by Margaret Prince
As a keen skier I’d been to Queenstown more than once and spent my days going hard on the slopes and my nights enjoying the après ski buzz in its many restaurants, bars and clubs. But this time some friends who’d settled in Queenstown suggested I come and visit them in spring so I could experience what the town and its surroundings has to offer outside of ski season.
I thought it was a fine idea and decided it was time I treat myself to a well-earned break with a bit or pampering, a touch of adventure, some leisurely wine tasting, the odd walk or bike (but nothing to strenuous), some over-indulging in the eating department, and just a smidge of exploring and retail therapy thrown in for good measure.
Sounded like the perfect holiday cocktail to me.
Flying into the resort, nose pressed to the window like everyone around me, we descended towards the airport and I was spellbound by the snow-capped mountain peaks as far as the eye could see the green valleys below, and the reflection of the plane passing over the shimmering lake.
Once I stepped off the Jetstar A320 to a view of the famous Remarkables Mountains and breathed in the pure crisp alpine air, I suspected I was going to be a fan of Queenstown in spring.
I’d read recently that the travellers ‘bible’ Lonely Planet had recently chosen the Southern Lakes Region as one of the world’s top 10 places to visit in 2013 for its year-round activities and spectacular scenery, so I set about putting as much of that to the test as possible. Although my friends had offered their spare room, I decided to splash out and treat myself to a couple of nights one of the loveliest new hostels on the outskirts of town, followed by a stay in more cost-conscience accommodation. There were plenty to choose from, from backpackers to ‘flash-packers’, motels and
apartments, and all categories of hotels, but I figured that a five-star luxury on the edge of the lake was going to get me in the mood for relaxation and adventure.
Queenstown is quite compact which is one of the things I like most about it – the airport is only 10 minutes from town centre and everything is within walking distance or a short drive. After checking into my hotel, I found the perfect spot overlooking the water to soak up the sunshine with coffee in hand and just watch the world go by. Next on the agenda was a bit of ‘me time; and within half an hour I was luxuriating in one of the best spa experiences I’ve ever had. Four blissful hours later I floated to my room, resisted the urge to curl up and fall asleep, got dressed and caught the hotel’s water taxi service into town to meet my friends.
As the boat pulled into Queenstown Bay, we slowed down to make way for the majestic TSS Earnslaw, one of the last remaining coal-fired passenger vessels still operating in the Southern Hemisphere, as it came steaming into dock. Affectionately know to locals as the grand old lady of the lake, she’s one of Queenstown’s great icons and her deep piercing ‘hoot hoot’ has become an integral part of the town’s fabric.
It was only Day One but I was already learning springtime in Queenstown combined the best of both worlds – long days, warm spring sunshine and bright blooms
everywhere completely transformed the scenery I’d previously only seen as a winter wonderland. And although I was definitely tempted by spring skiing, this time my Queenstown visit had a different agenda.
After strolling around town and sitting outside enjoying a sneaky glass of the famous local Pinot Noir, we literally had to toss a coin to decide where to eat. There are restaurants everywhere; Queenstown is a veritable melting pot of nationalities, cultures and influences and it was just too hard to chose from Pacific rim, traditional pub, winery kitchen, stylish café bars, Asian, designer burgers, Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Turkish or Mexican. The coin toss decided the menu for us – tapas by the waterfront – and after a delicious meal complete with million dollar view, we planned our days to come.
It’s no exaggeration to say you can experience more here in a day than most do in a lifetime, and on the adventure front it boasts a huge range of adrenaline pumping activities like skydiving, bungee jumping, jet boating and paragliding. For the next day’s entertainment, however we decided to bike the new gondola-accessed trails high above the town.
While one of my friends was definitely the equivalent of a double diamond skier when it came to the biking, I was relieved to find out that the bike trails ranged from the extreme to virtual novice. Falling
somewhere between the two, I put my trust in the sturdy bike and helmet I‘d rented from one of the shops in town, hooked it up to the gondola and cruised up to the bike park. While initially cautious, I gained confidence by the minute and couldn’t believe how much fun it was to ride down through the forest trails, and then catch my breath on the gondola ride back up to do it again.
We’d set aside the next day for a trip to the world-famous bungy bridge in nearby Gibbston Valley, and my first bungy jump (scary but an amazing rush!) was followed by lunch at nearby winery and an afternoon of wine tasting. For ease, we took a guided tour which was well worth every cent to have our transport taken care of and a knowledgeable guide to lead the way.
