Amanda Woods talks to awarded actor and Central Otago local Sam Neill about what makes the place he calls home so special.
He may have been born in Northern Ireland, but Sam Neill has New Zealand’s Central Otago region running through his DNA. His great grandfather moved here circa 1860, and although Sam mostly grew up around Dunedin, his childhood memories are full of the countryside around Queenstown.
“We’d drive inland in our old Bedford van to Otago and go skiing and camping and fishing in the summer. It’s always been my sort of fantasy landscape,” he says.
While acting may take him around the world for months at a time, Sam spends a third of the year in Otago where he tends to his other job as a winemaker. Sam founded Two Paddocks in 1993, the same year he starred in Jurassic Park, and now has four vineyards scattered around the region.
“I’m very attached to the place. My history is there, my land is there. We’re rooted in the soil.”
Why Sam Neill can’t get enough of Otago’s natural beauty
For Sam, one of the most magical things about Queenstown is what happens when you step outside.
“You only have to leave town for a few minutes and you’re in a completely different place. Every corner you turn, you’re in a different country. And every valley has its own feel. You’re slap up against the Southern Alps with an extraordinary variety of microclimates with rainforests, deserts – every possible extreme you can imagine.”
Sam believes everyone should explore Queenstown’s surrounding mountains and valleys. “I’m getting on a bit now so I don’t climb mountains with the alacrity I used to. But nevertheless, I love walking up a Central Otago river and fishing and getting away from everything.”
Wine and dine
There are around 200 vineyards within an hour’s drive of Queenstown, and when asked about his favourites, Sam says they’re mostly old friends who share his passion for organic wine.
“It’s a very collaborative wine culture and we’re always in each other’s pockets. Rippon vineyards in Wanaka are such old family friends we go back generations, and they’re making excellent organic wines in a beautiful place. And the team at Mount Edward are very old friends.
“There’s a little place called Aurum Wines on the way to Wanaka that I like a lot, and one of my vineyards is on Felton Road next door to Felton Road vineyards. Whether we want to or not we all regard them as the sort of gold standard we measure ourselves against.”
Sam says Amisfield, just outside of Queenstown, is another top choice. “They’re really good, and the food there is fantastic.”
Knowing how much Australians share his love for Arrowtown, Sam says we should also try The Chop Shop for breakfast and lunch, and Italian restaurant Aosta for dinner. While in Queenstown, Rata is an old favourite, says Sam; its sister restaurant, the Malaysian street food-inspired Madam Woo, is also well worth a visit.
Sam takes us up the river
While Sam likes to keep some secret spots close to his chest, one that he wishes more people had a chance to experience is the top of the Dart River.
“If there’s one thing I’d say, it’s to get up there. That might mean getting a jet boat or jumping in a helicopter. But it’s truly spectacular.
“You might run into Jane Campion, as she lives up there at the top of the lake.
“It’s a truly profound New Zealand experience. And that’s as good as it gets.”