Family holidays where the heart is

Bannockburn, an area steeped in golden history, has a special appeal that sees generation after generation of the same families escaping Dunedin and Invercargill to holiday at the local domain. Sarah Marquet went to meet some of those people to find out what brings them back each year.

About 5km to the southwest of Cromwell, over a bridge which crosses the Kawarau River there is a sign: Welcome to Bannockburn Heart of the Desert.

Looking at the hill behind the sign it really does look like a desert, the scorched grass an almost grey shade of brown and the once fragrant wild thyme burnt to a crisp, both crunching underfoot.

Turn the other way, though, and the view is in almost complete contrast - the Kawarau River winds its way over the landscape under an endless blue sky. Lush green grass, trees and bright orange Californian poppies line the banks. Further up, grape vines in neat rows grow protected from the birds by white netting. While the welcome sign, hung between two relocated bridge pillars from the old suspension bridge, advertises Bannockburn as ''the heart of the desert'', locals advertise it as ''the heart of wine country''.

Two of those locals, Jane Scott and husband Scottie, run the Central Otago District Council-owned Bannockburn Domain camping ground.

She says because Bannockburn is a land of contrast, there is something for everyone to do - from water sports to wine tastings, from walking and biking to exploring the region's gold history - and that is probably why people come back to the camping ground year after year.

Sharon Monson, of Dunedin, has been holidaying at the domain for about 20 years. This year, about 15 of her family members, spanning four generations, and five dogs, will holiday with her.

Her first camping visit to the area was instigated by her co-workers, who had friends in the area, and she has been coming back ever since.

''I just love it. The atmosphere is great ... the weather has improved over the years ... and we have space.

''We go jet-boating, go for walks in the sluicings, shopping and this year we are going to go gold panning.''

About 3km from the camping ground is the Bannockburn Inlet, a quiet area of Lake Dunstan with many secluded picnic spots shaded by trees.

Once known as the Bannockburn Creek, it was mined for coal to supply the gold dredges working on the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers in the late 19th century.

Spending time at the inlet is one of the Monson family's favourite things to do in Bannockburn.

They have a boat, a water trampoline and an inflatable kayak.

James Monson, Mrs Monson's grandson, loves swimming at the inlet and says he has a lot of friends in the area, both holiday-makers and locals.

He said he would continue the family tradition of camping at Bannockburn when he grew up and had his own family.

''He just hates going home when the holiday is over,'' Mrs Monson said.

Queenstown, Wanaka, Cromwell and Alexandra are all within about half an hour's drive, events there such as races, rodeo, and boxing day sales provide extra entertainment.

''The kids always get money for Christmas, so we go shopping, too.''

Joy Woods, another repeat holiday-maker, camps on what Mrs Scott called ''Millionaires Mile''.

Her caravan is kitted out with all the mod cons, including a full-size fridge and she has a garden.

She leaves her Bluff home for Bannockburn every Labour Weekend and stays until the end of the grape harvest, working at the local vineyards.

There are 12 vineyards in the Bannockburn area that are open to the public for tastings. Like many wineries in Central Otago, they specialise in pinot noir.

Most of the holiday-makers at the domain had been coming for ''years and years'', mostly from Dunedin and Invercargill, Mrs Scott said.

Come Boxing Day the camping ground was fully booked and often people were turned away.

''Sometimes, there is only just room for a few tents.''

There were about 60 sites, with and without power, in the ''family-oriented, animal friendly'' camp, she said.

There were also 14 permanent residents and some seasonal workers.

''But there's always room for the kids to run around.''

• About 5km out of Cromwell and about half an hour's drive from Alexandra, Queenstown and Wanaka.
• In the township: hotel, cafe, store, bowling green, tennis courts.
• Town established about 1860, during the gold rush - the alluvial gold field was mined extensively in the 1860s.
• Remnants of the gold rush can still be seen, most obviously the sluicings off Felton Rd. A walk around the sluicings will take you to Stewart Town, where stone buildings remain.
• In the township, some gold rush era buildings remain, including the Post Office and the general store.
• The area is now focused on viticulture and boasts 12 wineries open to the public.
• Beyond Bannockburn is the Nevis Valley, also an area rich in gold rush history. The road to the valley crosses Duffers Saddle, the highest public road in New Zealand, and carries on through to Garston.