The end of the reign
Waving goodbye to Wakatipu
by Thor Iverson
All good things…
Our last day in Queenstown. Can it be?
In a sense, travel is a series of goodbyes. A new destination is achieved, then abandoned. Just as a certain comfort is acquired – with the geography, with the sights, with the rhythms, and with the quirks and individualities that make up culture – it’s back in the car (or train, or plane) and on to the next place with little more than a fond thought. There’ll be plenty of time for nostalgia afterwards, when each destination has become not a thing to experience, but a memory to recapture.
This is why the notion of “settling in” is so dangerously seductive. Bags are fully unpacked, belongings are given a home, and accessories (often in the form of groceries) multiply and take their own respective places. The regularities of everyday life intrude on the abandon of travel…a morning cup of coffee, a post-dinner cleanup, the number of days that can pass before the laundry simply must be done…and lend their normalcy to the experience-rich environment of elsewhere. And in turn, experiences are that much the greater for the familiarity of their context.
But when it’s finally time to say goodbye, there’s a price to be paid. The passing melancholy of moving on becomes more wrenching, more poignant. Familiar sights and paths are revisited, suffused with longing for that one perfect memory. And then drawers and cabinets are emptied, bags are packed, and one’s life is once more contained within the boundaries of a suitcase. It is, inevitably, a diminishment, and it carries with it the potential for great sadness amidst the satisfaction of a destination well-lived.
Another interesting experience allowed by a long visit is the chance to become (however temporarily) a “regular” at a local haunt. And though I wish I’d made the connection earlier in our visit, one location almost immediately suggests itself: Joe’s Garage.
The staff – already unnaturally attractive, despite the occasional brooding – is today joined by one of those people at which I just can’t stop staring. She’s beautiful, yes, but with that extra and individual something that speaks to my subconscious. I sip a series of flawless flat whites, feeling a mixture of attraction and mild guilt (it doesn’t help that she frequently meets my glances, smiling each time), and then Theresa arrives…fresh from the spa…to rescue me from my imagined but disquieting psychic infidelity. Some encounters are better off left to the imagination.
Warmed by milk-infused caffeine, we’re protected against rising winds that buffet the waters of Lake Wakatipu into frothing whitecaps. It’s not exactly cold on our decidedly non-aerodynamic little boat, but the forecast suggests that it will be. As the girl at the ticket booth cautions, “gotta sail now, ‘cause the weather’s turning to shit.” And thus, if Theresa wants to dangle from a big cloth, she’s going to have to do it immediately.
Perhaps I should back up a bit. On our last visit to Queenstown, Theresa went parasailing, an activity wherein one is dragged behind a boat, rising and falling at the whim of the driver – while attached to a long cord and held aloft by a sort of modified parachute. Having failed to entice me into a tandem adventure (my discomfort with heights remains intact), she pays the (fairly extravagant) fee and straps herself into the harness for another go. With little preliminary, the driver shoots her skyward into the blue. There’s the usual mid-journey fun, when the driver cuts the engine and lets Theresa drift to just a few feet above the water before lurching forward and sending her hurtling upward once again. And back on the boat, she reports that other than the awe-inspiring views, the principal highlight of the trip is not the height, but rather the silence. The lake, its surrounding Remarkables, the endless horizon of distant and snow-capped ranges, the bustling spread of Queenstown, and even far-off Paradise become mere backdrop, and one is entirely alone with thought, impression and emotion.
It almost makes me want to try it.
We spread a picnic lunch on a breezy lakeside rock, while ducks nibble for scraps at our feet. Out on the lake, a few hardy daredevils practice a confluence of two of Queenstown’s “adventure capital” staples: para-bungee. A tandem parasail stretches high into the sky, with one of its two passengers strapped to an entirely different kind of harness. At a signal, he releases himself from the parachute and plummets lakeward, only to be violently retracted mere feet from the water. A second boat collects his dangling remains.
Me? I’ll search for adventure in my glass.
Carrick 2003 Pinot Noir “Unravelled” (Central Otago) – Though this is the approachable, simple wine of the Carrick lineup, it’s got more varietal character and interest than many less dedicated producers’ top pinots. There’s bright, ripe red fruit and crisp plum with hints of rind and fresh acidity, plus dustings of earth. It’s lovely and fun, though the short finish does give a good indication of this wine’s future. Still, it serves its purpose with élan.
