Wanaka: Best of Kiwi hospitality
CRAWLING through the morning gridlock traffic to Auckland Airport takes almost as long as my flight to Wanaka.
But the trip's slow start is forgotten as soon as the plane flies over the mountain view. I know what's ahead - relaxation, gorgeous scenery and the generous hospitality of Central Otago.
It's been at least a decade since I made more than passing visit to the town, known for its long, hot summers and world-class skiing.
At the airport I'm welcomed by Craig Walker, manager of Wyndham Vacation Resorts Wanaka, where I'll be staying.
He moved here from South Africa two years ago with his wife and two daughters, after falling in love with the people and place.
"What Wanaka has to offer is a lifestyle and hospitality that comes naturally to people down here. It's the way of the South," says the outdoors enthusiast.
After a compulsory tourist stop to watch people throwing themselves off Kawarau Bridge in the name of bungy, we arrive at Gibbston Valley winery for lunch.
Outside, against a backdrop of autumn colours, Australians Melissa and Stacey join us for a couple of glasses, along with poached Bluff blue cod, potato and herb pastela and a pinenut salad.
Talk turns to our playful transtasman rivalry, the mystery of the Kiwi love of chocolate fish, and our surroundings.
Afterwards, on a wine tour, we learn the vines thrive on the region's sunny days and cool nights, and taste the offerings by candlelight inside the wine cave - the first and largest in the country.
"What I love about wine is how it brings people together," says our guide Kristy, an American who has made Central her home.
Before dinner I have time to relax in my deliciously warm suite at Wyndham Wanaka, while looking out over the mountains.
Dinner at resort restaurant Rafters is a great way to finish the day, and a very Kiwi one - in front of an open fire, eating an entree of smoked salmon topped cucumber sorbet, followed by lamb cooked three ways.
But is it the warm, decadent chocolate fondant with a perfectly gooey centre that's the star.
We wake early the next morning for our boat cruise with Simon from Lakeland Adventures. As we head out on the glassy, calm water, he points out landmarks such as Ruby Island, an isolated spot that's popular for weddings.
Created by two glaciers, Lake Wanaka is the fourth-largest lake in the country, he tells us.
The area has also attracted star power, with country singer Shania Twain occasionally spotted in the area after she and her ex-husband bought a property in Motatapu Valley during their marriage.
Back on land we get ready to complete the Kiwi experience with a visit to Cardrona Merino Lamb farm, owned by Ben Gordon.
The farm provided our meat for last night's dinner, so today we'll see how it gets to the plate.
Five thousand sheep and 200 cows are reared on the 3200ha family farm run by Ben and a couple of shepherds, who are accompanied by his dogs Munta, Susan and Flynn. Working the farm, which he took over from his father, is obviously his dream job. Being his own boss and working in an isolated environment is "good thinking time".
The sheep are well-adapted to dealing with the long hot summers and dry winter, and make the "perfect meat", he tells us.
To round off the day we head up the hill with Ben in his four-wheel-drive. While discussing the merits of different utes, he nonchalantly veers over an edge, through a river and up a steep bank into wet ground. Mud splatters over the windscreen and through open windows. "It's a bit wet," he smiles.
We find a spot on the hilltop and have a luxurious champagne picnic in the afternoon sun, looking over the mountains.
It's a great end to a real Kiwi experience.
- Where to stay: From August 1 until October 31, guests can enjoy a romantic escape staying at Wyndham Vacation Resorts Wanaka in a studio room plus one two-course meal at Rafter's Restaurant from $129 a room, per night. Subject to availability. Call Wyndham Wanaka on (03) 443 0025 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and mention this deal.
- Further information: To find out more about Wyndham Vacation Resorts, Asia Pacific's network of resorts, see wyndhamvacationresorts.com.au.