Lake Wanaka and the incredible, edible Whare Kea lodge, New Zealand
WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND - I have a new hero.
I’ve been lucky enough in this job to have fabulous meals all over the world, in all sorts of crazy places – Slovenia, New York, Barbados, Paris, Vancouver. But none, I think, compare with the dinner that British-born James Stapley put on the other night at Whare Kea Resort on the shores of this beautiful lake on the South Island of New Zealand.
He started with incredible sliced, smoked duck breast with local feta cheese and “pomegranate molasses,” followed by watercress soup with truffle oil and a crispy, poached egg (not my cuppa tea to be honest), then some remarkably flavourful local tuna with baby paua (abalone), to which he added a marvelous Asian mixture of coriander and radish salad with a palm sugar and chili dressing. Spicy and sweet and lusciously good. He also did a saffron risotto with local crayfish and a shaved celery and blood orange salad and an A-one dessert with local honey and almonds in an ice-cream-like semifreddo, served with grilled local peaches, raspberries and mint.
They seem to grow just about everything in New Zealand. There’s local lamb, of course, plus fresh beef and pork. The place is, naturally, surrounded by water, so seafood is abundant. Outside Queenstown in Otago they grow tons of stone fruit such as cherries, peaches and nectarines, while the north does everything from persimmons to citrus fruit and even macadamia nuts.
For breakfast on Friday I had local bread served up as French Toast and homemade bircher muesli with New Zealand strawberries and local jams.
When I looked at my serving of maple syrup, I had to ask my server.
“I know you guys have maple trees, but where is the maple syrup from?”
You know the answer, of course.
“Um,” she said. “Canada.”
Score one for us.
In addition to insanely good food, Whare Kea (pronounced Far-ay Kay-ah) has gorgeous views looking out towards the town of Wanaka over the lake and then up to the foothills (mountains for us) of the Southern Alps. They have a glassed in lobby-area to serve local wines before dinner, plus lovely decks for all six of their units.
Wonderful design, and the town of Wanaka is only a five-minute drive or a nice walk away on the shores of the lake, being that New Zealanders are awesome “trampers” who install public walking trails just about everywhere.
A little while after checking in, Whare Kea’s Pam Simpson asked me if I wanted to take a helicopter ride to see their ski chalet. I don’t know. Why not? A couple hours later, the pilot, James, is shuttling up a mountainous valley and climbs up and up and up and over a ridge and … oh, my God – the sky-high tips of the Southern Alps are almost within my grasp. Giant slabs of ancient, black-rock stab the sky, their flanks coated with brilliant white snow as puffy grey clouds swirl about the peaks.
“We try not to tell people too much,” says Pam. “We don’t want to oversell it.”
Yeah, you can’t have that.
It’s a stunning place; as beautiful a mountain scene as you could imagine. Wild yellow and white daisies and tiny plants that look like delicate freesia dot the landscape and you can hear the distant cries of the mountain parrots called kea, from whence Whare Kea gets it name.
If you can’t manage the chopper ride, you can hike up into the Alps with a good guide. Or settle down in a lodge near Queenstown or Wanaka and gaze up at the views.
Wanaka the town (I thought it was Wan-AH-ka but the accent is on the first syllable; my mistake) is a nice, resort-y town without much pretence, with great coffee shops (Relishes is particularly good) and a nice spot for beer called the Wanaka Ale House. I tried the venison meat pie and the chowder and wished I’d ordered a burger, but the golden lager was terrific.
Look for more on the weekend on Otago wine-tasting and perhaps a trip to Milford Sound, although the early morning weather report here (it's now Saturday morning in New Zealand) suggests I might get rained out....