After lunch, a ride up the steep Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak provides yet another (and even higher) set of majestic views. We take a “luge” ride down a noisy track, though the experience is less exciting than it promises to be, and we receive more pleasure from mere gazing at the surroundings. As predicted by our morning excursion’s host, all the boats within vision (except for the TSS Earnslaw steamship) are in their moorings. But the weather is hardly “turning to shit”…indeed, it’s hard to imagine a nicer day, though it is a bit windy…and, were time to permit, we could stay up here all day. The lake reflects and intensifies the arc of the sky in an almost impossible blue. It is, truly, an image to remember.
Back at the bottom, we divert ourselves with a little miniature golf, then return to our rental for some packing and cleaning. Already, the fragile threads of emplacement start to unravel, and sadness threatens to set in. We brush it away, determined to enjoy even this denouement to its fullest.
A little before seven, we’re back on one of the easier roads towards the jewel-box village of Arrowtown. Along the way, we have a stomach-churning experience at the local Shell station, watching a stunt plane do a long series of ridiculous things…spinning, flipping, twisting, spiraling, and frequently careening directly towards a mountain before veering directly upwards in a stall-inducing climb. It’s enough to make us nauseous, and we’re safely on the ground. Theresa looks at me, firm conviction in her eyes: “I will never, ever do that.”
We’re greeted at the exterior of The Postmasters House, the newest addition to the area’s fine dining landscape, and the recipient of our business due to poor treatment at another local establishment. It’s a genteel touch, and in fact the restaurant’s approach is consistent throughout the meal. Small rooms in a classy but homey setting bring warm elegance to the experience, and the service perfectly reflects this mood.
An option to take apéritifs at a hewn-jade bar presents itself, and we settle in for some bubbly while our French-born bartender/sommelier works quietly and efficiently behind the counter. As we sip, our host joins us for some amiable chat on the local and national wine industries. He’s both knowledgeable and connected, and we manage to learn a few things.
Palliser Estate Brut (Martinborough) – The nose initially presents as clean, though eventually it turns a bit estery. The palate undergoes a similar transition, from fine, sharp intensity to fluffy lemon-peach fruit. It’s a credible sparkling wine, though not at the level of the Chauvet products here in the Central Otago, because it lacks both firm conviction and a certain nerve.
We move from the bar to our table, scanning the short and locally-focused menu for food to excite our wonderfully jaded palates. (Too many excellent meals in this country will do that to a person.) My first choice is a salad with manuka-drenched lamb niblets. The lamb is exquisite, with the honey a perfect counterpoint to the savory nature of the meat, but fewer bean sprouts amongst the greens would be preferable. What follows is a pair of strikingly aggressive curries (a local specialty?), one a Bombay-style curry over duck leg, and the other a “jungle” curry of rabbit, with a side plate of palate-cooling vegetables, peppers and poppadom. The Kiwi-Indian theme (which doesn’t, it should be noted, dominate the menu) is carried through to a breadbasket that features salty, lightly-spiced mini-naan in addition to plain white rolls.
For dessert, I choose a quartet of ice creams: fresh peach, intense blueberry/raspberry, hedonistic chili-infused dark chocolate (reminiscent of some exotic gelati I’ve tasted in Sicily), and a shockingly delicious manuka honey/mustard version.
With all this beautiful, flavorful food, there’s a wine list of both breadth and depth. I can’t resist splurging a bit, for this is turning out to be a special evening.
Stonyridge 1996 “Larose” (Waiheke Island) – A truly complete wine, with developed and refined characteristics (yet only about halfway to maturity). There are dark berries, leather and walnuts with thick but ripe tannin and the distant aroma of roasting coffee beans. Excellently balanced and full-bodied, and unquestionably world-class. Perhaps one can quibble that its position amongst the pantheon brings with it little recognizable “Waiheke-ness” (though that might be too much to ask of such a young wine region, as so many wines from that island are either clumsy, green or overroasted), but it’s damned impressive nonetheless.
After dinner, we repair once more to the Blue Door Bar, and settle into the “good seats” (those fronting the fireplace), to let the satisfaction of a stay well-spent suffuse our souls.
Talisker Scotch Whisky 12 Year (Skye) – Smoky and peaty, with iodine brawling new wood and redolent earth. Very nice in this warm, woodsmoked environment.
And thus, our last evening passes the way I would have wished, were I to have written the script. As for tomorrow? Tomorrow we write the sequel.
Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.