The ‘adventure capital’ Queenstown is reinventing itself as New Zealand’s sophisticated travel destination.
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Very few arrivals are as dramatic as flying into Queenstown from Australia. After a three-hour flight from Sydney the featureless ocean gives way to the western rampart of the alps of the South Island and the deep fiord of Milford Sound. Minutes later the aircraft flies along Lake Wakitipu, circles snow-capped peaks and drops into Queenstown airport. Friendly New Zealand immigration procedures (as long as you aren’t carrying honey or fruit) and prompt baggage delivery follow then you’re in the self-proclaimed Adventure Capital of the World.
If you are related to an adrenalin-seeking teen you probably have already heard about the delights of snowboarding The Remarkables, jet boating the Shotover and bungee jumping off Kewara Bridge. But if, like us, your days of lining up for an hour for a Fergburger before tandem skydiving are behind you you’ll be gratified to know Queenstown has matured over the past decade into a travel destination of much broader appeal to a wider age range and level of urbanity.
The Rees Hotel is one of New Zealand's most photogenic and popular hotels.
Mark Rose, the general manager of the Rees Hotel that overlooks the lake, credits at least some of the newfound sophistication of the city to Australian visitors. “You simply arrived with greater food expectations and demanded that they be met,” he says. “We have long great wines and now we offer a dining experience to match them.”
The Rees Hotel certainly adds to the upmarket ‘nothing-is-too-much-trouble’ atmosphere. Bags disappear only to reappear in our room that features a wall of windows overlooking the mountains, lake and the golf course on the other side of Frankton Arm.
With such a beautiful scenery it's too picture-perfect to stay inside
While only a few minutes’ drive from town, the Rees offers a beautiful half-hour lakeside walk past Queenstown Gardens to the quaint, yet bustling, town. The region may have a population of less than 30,000 residents but at peak summer and winter season they can be outnumbered three to one with about two million visitors a year.
Queenstown’s clear air and mountain location is well suited to stargazing. And it’s easy to do at the top of the Skyline Gondola. While just about every visitor will take the gondola for a bird’s-eye view of the city only the canny will do it at sunset and stay for the stargazing. Fortunately, there’s a restaurant at the top with a very extensive buffet and wonderful views over the town and lake to watch the last lights over the mountains as the stars come out.
Queenstown's clear skies make it perfect for stargazing
After meeting the astronomer guides, a short walk from the top station complex leaves the city lights behind and the sky comes to life. Under expert tutelage the heavens start to make sense. Then you have a chance to examine them in detail through several high-powered telescopes. Whether viewing beautiful constellations, craters on the moon or the rings of Saturn it’s a powerful experience.
In winter, Queenstown is a dormitory for the surrounding ski fields. In the warmth of summer the options are greatly extended. Yes, you can jet boat while recalling that it was invented in NZ in 1954 by Sir William Hamilton – who later took one up the Ganges with Sir Edmund Hillary. Or, you can take a leisurely cruise on Lake Wakatipu aboard the TSS Earnshaw steam ship.
There are several nearby golf courses to select from and even more fishing options. Queenstown’s climate, particularly in spring and autumn, is perfect for hiking or biking and the combination of lakes and mountains ensure you’re never without a view.
For an even more dramatic panorama take to the sky in a hot-air balloon, a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft. A local flight is thrilling enough but it’s not far beyond Glenorchy into Milford Sound. There’s the chance to take a thrilling flight in an overpowered warbird, too. Of course, in New Zealand where helicopters are regarded as mere extensions to your legs, you can opt for a tour of local wineries by helicopter.
Fans of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit will know this spectacular location
You won’t be in Queenstown long before you learn that the surrounds were the real stars in many scenes of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. A location tour will be able to give more specific information than you could ever glean on your own. Inevitably, you can combine that with a helicopter flight in a Heli-Hobbit tour.
Exploring the area in a rental vehicle is the perfect way to do it at your own pace. The hardest decision will be what direction to head first. Along the eastern side of the lake to a village simply called Paradise and beyond to Glenorchy takes you through Hobbit country and it’s just as spectacular in natural 3D.
It’s hard to go past heading north to the quaint old gold rush town of Arrowtown where wandering around the shops, down to the river or into a café is all within range of a leisurely stroll. From Queenstown you drive out past the bungy jumping at Kawaru Gorge and Skippers Canyon. Here, too, is the Cardrona Hotel with a beautiful mountain backdrop that harks back to an earlier era.
A vintage vineyard truck in Wanaka
After a great mountain pass drive you arrive in Wanaka that, like Queenstown, is also on a lake and boasts excellent local skiing in winter. While many see the two towns as competitors they really complement each other. Wanaka is the more tranquil alternative to Queenstown. Queenstown is the more vibrant city, with a lot more going on.
The South Otago region boasts more than 200 wineries and there’s much more to it than just pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, though they do dominate. While you are spoiled for choice – and many have restaurants attached – Rippon just outside Wanaka is certainly different. It is a biodynamic vineyard that is fertiliser- and fungicide-free and uses natural fermentation.
Be sure to have a taste of the world famous Queenstown wines
To explore the wineries you can self-drive, take an escorted tour, or one of a range of heli-wine tours.
At dinner in downtown Queenstown in the beautiful stone-and-timber Sasso Italian restaurant I marvelled at how far service, hospitality and cuisine has come in such a short time in Queenstown. It seems not long ago that dining in Queenstown was mainly about consuming enough carbs to get through the next day’s activities. Now we found a sophisticated, distinctly New Zealand menu with an Italian flavour presented with real appreciation of the pleasure food can bring.
Global flavours are served while you enjoy this million dollar view
On our last night in Queenstown we joined Mark Rose at dinner at the True South restaurant in the Rees Hotel. Besides running the most urbane hotel in Queenstown, Mark’s advice on wineries suggested his wine choices would be something special. They were.
There are a beautiful selection of wines to choose from at the Rees Hotel cellar
Looking out over the still waters of the lake while sipping a local Surveyor Thompson pinot noir, he outlined his philosophy of hospitality. It was to build on the natural setting that lured us here by extending the natural warmth of NZ congeniality, a building that blends with its surrounds and, especially, providing fine food and wine. True South’s menu lists the names and websites of its suppliers from Cardrona lamb to Gibbston Valley cheese. It also boasts that “Sourcing high quality suppliers south of Christchurch, buying local not only assures freshness and quality control, it reduces food miles and encourages sustainable practices.”
The Queenstown website is a great place to discover all there is to do – for all ages – in this increasingly impressive little town.
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