Queenstown has a well-deserved reputation as the outdoor adventure capital of the southern hemisphere, but has a lot more to offer than an active lifestyle, travel editor Winsor Dobbin reports.
If you want to go bungee jumping, paragliding, white water rafting, skiing, skydiving, jet boating, kayaking, hiking or downhill mountain biking, the New Zealand outdoor playground of Queenstown offers thrills aplenty. The rugged terrain and New Zealand’s hottest, coldest and driest climate are perfect for adrenaline seekers with memorable scenery and plenty of gold mining history in surrounding communities like Arrowtown. Queenstown has around 18,000 residents but welcomes more than 100 times that number (1.89 million) visitors per year.
What is still quite a well-kept secret, however, is that this fun capital is also building a reputation for the quality and variety of its local produce, restaurants and cafes.
Central Otago, with its rugged winters, is the world’s most southerly commercial winemaking region and is home to some of New Zealand’s best cool-climate vineyards, producing stellar pinot noirs. Local produce includes an array of fruits and berries, lamb and venison raised on the mountain slopes, wild thyme and even New Zealand’s best organic honeys. Locals like to boast that from the harshest of climates comes the finest of produce and Cromwell is the stone fruit growing capital of New Zealand.
While Queenstown itself is party central, within 20 minutes you can be in the middle of nowhere. The countryside is magnificent, making it ideal territory for hikers and cyclists.
For the less active, there are cruises through nearby Milford Sound, part of the Fjordland National Park World Heritage area, or on spectacular Lake Wakatipu. Taking in the views from the Skyline complex, which is reached by a gondola cableway, bush walking or trout fishing in pristine rivers, are other leisure possibilities. There are also six golf courses within 30-minutes of downtown.
In winter, skiing at resorts Cardrona Alpine Resort, Coronet Peak, The Remarkables and Treble Cone takes centre stage, but the town is also known for its vibrant nightlife scene.
Most visitors take a cruise across Lake Wakatipu on the historic steam ship the TSS Earnslaw, which was built in 1912 (the same year as the Titanic) and is the only remaining passenger-carrying coal-fired steamship in the southern hemisphere. Known as ‘The Lady of the Lake,’ the Earnslaw makes several trips each day from Queenstown to Walter Peak High Country Farm, where visitors can enjoy dramatic scenery, farm tours, horse treks and heritage tours. Those looking for a more active afternoon can opt for a Shotover Jet ride on wild, raging Shotover River, an experience that is billed as “the world’s most exciting jet boat ride.”
Fishing is also popular and you can give your catch to your hotel’s chefs to create a gastronomic feast.
For those with a love of fine food and wine, the Central Otago wine region is home to 200 vineyards within a 1.5 hour drive of Queenstown. Of these, 80 have cellar doors for tastings. It is one of the most southerly wine producing regions in the world and its vineyards are also among the highest in New Zealand at 200 to 400 metres above sea level. The region is a sheltered inland area with warm, dry summers, short, cool autumns and crisp, cold winters, making it particularly suited to producing intensely-flavoured pinot noir.
Names to look out for include Felton Road, Mount Difficulty, Misha’s Vineyard, Mount Edward, Gibbston Valley, Rippon, Chard Farm Peregrine and Quartz Reef. The wineries are dotted throughout several sub-regions, including Bannockburn, Bendigo, Cromwell, Gibbston and Alexandra.
Amisfield is the closest winery to Queenstown itself and is situated next to one of New Zealand’s most picturesque lakes – Lake Hayes. After sampling some wines, relax in the courtyard and enjoy the “Trust the Chef” menu, which comprises a selection of dishes prepared from the best and freshest local ingredients. There are plenty of other places at which to enjoy local produce with your wine: including Northburn Station (where you can lunch on lamb raised on the property). Try dishes like rabbit rillettes with pinot and cherry compote, local pickles and brioche, or the daily special cuts of Northburn Merino.
Popular choices in town include the Fishbone Bar and Grill for excellent seafood, (and particularly good fish and chips), Kappa for Japanese food, Rata, the Jervois Steak House, and Bella Cucina. Pacific Rim cuisine is a style of its own – but almost always casual. In summer, al fresco diners line the streets and balconies. In winter, roaring log fires are a feature and provide a cosy alpine ambience. The gourmet burgers at Fergburger are legendary, although be prepared to wait for your feed. A relative newcomer is upmarket Italian bistro Sasso, which means stone in Italian. Located in historic McNeill’s cottage, just a few steps from the shores of Lake Wakatipu, it features Italian-inspired cuisine that combines traditional and innovative elements.
In Arrowtown, a small town with a colourful gold mining past, check out La Rumbla, a wine bar that serves tapas-style food and has quickly built an impressive reputation, as well as The Millhouse, the Postmaster’s Residence and Saffron. The Arrowtown Bakery is famous for its gourmet pies.
You’ll find a range of bars on Searle Lane that offer drinking experiences that range from sophisticated to raucous. The Bunker and Searle Lane & Social are among the most popular and I enjoyed Bardeaux, Cru Wine Bar and Lounge and Barmuda. The coffees are excellent at Joe’s Garage.
The Rees Hotel, one of Queenstown’s favourite luxury hostelries, is a perfect choice for those who want peace and quiet with all the action on their doorstep. With dramatic lake and mountain views, the five-star boutique hotel is a waterfront stroll away from Queenstown’s central precinct – and also offers a regular shuttle service. The Rees has 60 hotel rooms and 90 apartments, all with private balconies. The hotel’s restaurant boasts gourmet cuisine, including an extensive wine cellar, a spa treatment room, gymnasium, conference room, ski lockers, private jetty, mountain bikes and free wi-fi. Award-winning True South Dining restaurant specialises in dishes based strongly on local produce and has a menu that changes monthly, while the Bordeau (meaning next to the water) Wine Lounge has local and imported French wines on offer, including a wide range of Bordeaux vintages. Water taxis operate from the hotel’s own wharf to downtown.
One of the best times to visit Queenstown is for Winterfest (from June 20-29 in 2014). The quintessential winter experience is a 10-day celebration of Queenstown’s unique culture and community with street parties, fireworks, international and local acts, jazz, comedy, Mardi Gras, family fun and sporting events.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Queenstown from major Australian capital cities and adds extra flights for the ski season. It also has a wide range of Queenstown packages. www.airnewzealand.com.au.
Staying there: The Rees Hotel and Apartments features affordable luxury and top-notch service at 377 Frankton Road, Queenstown. +64 3 450 1100. www.therees.co.nz.
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