In fact I learned a lot that afternoon. Fine growing conditions in Central Otago mean the region has 200 vineyards in the vicinity and more than its fair share of awardwinning wines. At 300 meters above sea level and 45 degrees south, it is also the most southerly wine region in the world, established buy a wine lover who believed the climate was perfect for producing what could be some of the best wines in the world. I’ve now tested most of them and he was right. We spent what I would call a prefect lazy afternoon soaking up the scenery, drinking award-wining local Pinot Noirs and snacking on gourmet platters or local produce.
Day Three and it was time to hit the golf course. There are six courses within a 25 minute drive but given my poor level of play, I wisely tool some local advice on which one would suit me best. In the end, it didn’t matter that my skill level is particularly zero because I has the stunning scenery to blame for the fact that I couldn’t keep my eye on the ball.
Next it was time for some adventure and with a natural outdoor playground on its doorstep, I can see why so many adventurers and entrepreneurs have chosen Queenstown and its surrounds as a base for their tourism operations. In fact, it was one famous Kiwi, Sir Henry Wrigley, who became a game changer for the region back in 1947. Famous for his foresight,
he developed a commercial ski area at Coronet Peak with the help of another innovative New Zealander, Bill Hamilton later Sir William). Bill used his technical knowledge, determination, ‘Number 8 wire’ mentality and more than a smattering of Kiwi ingenuity to build a tow rope for Coronet Peak from scratch, and almost overnight Queenstown became a four-season resort.
Bill Hamilton was also responsible for the particular innovation I was keen to try – the jet boat – and
seeing I was in Queenstown, considered by many to be the adventure capital of the world, it seemed like the perfect place to take a spin.
Let me just say that the power and manoeuvrability of these boats and their ability to travel in less than three centimetres of water is phenomenal. It was like a rollercoaster ride as our jet boat driver took us close to towering roc faces at speeds that had the hair whipping off my face and left me gasping for breath. I barely had time to recover before her signalled a 360 degree ‘Hamilton spin’ was coming up. Ask a local which is the spot on the boat NOT to sit in f you want to stay dry! Apparently I looked like the sort who wouldn’t ‘mind’ a dunking… and I didn’t. In fact, I had a grin ear-to-ear for about half an hour afterwards.
Later back up the gondola, my friends and I challenged each other to luge races before walking a bit further up the hill and launching ourselves into the wild blue yonder harnessed to a pilot and a huge inflatable parapente wing that reassuringly filled with air as we ran off the mountainside. It brought us safely back to terra firma in the heart of town but not before my friends heard me squealing like a girl as we spun this way and that “just for fun”. I still haven’t lived that down.
Day Four and it was time to take a drive to what’s been called ‘a true slice of paradise’ – a spectacular 45-minutte drive west of Queenstown at the end of Lake Wakatipu. To be sure, the word ‘spectacular’ gets bandied around a lot these days, but it truly applies to this drive and to Glenorchy, our ultimate destination. Bordered by the South West New Zealand Wold Heritage Area, this tiny hamlet is the gateway to some of New Zealand’s most epic scenery.
While the drive to Glenorchy is officially 45 minutes, you can’t help but want to stop around every bend and send the camera into overdrive capturing breathtaking views, hanging valleys, glaciers, islands and towering mountains. It’s hardly surprising to learn that the area has provided the inspirational backdrops for many films including Lord of the Rings.
We wandered around the visitor centre and took advice on a couple of good short day walks, which led us along the start of the famous Routeburn Track, and also on a boardwalk around the lake’s edge to spot local wildlife. All that walking was guaranteed to make is hungry, so we stopped at a local café, sat outside and enjoyed the views and sated our hunger with delicious ham on the bone sandwiches and steaming hot coffee.
With my nose for retail therapy wherever I go, I managed to find the outlets stocked with the region’s famous possum fur products and New Zealand-made designer garments and gifts. I might even give some of my purchases to my family and friends as presents if they’re lucky.
While we didn’t have time to explore further this time around, I made a mental note to come back to “GY” another time to check out some of its adventures like wilderness jetboating, horse riding, fishing and kayaking. If I had a spare three or four days it would be the place to go as the jump-off point for Great Walks such as the Milford, Routeburn, Caples and Greenstone tracks.
Day Six rolled around and it was time to head home, although not without a quick trip to the pretty township of Kingston at the opposite end of the lake to Glenorchy. The road to Kingston is another 45-minute gorgeous lakeside drive and the laidback little town is a popular holiday hub. I even managed to squeeze in a ride on its most iconic and much-loved attraction – a vintage steam train called the Kingston Flyer which has just re-opened after languishing on its tracks for a couple of years before being given a new lease of life by its new owner.
I was too early for the annual jazz festival and the programme of events for summer looked hugely tempting, so as I flew out I made a mental note to come back soon. With bells on.