Queenstown, Part 1
The Solitaire Lodge was exactly my kind of place, so I was feeling a little sorry for the next place we stayed, knowing that there was no way it could top it in my book. But the Millbrook Resort was equally stunning in a totally different way. The five-star, four-season resort sits in a lush green area with mountains rising on all sides. A 27-hole golf course backs the resort’s 175 rooms, suites, and villas, all gorgeously appointed in French provincial décor. While my compadres took advantage of the resort’s award-winning spa or took swings on the driving range, I took the free time that afternoon to explore the property, which is 95 percent open space and full of enticing hiking and biking trails. (There are bikes available for rent at the pro shop.) It feels like an exclusive and remote resort, but in fact it’s only a 20-minute drive to Queenstown. It’s also just a hop, skip, and a jump to nearby Arrowtown, where we had dinner.
Meeting: Millbrook’s many restaurants and meeting venues include the Millhouse Conference Center, which can hold 140 theater-style and 90 classroom; a pavilion that can accommodate 130 classroom-style or 240 for cocktails; and the Clubhouse Restaurant, which can hold 80 banquet-style. Smaller venues include the Waterfall Cottage, the Millhouse Restaurant, and the Hotel Villa.
Eating: We stopped off at Amisfield Winery and Bistro on our way to Millbrook for a little lunch—ha! The multicourse meal, each course paired with an exquisite wine, featured such delicacies as Bluff oysters and duck rillette. The restaurant and outdoor patio are available for group functions. Saffron Restaurant in Arrowtown’s historic district was another adventure in eating. We were lucky to be there when whitebait—juvenile versions of a local fish—were available. Upon questioning about the appropriateness of eating baby fish, our waiter came up with one of my favorite quotes: “Whitebait: the veal of the sea." I ate them anyway, and they were delicious.
Queenstown, Part 2
Up early, we hopped on a Limousine South van that took us on a sunrise ride down the shore of Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, a tiny town that serves as the headquarters for the Dart River Jet Safaris, our first adventure of the day.
Adventuring: We climbed aboard a four-wheel-drive backcountry safari vehicle and wound our way toward Mount Aspiring National Park, a World Heritage wilderness area that literally took my breath away more than once. Some of it looked a little familiar, and I was wondering if perhaps I had lived here in another lifetime when our guide started telling us about the movies that had been filmed in the area including, of course, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Our guide also told us about the local flora and fauna, including the dreaded, non-native possums, which, since having been brought into a country where they have no natural predators, now are in the process of eating themselves literally out of house and home as they consume the native forests.
After a short wander through the native beech forest, a bracing drink of river water, and a warming cup of soup provided by our thoughtful guide, we began our next adventure: jet-boating through the glacier-fed, shallow channels of the Dart River system. In between spins and quick turns, we learned about some natural and cultural areas of interest, and tucked briefly into a gorgeous lagoon.
No sooner had we shed the jackets the Dart River folks provided to keep us warm and dry than we hopped onto a couple of helicopters from the extraordinarily well-named Over the Top helicopter company. The Web site claims that “Your itinerary is limited only by your imagination,” and I believe it. What we thought was to be a ride to lunch ended up taking a detour to the top of one of the mountains ringing Lake Wakatipu for a brief stop, a champagne toast, and a chance to take your best swing at a golf ball off the side of a cliff. (Don’t worry, the golf balls are specially made for this purpose to biodegrade within days.)
Eating: The helicopters dropped us off at the Colonel’s Homestead at Walter Peak High Country Farm, a working sheep station. Feeling a bit like movie stars, our group sauntered down the road to sit by the fire and fill up on a buffet luncheon before heading out with the rest of the tourists to watch a sheep-herding and –shearing demonstration. Normally groups would return to Queenstown via the TSS Earnslaw, a 1912 coal-fired passenger ship that was dry-docked for refurbishment while we were there, so we returned via ferry.
The Botswana Butchery has a fun, funky, yet very high-end style that would resonate with many groups after a long day’s adventuring in and around Queenstown. In addition to fresh and delicious food and lots of local wine options, the restaurant has individual private dining rooms that can accommodate up to 30, plus a private lounge that can hold up to 25.
Meeting: The Sofitel Queenstown, our home for the Queentown leg, couldn’t have been more different from our previous accommodations, and yet once again it was just perfect. A gem of a boutique hotel with 82 rooms and suites, two restaurants, a cafe, and the award-winning LeSpa, the hotel sits both at the heart of downtown and just blocks away from the gondola that takes you up to activities and venues on Bob’s Peak. Wi-Fi is available (though not for free after the first half-hour). The meeting spaces are intimate and elegant, including the 900-square-foot boardroom, the 345-square-foot Kowhai Room, and the 215-square-foot Cellar.
For larger groups, the Skyline Queenstown complex offers one of the coolest conference spaces I’ve run across yet. Perched above town and accessed via gondola, the Skyline’s conference area can hold up to 350 theater-style and 130 classroom-style in a space that offers panoramic views of the entire Queenstown area, from city to lake to mountain ranges (there are shades you can close when you need people to concentrate on what’s happening inside the room). Its five function venues can cater meals for 10 to 900 from its five set menus and two buffet selections.
When it comes time for a break, why settle for ordinary coffee and pudgy-pies when you can offer your more adventurous attendees an hour of unlimited lunging down a twisty track on a luge? Also a greatexercise, the luge will definitely clear their minds for the next item on your agenda. Plus, it’s just a blast. Skyline also offers a traditional Maori welcome, along with activities including orienteering, bungee jumps and canyon swings (which I hear are not for the faint of heart), mountain biking, and tandem paragliding.