I've always felt that the best travel experiences are those that sneak up on you unannounced. When you arrive at a destination knowing little or nothing about what to expect and it surprises and delights you in equal measure.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Clyde and Cromwell.
While most of the tourists in these parts head for Queenstown with its adrenalin-fuelled (and often alcohol-fuelled) attractions, Central Otago has so much more to offer if you’re prepared to dig a little deeper. Some 60 minutes out of ‘Queenie’ in our faithful Apollo Euro Deluxe campervan (which we’ve now christened Basil, by the way), and you enter the historic town of Clyde, which was founded in 1862.
Here, life is led at a much more sedate pace than in Queenstown...and that’s just the way the locals like it. The town has a palpable artistic streak and the main street is still a throwback to bygone days, with historic buildings and stores. A great way to start the day is to pop into Olivers Victoria Store, one of several eateries in Clyde, which has a palpable artistic buzz to it. Cycling enthusiasts make a beeline here as it’s a great place to tackle a couple of New Zealand’s excellent trails and the knowledgeable and helpful staff at Bike it Now (www.bikeitnow.co.nz) can fit you out for all your pedalling needs.
Sadly, a recent football injury prevents me from saddling up so I’m thrust into the more than capable hands of Laurence, the owner of Clutha River Cruises (www.clutharivercruises.co.nz). Laurence spends his year split between a clothing business in Spain and running heritage trips down the Clutha, explaining the history of the gold mining rush that saw Central Otago change from the poorest province in New Zealand to the richest in the space of just a year.
Life was undoubtedly hard for those early miners and evidence still exists along the riverbanks of their homes, which in most cases were just stones piled together under an overhanging rock. They’d often huddle together to keep warm (given sanitation was non-existent, it would have been a smelly, bitter existence), but it’s easy to see why so many endured such hardship when you consider the amount of gold found here makes the Clutha one of the richest rivers in the world.
Having sated my appetite for history it was time to sate my actual appetite and for that we called into Wild Earth Wines (www.wildearthwines.co.nz). Opting for a tasting plate matched with their excellent pinot noir, riesling and rose, we chowed down on dishes of abalone, salmon, hare, goat and venison, each dish perfectly complemented by the wine selection.
After such a feast, I could happily have dozed off in the afternoon sun...but then I would have missed Highlands.
From the road, Highlands (www.highlands.co.nz) looks like a well-presented motor museum. It’s only when you get inside do you notice the fully-functioning race track built behind it: the $32 million project of pet food entrepreneur Tony Quinn. The marketing brochures claim that it is “the most innovative and exciting day out in the Southern Hemishphere,” and as I clenched my buttocks together while doing a hot lap in a $500,000 McLaren race car at speeds of almost 250kph, I was disinclined to disagree. While it hasn’t single-handedly put Cromwell on the map, Highlands has certainly given it a 500cc, octane-driven boost, with high-speed rides, go-karts, dirt buggy and family adventures all available.
I’ll definitely be returning...I have to go and retrieve the rest of my spleen from the inside of the race car.
Jon Underwood is touring the South Island of New Zealand courtesy of Apollo Motorhome Holidays, Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand.
Subscription successful! Thank you for subscribing.