Luxury hotels and helicopter tours on a long weekend in Queenstown – New Zealand Herald May 2022

Project Info

Client NZ Herald

Project Description

By Stephanie Holmes
NZ Herald Travel Editor

There are many great bars in Queenstown but The Dirty Nugget would have to be the most exclusive. You won’t find it the town’s main streets or offshoot alleyways, it’s not at a winery’s cellar door or on a ski field. In fact, the only way to get there is via private helicopter. But it might just be the best place for an apres-ski whisky, mulled wine or glass of bubbles you’re ever likely to find.

Ben Lomond is one of the peaks dominating Queenstown’s world-famous vista, with the gondola and Skyline restaurant twinkling from the top. But most of the visitors ogling the view or throwing themselves off the Ledge bungy jump or down the luge would have no idea of what’s on the other side. At just 20ha, McConnachie Station is New Zealand’s smallest high-country station but it’s one of the showcase experiences of Over the Top’s helicopter itineraries. The company, in operation for more than 35 years, offers guided tours and bespoke itineraries. “The only limits,” says founder and owner Louisa “Choppy” Patterson, “is your imagination”.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, let Choppy tell you about the par 3 golf hole she installed on Cecil Peak. It’s 1300m above sea level, with four tee boxes and a vertical drop of about 450m. Former Prime Minister John Key was the first to tee off from it back in 2014.

The idea came from a calendar belonging to Choppy’s father – also a pilot – with pictures of stunning natural landmarks around the world (think Mt Everest, the Grand Canyon etc), all with spectacular looking golf-holes superimposed on them. Choppy thought it was actually a great idea to be put into reality, so after consultation with Land Information New Zealand and the owners of Cecil Peak Station, the dream became a reality.

You can play the hole yourself by booking a tour with Over the Top, and you certainly don’t need to be a pro golfer to give it a go. But if golf’s not your thing, other experiences include scenic flights, heli-wine tours and cruises, heli-skiing, heli-e-biking, or even flying over to the West Coast for fish and chips, with a bone or jade carving demonstration thrown in from one of Choppy’s Coaster friends.

Or, like me, you could whizz over to McConnachie for a drink at The Dirty Nugget. It’s definitely one for the wish list.

I was supposed to take my helicopter tour on the second day of my Queenstown visit but if there’s one thing Covid has taught us, it’s the need to be adaptable. Plans don’t always go, well, to plan and it always pays to have a plan B … sometimes even a plan C. And so it is for me – heavy rain and high winds mean my day of high-end luxury activities has to be cancelled, leaving me to ponder what to do in New Zealand’s adventure capital when you can’t really go on an adventure. Like any good luxury weekend, the answer starts with champagne.

Steps away from the lapping waters of the lake front, Eichardt’s Bar is a cosy space with roaring log fire and the tantalising aroma of mulled wine. It’s humming on a Saturday afternoon, with an eclectic range of guests enjoying cocktails and tapas, readying themselves for an evening of all Queenstown has to offer.

I’m having a welcome glass of champagne with Eichardt’s general manager Kylie Hogan, who has been with the company for a little over three months. Her previous roles have included stints at Matakauri, another of Queenstown’s fabulous luxury properties, as well as The Hermitage Hotel at Aoraki Mt Cook. We’d opted for a glass each of Bollinger but a big group of guests drank the bar dry the night before, so instead we’re “making do” with Perrier Jouet. It’s no hardship.

Hogan says it’s an exciting time for the hotel, with Australian guests beginning to drift back, and international bookings in the pipeline now our borders are open again. It’s been a tough couple of years but the luxury market has remained reasonably buoyant and places like Eichardt’s have managed to stay afloat and retain many of their loyal, passionate international staff base. As a guest, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by a diverse mix of accents again, with my first few hours bringing me into contact with Brazilian, French, Irish and Argentinean staff. This is what Queenstown is all about – a huge range of cultures all coming together in the stunning scenic alpine setting.

The hotel has been welcoming guests since 1862, catering to the sudden influx of people brought here by the gold rush. Registered as a Category 2 historic place by Heritage New Zealand, the hotel’s main building is on the site of the original woolshed – the first building in town – built by William Gilbert Rees, one of the earliest European settlers to the Wakatipu Basin and regarded as Queenstown’s founding father. Rees went into partnership with Albert Eichardt, who took sole proprietorship in 1868. As the gold glint faded, the hotel’s clientele became fewer workers and more tourists. Change was brought to its management team, too – Albert Eichardt died suddenly in 1882, so wife Julia took over operations. Her vision and successful management of the hotel leaves her legacy as one of the most successful businesswomen of her time. The hotel’s legacy as one of the most significant local landmarks remains, too.

The hotel is so close to the lake that, even with my suite’s double-glazed windows closed, I can hear the waves breaking on the pebble-beach. It’s a perfect spot for people-watching and keeping an eye on the comings and goings of the busy wharf – jet boat and Earnslaw departures, buskers’ sets, people gathering on the lake wall to eat their takeaway Ferburgers and watch the sunset.

