Queenstown: Who needs snow when you have this?

By Kieran Nash

Kieran Nash found plenty to keep him thrilled and chilled in NZ's adventure capital.

Jetboating through Skippers Canyon is a real thrill. Photo / Supplied
Jetboating through Skippers Canyon is a real thrill. Photo / Supplied

The naysayers will try to put you off. They'll tell you that there's only one reason to go to Queenstown in winter, and that's to slide down a hill in the cold and wet. And since we were halfway through a winter with precious little snow, what was the point, right? Wrong. In two days I packed in a week's worth of activity at the ski town's new luxury resort, without even touching the white stuff.

I'm greeted at Queenstown airport by the Hilton's head concierge, Nathan Wise, and a short drive later I'm standing in the hotel's lobby. To my right is Lake Wakatipu - a dive-bomb away - and Coronet Peak, staring at me from afar.

I'm impressed with the view, until I get to my room. From the fourth floor there is a lot more of the lake to see. The room is bigger than my lounge and kitchen combined, and a damn sight bigger than many Auckland "studio" apartments. It is more tastefully equipped, too, with a roaring fire, a generous hot-tub and a giant cloud of a bed.

Hilton Queenstown's representative Carmen Hagen meets me downstairs and we're off to have a look around. Two hotels are in the small luxury village - the 178-room Hilton Queenstown and its stylish little sister, the 98-room Hilton-managed Kawarau Hotel.

The Kawarau is trendy, with bolder colours, cutting-edge design and rooms with kitchenettes. We stroll through the rest of the Hilton, met at every corner by contemporary Pacific art and photography.

I'm led to the hotel's restaurant, the Wakatipu Grill, a five-star dining experience led by celebrated chef Peter Thornley.

It's a spacious affair, again with that lake a stone's throw away. One of the staff is lighting a fire in the centre of the "pinot pit" - an outdoor circular couch set into the ground for visitors to sample some of central Otago's finest.

After all this exhausting opulence, it's time for some pampering, or to rephrase, some manpering. Lucky for me the hotel's in-house spa is right there to take care of me.

Elizabeth, my Irish masseuse, does a great job at getting the knots out of my back. After we're done it's time for a swim in the indoor lap pool. I have it all to myself.

A glass of wine on the balcony sees the afternoon melt into night and I want to get to town to have a look around. The Hilton is a while away from town - a 20-minute taxi ride should do it - but it's much more fun, and faster, to get a water-taxi and bounce across the lake to town in half the time.

The next morning I'm off to Skippers Canyon. Guide Matt Rhodes picks me up and what follows is a harrowing drive down into the canyon on a road that took 25 years and dozens of lives to build. It's a class-B highway with a 100km/h limit but, with 80m sheer cliffs on one side, I doubt we'll see any speed cameras.

There isn't a house in sight, just leathered hills, sometimes peppered with deep emerald-green pines or swarming with the faded pink stubble of rosehip or wild thyme.

About an hour later we get to river level and meet Marianne "Winky" Hohneck, a fourth-generation resident of the canyon. All her kids were home-schooled here, and the family relies on regular shipments of goods from town.

"Most people would say it's hard but I'm used to it," she says. But wouldn't she like to live closer to civilisation?

"No, I'd never change it for anything."

Shortly after I'm sitting in the Skippers Canyon jet boat for a 20-minute, 80km/h thrill-ride. The boat is so responsive it feels like it's on rails - lucky, since we're so close to the edge you could almost touch it.

A crawl back up that windy road and I'm back at the Hilton, ready for the next leg - a wine tour with Appellation Central Wine Tours. The afternoon meanders its way through Central Otago's hinterland as we flit from winery to winery; learners like me are told how to smell and taste the many delicious reds and whites on offer.

Award-winning wineries like Peregrine Wines, Mt Difficulty, the Wooing Tree and Chad Farm are destinations in an area famous for its excellent pinot noirs.

Back at the Hilton, the Wakatipu provides edible luxury. Fried whitebait to start, followed by wild red deer with red beetroot purée, roasted shallots and a chocolate reduction.

After sleeping off a day of lavish living it was time to leave Queenstown, but first, I have to fall to my death. Or so the staff of the Shotover Canyon Swing would have you believe.

Overlooking a 109m cliff I harness up, the jolly staff doing their best to turn unlucky punters into a puddle of nerves. Standing at the edge, the cheery sadists pretend to push me off and cast doubt over the strength of my harness.

After about five excruciating minutes I'm off the edge, gravity squeezing an involuntary shriek out of me for the 60m free fall before I'm swung out from the cliff-face at 150km/h.

Shaken, it's time to bid Queenstown goodbye. I managed to go from total relaxation to death-defying adrenalin in two days, and didn't even think about touching the white stuff. Snow? Who needs it.

What to do:

Hilton Queenstown, phone (03) 450 9400.

Skippers Canyon Jet

Appellation Central Wine Tours, phone (03) 442 0246.

Shotover Canyon Swing

Kieran Nash was a guest of Hilton Queenstown.

- NZ Herald

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