Travel: Queen of extreme ease

By Paul Rush

Lake Wakatipu folklore tells of gold prospectors in the 1860s, who were having a heated discussion in a Canvastown blacksmith's forge, finally pronouncing the picturesque alpine town as "Fit for a Queen". It was then formally named Queenstown with the confirming clang of a hammer on an anvil.

The prospectors would be pleased with their choice, as today it is heralded as the monarch of action adventure and the queen of extreme. Crazy Kiwis encourage breathless visitors to commit death-defying acts to test their stamina and nerve by throwing themselves off platforms and bridges and out of planes.

Those of us mellowing into the third age can seek pleasures in the lakeside resort that are more refined and risk-averse. We carefully plan our days in the comfort of a hotel lounge with a glass of local riesling in hand and an activities schedule before us.

Soft adventure in Queenstown may seem an oxymoron, but it is achievable with a little effort.

A good place to start is riding the Skyline gondola to Bob's Peak. I know the steep angle of ascent can be a little vertigo-inducing, but it's nothing like the other eye-watering, energy-sapping alternatives.

Lake Wakatipu sparkles like a precious jewel in the sun; the razor-sharp Remarkables thrust skywards with defiance and often carry a dazzling mantle of snow. The miniature town below is like Lilliput buzzing with activity.

Back down at ground level, I gravitate towards the arboreal delights of Queenstown Gardens, which have superlative views of the lake. A cool breeze wafts through the fine English oaks, sequoias, ornamental cherries, chestnuts and maples.

Following the innovative Frisbee course with its cleverly designed nets, I pass through the rose gardens and set out along the popular lake-edge walkway to Frankton, just one of the attractive walking and biking tracks in the area.

Another place that gives me a real sense of tranquillity is the Kiwi Birdlife Park, a sanctuary of garden trails featuring endangered birds and reptiles. Bright yellow jetboats are whizzing around Queenstown Bay and executing 360-degree turns within an envelope of flying spray.

As the sparkling waters are mirror-smooth, I decide to launch out on a kayak tour around the Frankton Arm, where we glide effortlessly under Deer Park Heights, made famous as a movie set in The Lord of the Rings. The Queenstown Sea Kayaks guide ensures that it's a relaxing, fun, eco-friendly excursion taken at an easy pace. It's a great way to view the landscape from a different perspective.

Queenstown's most enduring image is the stately, coal-fired steamship TSS Earnslaw, and taking photos of the beautifully restored 1912 vintage steamer against the picture-book background of encircling mountains has become de rigueur for visitors.

An excursion to Walter Peak Station for farm tours, dog-handling and sheep-shearing demonstrations makes for a wonderful day out on the elegant Lady of the Lake, who celebrates her 100th anniversary this year, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Otago.

One of the joys of a relaxing holiday here is to catch the Arrowtown bus and trundle out past Lake Hayes to the quaint former gold-rush settlement. There is heaps of interest in the mining relics, colonial building facades, alluring gold nuggets on display, intriguing artefacts in the museum and the poignant scenes at the Chinese settlement. Twin rows of oaks and sycamores planted in 1867 overshadow lines of tiny miners' cottages.

The whole atmosphere is evocative of an earlier era, which I find emotive and moving. It's an authentic gold town which has steadfastly refused to become a ghost town.

It's definitely worth taking a leisurely drive beside Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, a latter-day frontier staging post for supremely picturesque countryside around Paradise, the doyen of moviemaker's action sites and the base for some of the finest tramping in New Zealand. The lakeside drive is out of this world, particularly the jaw-dropping view of Mt Earnslaw and the head of the lake from Bennett's Point, two-thirds of the way along the road.

I'm always pleased to come back to downtown Queenstown to enjoy the palpable sense of alpine village intimacy. The shopping precinct is compact and accessible. The Gucci-style boutiques, countless racks of Ray-Bans, Gore-Tex jackets, silky-smooth Icebreaker shirts, Columbia zip-off safari pants and greenstone and gold jewellery make a colourful and appealing display.

The neat low-rise buildings, narrow two-horse-and-cart pedestrian lanes and cosy street-side cafes and restaurants impart a sense of togetherness and familiarity.

Critics of Queenstown claim that it's too commercialised, but compared with the alpine resorts of Colorado and the French Alps, it's really quite homely and was recently voted the friendliest place in the world by Conde Nast Traveller magazine.

To find the ultimate peace and quiet, I head for Gibbston Valley, where there's a new riverside walking track that happens to pass several leading winery cellar doors.

The burgeoning wine industry here is the cherry on the top, providing a brilliant counterpoint to all the gung-ho, nerve-jangling adventure activities. A fine Gibbston vintage is guaranteed to restore colour to the cheeks of any breathless daredevil adventurer.

In the past, I've had my share of energy-sapping activity, falling through space, battling white water and getting caught up in the town's magnetic energy field that makes normally sane people break out of their comfort zones.

But now I'm happy to wind down a notch and the place to do this is Henry van Asch's The Winehouse & Kitchen on Back Rd, Gibbston Valley, adjacent to the Kawarau Bungy Bridge. The wine-tasting room is a restored 100-year-old homestead which Van Asch rescued when it was scheduled for destruction in a firefighter's training drill.

The restaurant has a reputation for wholesome, farmhouse-style food and features the popular wine labels Van Asch, Rock Ferry and Freefall. My favourite is the Freefall pinot noir. It's a good drop, produced on an organic vineyard on the Bendigo slopes near Cromwell. The viticulturist calls this a "big muscle" wine with intense fruit and subtle flavours on the palate of black forest gateaux, liquorice and chocolate.

By the time I'm ready to catch the plane home, I feel the benefit of a thoroughly relaxing time in the Adventure Capital. I have well and truly met the chicken-hearted challenge of dodging the mandatory Queenstown adrenalin blast.

There is a new Ziptrek flying fox running between eight-storey-high tree-top platforms at speeds up to 50km/h on Gondola Hill. Sounds like a novel experience. Maybe next time.

Paul Rush visited Queenstown with assistance from Destination Queenstown.

- Hamilton News

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