Queenstown's Mount Nicholas station cruise is both epic and intimate, writes Paul Rush.
There's much more to Queenstown than meets the eye. The airport approach is among the most stunning in the world but life on the water is exciting too.
This four-season playground is a dramatic part of nature's grand design, with its deep blue crystal-clear lakes, forested hills and snow-capped mountains. It's like a mini Switzerland without the cowbells.
A new, state-of-the-art, high-speed catamaran is the talk of the town.
She is combining scenic cruises with a stop at Mount Nicholas High Country Station for an authentic merino woolshed experience or four-wheel-drive safari 38km up the little-known Von Valley.
The sleek Southern Discoveries cat was built in Brisbane, sailed to Bluff and trucked to Queenstown.
She now sits high, wide and handsome on St Omer Wharf preparing to sail to a little-visited corner of Lake Wakatipu.
Skipper Turgut (Troy) welcomes me to his spacious, high-tech bridge, which offers a superlative view up New Zealand's longest lake. He hails from Izmir, Turkey, and spent many years in Australia working on fishing boats and superyachts before moving to Queenstown.
As we cruise past the vast sun-baked flanks of Cecil Peak, Turgut gives the tiny joystick a gentle nudge and tells me about his new pride and joy.
The Spirit of Queenstown can carry 150 passengers in theatre-style seating at a smooth 18 knots. There's a spacious main deck with large viewing windows, and three outside decks, which offer great panoramas.
In the sheltered waters of Bob's Cove, we see the first bright crimson blooms of southern rata. The pretty cove also has colourful clusters of yellow broom among the Douglas fir, wilding pines and Australian eucalypts. The latter were planted by early settlers to fuel the lime kiln that still nestles in the bush.
Once we are in open water a view opens up of the head of the shimmering lake, which is truly magnificent.
Mt Earnslaw dominates the scene. At its feet lies a latter-day frontier staging post for movie making. Glenorchy couldn't be better placed; 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.
The lake's surface begins to cut up rough as if ordained by Sauron himself. The conditions give me pause to consider the fortitude and perseverance of trailblazing graziers like William Gilbert Rees and Nicholas Von Tunzelmann, who arrived in 1858 facing harsh weather conditions with no shelter, support or company.
Pulling into the Mount Nicholas jetty, I see an orderly arrangement of rustic outbuildings and the Butson family's colonial-style homestead set back in an arboretum of evergreen trees. We are in for an "authentic farming experience".
This is due to the dedication of Maurice, an ex-Balclutha sheep farmer who guides us knowledgeably through the pig enclosure, horse paddock, sheep yards and huge 100-year-old woolshed, which is ultra-authentic right down to traditional hand shears and manual wool presses.
Maurice calls his mid-eyed heading dog to heel as he explains that the 100,000ha station shears 30,000 merino sheep and runs 2200 Hereford beef cattle. About 85 per cent of the wool goes into Icebreaker brand garments, renowned as soft, lightweight and breathable.
"Away, away; come-up Bell," calls Maurice and the petite 5-year-old collie crouches low to the ground and stares pointedly at the woolly ones browsing in the home paddock. As Bell creeps forward, they edge toward the shearing shed, milling around like, well, sheep.
Over home-made pikelets and a cup of tea, we learn that 1-year-old sheep don't have top teeth; each merino produces 40kg of wool of 18 microns fineness and each has a generous 2.5 acres of land to browse on.
A brief sojourn to the hilltop above the homestead gives us a partial view of the 38km-long Von Valley Rd where Von Tunzelmann's original home still stands. The Mount Nicholas 4WD Tour will be a must-do excursion on another visit.
As the Spirit of Queenstown punches through the swells on our return, testing our seamen's legs, Turgut has some sound advice: "Hold on to someone for support. Remember that a stranger is a friend you haven't met yet."
It seems that the Mount Nicholas is not just an epic wilderness and station tour, it's an intimate experience as well — hence double the fun. Don't miss it.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies up to 19 daily return flights between Auckland and Queenstown.
What to do: The Mount Nicholas Farm Experience operates at 9am, 11am and 1pm in summer and 11am and 1pm in winter. The 4WD tour is an option on each cruise.
Accommodation: Queenstown and Te Anau have a wide range of hotels and motels. The Heritage in Queenstown provides superlative views over the lake and a high standard of comfort.
Further information: See queenstownNZ.co.nz.