If Mother Nature were to settle down one day, stop her storming and swirling and really put down some roots, there is little doubt that the location she’d choose would be Queenstown, New Zealand. This little city, in the southern half of New Zealand’s South Island, is just the kind of place in which Ms. Nature would feel completely at home. For one thing, she was the original decorator.
A few million years ago, she pushed several thousand tons of ice through the mountains, carving out the basin that would become Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu. Of course, she also had the good esthetic sense to leave a few granite giants standing guard over this treasure of a lake. As a result, the Remarkables Mountain Range plunges into the icy saphire waters of Wakatipu like a set of massive elephant feet, smooth and ancient. With a few healthy brushstrokes of evergreen added to the steep hill behind the town, and clouds so clean and white that they seem freshly puffed into creation, you have a setting any nature goddess-or mere mortal for that matter-would be proud to call home.
New Zealand pic In fact thousands such mortals have chosen to settle in the glorious environs of Queenstown, originally drawn here in the mid-1800’s by rivers chuck-full of gold nuggets. With typical New Zealand care for the environment however, mining was eventually outlawed and nowadays, locals strike it rich not by pulling gold out of the rivers, but by offering rafting, tubing, jet boating, and kayaking trips down them.
With the Shotover, Kawarau, and Dart Rivers all within minutes of Queenstown, there is simply no excuse for not getting wet and breathless at least once during your stay.
Dart River Jetboat Safaris shuttles passengers to the nearby town of Glenorchy, provides a smooth transfer to a jetboat (a souped-up speedboat that moves so fast it doesn’t have time to touch the water), and provides a thrill-a-minute ride up the river, passing within inches of the stony canyon walls.
For a softer, more intimate experience with the rivers, Extreme Green rafting runs half-day white-water rafting trips on the Shotover. Rafters are driven along the infamous Skipper’s Canyon Road – so dangerous that rental car insurance is suspended along its snaky course then set loose on the water in guided groups of six. Rapids with names like “Pinball” and “Mother-In-Law” keep the ride spiced with just enough adventure and the guides ease trepidation with an assortment of recycled tourist-tailored jokes. The trip climaxes as the raft enters the Oxenbridge Tunnel-a narrow, 170-meter, duck-down causeway and then tumbles down the a churning stairway of rapids on the other side, causing rafters to leave their collective breath behind.
If all of this seems a bit much, there’s always an easy day spent on a Fun Yak-an inflatable kayak-or cruising along the wind-blown waters of Wakatipu aboard the TSS Earnslaw an 1912 steamship that’s been lovingly restored and equipped with a café and bar that will satisfy the appetite as much as the scenery satisfies the soul.
Realizing that aqua-action isn’t everyone’s cup of water, the entrepreneurial folks in Queenstown have also seen to it that there are plenty of dry activities to keep the adrenaline flowing. If you forget to pack your sea legs, but not your sense of adventure, head on out to one of the nearby bridges, tie a giant rubber band around your ankles and … jump! Bungy jumping is de rigueur when visiting this part of New Zealand (although this writer kept a within a safe viewing distance from any precarious precipices). Numerous jump operators have years of experience helping trembling tourists plunge earthward, making the Queenstown environs undoubtedly one of the safest places in the world to take the leap.
If flying like a bird instead of diving like a seagull is more your style, a ride up to Bob’s Peak in the Skyline Gondola should do nicely. This sky tram carries passengers up the side of the mountain above a carpet of pine, elevating not only the body but the spirit as well as the view expands to take in stoic mountain peaks, the electric blue waters of Lake Wakatipu and the entire colorful city of Queenstown.
With all of the adventure activities on offer around town, it may come as a surprise that one of the most breathtaking pursuits in Queenstown requires no helmet, no parachute, no padding, and no release forms.
It’s a simple walk along the trail bordering Lake Wakatipu at sunset. You won’t feel the need for speed as the fading light changes the distant mountains from gray to red, makes the clouds burn white against a cobalt sky, and causes the lake to change from light blue to deep purple like a giant aquatic chameleon. True, it may not get your heart pounding with excitement, but it will certainly set it aglow with respect and admiration for the blazing beauty that shines so reliably throughout New Zealand.
As darkness settles down upon Queenstown, the dynamism of the day spins the engines of dozens of chic global eateries, posh galleries, and cool bars located in a downtown grid of about twenty compact blocks. The perfect way to fuel up for a night on “Q Town” is with a “long black” (black coffee) or a “short white” (coffee with milk) from Old Man Rock, a tiny gothic-tinged café that has the highest-octane, most terrific-tasting coffee in town. Sitting at a sidewalk table, watching the dusk settle on the balconies of gold-rush-era buildings, swilling the dark roasted java, you can feel the wild west spirit in the air, restless and badly in need of a good time. It’s time to head to The Lone Star.
This Texas-sized bar is decked out in highly-scrubbed metal and wood, with a giant sheet-metal sculpture of a pistol presiding over one end of the room. Fortunately this brashness is toned down a bit by the relaxing glow from dozens of small purple candles and the inviting emerald glow from the tops of four pristine pool tables. The atmosphere says, “have a damn good time, but remember your manners kids.”
After a bit of whistle-wetting at Lone Star, it would be time for some delightful dining at Surreal the hippest restaurant in town. Not only will you enjoy wandering through its funky art-splashed interior, listening to its hypnotic polyrhythmic, groovin’ soundtrack, and conversing with its hip black-clad wait staff, but you’ll get even more pleasure by drifting through its culinary landscape as well. Your palate will take delight exploring grottos of spicy Thai soup; pyramids of egg noodles crowned with Moroccan lamb, Vietnamese beef, or Laotian seafood; and icy hillsides of sorbet doused in Stoli vodka. Consider the whole experience a bungy jump for the mouth.
With food and drink needs tended to, your body is bound to cry out for that next most basic need a good bed. And it won’t be disappointed at the options available. From clean, reliable backpacker lodges to elegant hotels, comfortable homestays and apartment rentals to charming B & B’s, Queenstown knows how to make a visitor feel welcome.
Hopefully the brain will have prepared for the body’s demands and booked a stay at The Stable, a converted nineteenth century miniature horse barn, done up to provide one of the coziest places on earth for a nighttime nestle. To make the stay even more idyllic, hosts Gordon and Isobelle will see to it that your home away is stocked with fresh-baked cookies and tea fixings.
As you retire to bed in the loft with the skylight windows cracked open just a bit, and the fresh New Zealand air settling lightly on your quilt, you’re well poised to fall into the arms of Mother Nature and dream deeply.
But whatever you do, in the words of that New Zealand musical sensation, Crowded House: “don’t dream it’s over.” That would be a terrible mistake.
Travelmag partners Wild Kiwi Adventure Tours offer an unparalleled package with a comprehensive range of activities that uniquely combine a route of stunning terrain and quality accommodation.