The approach to Glenorchy is nothing short of magnificent. The 45 kilometre lakeside drive from Queenstown offers breathtaking views of shimmering waters, hanging valleys, glaciers, islands and sheer-sided mountains. It first grabs your attention around Bob's Cove and White Point, but when you arrive at Bennett's Bluff, the desire to leave the vehicle and take in the scene at the head of the lake is irresistible.
Mt Earnslaw dominates the scene, a towering, snow-capped monolith flanked by the heavily braided, shingle-edged channels of the Dart and Rees rivers. And so you come to Glenorchy township, a latter-day frontier staging post for supremely picturesque landscapes around the area called Paradise, the doyen of movie-maker's action sites.
Glenorchy may seem remote from civilisation but it couldn't be better placed. It's next door to Paradise and Arcadia and just an apple's toss away from the Garden of Eden, slap bang in the pulsing heart of Middle Earth. This small village of 200 people was built by scheelite miners in 1862 but is now a mecca for trampers and sightseers.
Glenorchy holds the key to the finest tramping opportunities in New Zealand. The Routeburn Track begins on the south side of the Dart River and the Greenstone-Caples circuit is across the lake. The Rees-Dart Track is the toughest challenge, crossing alpine passes and rough terrain.
Close to town are well-graded walkways that lead to points of interest; the Glenorchy Walkway, Whakaari Conservation Area and Mt Judah, where the remains of scheelite mines can be found.
Scheelite is Glenorchy's heritage of "white-gold", calcium tungstate, which was sought during the 20th century's two world wars as an additive for hardening steel. Many extraction relics litter the slopes and views of the lower Dart Valley and Mt Aspiring National Park are simply stunning.
But for those who simply want to enjoy the brisk mountain air, Glenorchy offers a tranquil setting. It's the perfect weekend retreat for relaxing and dabbling in fishing, horse riding, walking in the sub-alpine forest or jet boating into Mt Aspiring National Park.
The village has great dining options and a range of accommodation. There's a visitor centre, garage, general store and some unique shopping, including specialty opossum fur products and gifts.
Out in the middle of Lake Wakatipu are three lonely-looking, uninhabited islands called Pig, Tree and Pigeon. They had the temerity to resist the unrelenting massive force of the Dart Glacier that gouged out the lakebed more than 10,000 years ago.
Rippled Earth Kayaks can whisk you out to the islands over clear, snow-melt water that perfectly reflects the gleaming-white high peaks embracing the lake. The landscape fits Tolkien's imagery so well; it's no surprise that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in these hills. On the one side you see the spire where Gandalf slew the Balrog and on the other, the elfin forest of Lothlorien, while Mt Earnslaw is Methedras.
From Glenorchy, it's easy to take the ride of your life on a classic jet boat excursion in a remote valley of rushing waters. Dart River Jet Safaris have an exhilarating action ride 40km up the ever-changing riverbed, punctuated with nifty 360 degree spins that shower laughing, screaming passengers with a fine coating of refreshingly-cold spray.
The jet safari is combined with a guided walk in ancient beech forest and a scenic road trip through the area called Paradise, supposedly named for the colourful paradise shelducks that inhabit the Diamond Lake shoreline.
However, I prefer the more romantic version where pioneer shepherd, Alfred Duncan, met a Maori chief's daughter called Ruahine in the 1860s. When her tribe was hastily evacuated, she wrote a farewell note saying, "My heart is with you and when I die my spirit will return to our paradise". This story inspired several novels about this southern paradise.
Last year, Arcadia Station, just outside Glenorchy, was the setting for a four-day-shoot for The Hobbit movie and 450 actors and crew swarmed over the swathes of golden tussock alongside the road. Before that 800 horses and 1500 humans bestrode these serene pastures to film The Lord of the Rings.
The mythical nature of Paradise is kept alive with biblical terms for local landmarks like the Rock of Ages on a nearby hilltop and the Garden of Eden in a local woodland clearing. The Jordan River crosses the road as you approach Arcadia and a tapering, coffin-shaped rock on a nearby promontory is called Peter's Tomb.
The history of Glenorchy, is closely aligned with a veteran steamer that still plies Lake Wakatipu. The Lady of the Lake, the twin-screw TSS Earnslaw, entered service in 1912. The Earnslaw was state-of-the-art for its day, with fine kauri and red beech panelling in the saloons. She maintained a vital link for the tiny settlements of Glenorchy and Kinloch until the road from Queenstown was opened in 1962.
In Glenorchy and its surrounds it's easy to let the imagination run riot and segue into realms of fantasy. Everything about the place has a feeling of being pristine, primeval and unspoiled. Enter this Gateway to Paradise and you will experience pure inspiration on every bend in the road.
Glenorchy lies at the head of Lake Wakatipu, 48km from Queenstown. The town has a variety of accommodation from backpacker to farmstays, secluded cottages, lakefront guesthouses, B&Bs, a lodge and a motel.
Activities include jet boating, tramping, fishing, hunting, horse trekking, sky diving, farm tours, 4WD safaris, kayaking, scenic flights and photo safaris.