My suite is sumptuous, with a roaring gas fireplace as the centrepiece between two large windows looking out to the lake and Cecil and Walter peaks. An original wall of exposed schist-stone brick reveals the hotel’s historic bones.

The bedroom is literally a step up, the higher outlook meaning I can still enjoy the views from bed, this time too high for the eyes of passers-by to peek in. The spacious marble bathroom is a vision of luxury, with Molton Brown toiletries and fluffy towels and robes, a deep bathtub and rainhead shower mounted so high it’s like showering under a waterfall.

On Sunday, I seize a break in the weather to take out one of the hotel’s complimentary mountain bikes, making my way through Queenstown gardens, following the Frankton Track, out past the quaint Boat Shed cafe and cool Altitude Brewery, all the way to the Old Kawarau Bridge, turning back just as the rain returns.

I’m scheduled to take an afternoon cruise on the hotel’s private luxury yacht, Pacific Jemm, but the weather is too bad. Hogan takes me over for a quick tour while it’s secured at the wharf. The boat is an absolute beauty – an 80-foot, Italian-built cruising yacht, which can be chartered for day or overnight trips, with full catering, whether you want a barbecue, multi-course dinner, or simply an antipasto platter and margaritas. If you’ve got the means to stay in Eichardt’s Penthouse, the $13,000 per night rack rate will also get you a three-hour cruise thrown in for free. Friends can join you so you can live the Below Deck lifestyle, if only for an afternoon.

We head back to the bar and settle in by the fire for an afternoon tea and another glass of “PJ”, as our lovely Northern Irish waiter calls it (Perrier Jouet to you and me). The three-tier tower has just the right amount of sweet and savoury goodies, along with a plate of dainty freshly baked scones with jam and mascarpone cream.

As the rain moves in so heavily the lake almost disappears under a low mist, I head back to my suite for a relaxing afternoon by the fire, cosy under a blanket, to read a book and drift into a satisfied afternoon sleep.

More relaxation comes in the form of a full body massage in the hotel’s Vault Spa, where a therapist from local business Body Sanctum soothes away what little tension is left in my bones. The small spa room is set up in what was once Julia Eichardt’s office, where she stored visiting miner’s gold. Probably my favourite thing about this massage treatment – and it’s a tough call – is that it takes place just across the hall from my suite, so I can pad over ready prepared in robe and slippers, then float back afterwards without breaking the post-treatment bubble of bliss.

I’m so cosy I decide not to move for the rest of the day, ordering Eichardt’s famous seafood chowder and a glass of Mount Edward pinot noir to be delivered to my room. Why go out, when room service by a roaring fireplace is on offer? Sometimes slowing down and surrendering to the weather is the absolute best way to spend a holiday.

There’s no such excuse the next day, however – I wake to clear blue skies and the unexpected warmth of blazing late-autumn sunshine, meaning it’s all on for my trip with Over the Top. Marketing and operations manager Pedro Martinez picks me up from Eichardt’s and we drive to Over the Top’s base at Queenstown Airport. Pedro, an expat Brit, has been with the company since 2013 and has worked his way up from “hangar rat” to his current role, but on weekends, he’s learning to fly helicopters to fulfil his dream of being a pilot.

But today we’re being flown by Choppy herself, with Pedro and guest relations manager Victoria Jenner along for the ride. Sadly, Honeyboy, Choppy’s friendly labrador, is away, otherwise he’d be joining us too in his official capacity as “greeting officer”.

Choppy, clad head to toe in black with Aviator sunglasses and dashing polka-dot scarf, lifts us gently up above Queenstown and out across the ranges, over Skippers Canyon and Earnslaw Burn, out to Glenorchy where braided rivers look like a tangle of ribbons below us. The views are exceptional, almost unreal, especially cast in the glow of this glorious day.

Circling back to Ben Lomond, a tiny cottage and barn come into view and Choppy expertly lands us on the grass in front. It feels like we’re miles from anywhere, suspended in time – the surroundings are so quaint and picturesque I want to stay for days, not just a couple of hours.

Choppy opens up the barn doors and The Dirty Nugget is revealed, full of a treasure trove she’s collected over the years. There’s a pianola that plays Billy Joel’s The Piano Man, a wind-up gramophone, leather club chairs and animal skins, and a bar stocked with whisky and gin. In winter, Over the Top’s tours would take guests up to a glacier, where you would scoop out a small globe of ice, then whizz it across to the Dirty Nugget to drop it direct into your drink. We’re too early for snow, so I “make do” once more with champagne.

Pedro cooks lamb and chicken skewers on the barbecue, while Victoria plates up salads and fresh bread, and we all sit around a wooden outdoor table in the sun to enjoy the meal together. For longer visits, guests can enjoy archery, clay target shooting, axe throwing or learn how to crack a whip. I’m content to sit and enjoy the warmth of the sun while I marvel at this magical secret spot hidden away from Queenstown’s crowds.

Stay at Eichardt’s Private Hotel starts from $1700 per night.

Over the Top will offer tours and bespoke packages, with prices starting from $300.