Even the bathroom has windows overlooking both major arms of the lake; not an ideal situation when…um…careful aim is called for. Though it’s certainly an entertaining diversion at other times.

For the first time on this vacation we unpack to the very last item, “moving in” to a place that will, in short order, feel like home. A careful reconnoiter of the facilities follows, but as the sun sets and the air turns cooler, our stomachs growl with the low roar of the hungry traveler. It’s time for dinner.

On our last visit to Queenstown, we’d somewhat tentatively made an evening reservation at The Bunker. It was a meal that we’d never forget, not least because the dark and – on the exterior – gloomy-looking establishment, tucked away on otherwise-desolate Cow Lane, sported no sign, name, or indication (other than aromatic) that it was a restaurant at all, much less the one that we were looking for. But oh, how two years can change a place. Cow Lane is now a hip back-alley destination, stocked with trendy-looking after-hours clubs, and The Bunker sports a sign identifying it as such. A little bit the magic is gone.

[Lake Hauroko][Lake Hauroko]
Lake Hauroko
[Lake Hauroko][Lake Hauroko]

Inside, however, it’s possible that things have gotten even better. A small, cozy room with the potential for only sixteen covers (eighteen on a packed night, assuming some of the diners are waiflike), it’s intimacy is enhanced by a crackling fireplace and soothing wood tones that soften the otherwise elegant room into something decidedly more casual. Yet the place just reeks of atmosphere. The success of The Bunker may be that it blends elegance, comfort, and “scene” so seamlessly, weaving a relaxing spell of satisfaction around – as last time – a crowd comprised primarily of tourists.

Well, it is expensive. And (no) thanks to the plummeting U.S. dollar, much more so than on our previous visit. This doesn’t really change the food equation, but it does place new limitations on our wine choices, and I entrench for a serious study of a long, heavily-nationalistic, and carefully diverse wine list while Theresa browses the menu. I settle on venison loin (a touch undersalted, but this is easily rectified with a small table-top bowl of fleur de sel) over flawlessly-cooked lentils and crisp duck breast with mutually-enhancing apples and potatoes, as much enticed by the dishes themselves as I am angling for an excuse to drink local pinot. I don’t have to dangle the hook for long, and catch an intriguing bottle with which I’ve absolutely no experience.

Olssens 2002 Pinot Noir “Jackson Barry” (Central Otago) – This shows very dark fruit – mostly black cherry, plum and blackberry – with lots of fetid/organic black earth and a mélange of fresh and dried morels. Wound up at first, this slowly unravels with air, which has both positive and negative consequences. It’s quite interesting in a very slightly surly sort of Russian River Valley fashion, but it never really shows the potential for additional complexity. The finish is good…rough, but balanced…and perhaps it just needs more time.

[submerged Lake Hauroko dock]

What’s down, dock?
[slopeside Remarkables]

A Remarkable slope

The food is extraordinary, served with taste and restraint yet never obscuring the vivid flavors of the ingredients, and delivered by a staff that moves with calm and friendly efficiency. The much-heralded but profoundly underachieving White, back in Auckland, isn’t even in the same league. The only bit of controversy we can dredge from the restaurant is over the bottled fizzy water: Antipodes is an excellent product, but Theresa absolutely despises what she terms overly-precious packaging. I rather like it.

We move to the comfortable sofa that fronts the fireplace, now stoked to a lively burn as the first of the late-evening revelers enter and move quickly upstairs to the hipper, more casual bar, for desserts both solid and liquid. A chocolate extravagance is executed with precision, balance, and skill, though I finish it quickly so not to conflict with an even more impressive dessert wine.

Pegasus Bay 2000 “Finale” (Waipara) – From 375 ml. This late-harvest, nobly-rotted chardonnay is practically a category unto itself; others exist, but virtually none rise to this level. Crisp green apple dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg intermingles with dried peach, richly-spiced botrytis and oak zingers, and terrific, lightening acidity. A marvelous, paradigm-defining wine.

Coffee, from a press, is perfectly roasted and steeped; another shining example of this country’s skill with the bean. It, alongside the warming fire, the enveloping couch, and the ambient music is almost enough to dissuade us from the return trip to our house. But sleep – and not on a restaurant’s sofa – beckons.

And after all there’s tomorrow to consider. Because spitting is something that should only be attempted by the well-rested.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.