A return trip goes up a gear, writes D'Arcy Waldegrave
The drive through Queenstown from the airport is always eye opening, not just for the sheer beauty of this alpine wonderland, but for the pace at which this former quiet village continues to expand.
As a boy (40-plus years ago), the Queenstown I first visited was a far cry from the glitz and glamour it presents now.
There were residential properties on the main drag, no sign of traffic, let alone traffic lights, and plenty of shanty-town baches littering the little hamlet. The explosion of hotels, casinos, restaurants and luxury retailers beggars belief.
And on this trip, my experience of Queenstown was going to be very different from years gone by. It was all about luxury — a five-star hotel, dinner at award-winning restaurants and the chance to play in the ice and snow with $4.5 million worth of precision German automotive technology.
Every year, Mercedes Benz — the inventor of the first petrol-powered car — invites high-rolling clients to spend a day at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds, testing the winter capabilities of their top-of-the line AMG monsters (AMG is the high-performance division of Mercedes-Benz and the cars generally have better handling and better stability than regular Mercedes).
The Proving Grounds, adjacent to the Snow Farm overlooking Wanaka's Cardrona Valley, is the world's largest snow test area for global vehicle manufacturers.
The 490ha facility includes ice and snow flats, circles and test tracks, all designed to push the cars and drivers to the limits of winter driving.
It is a highly secret facility, a place where the world's car manufacturers can test discretely away from the public and media's prying eyes.
To be asked to have first-hand experience is a rare and highly sought-after experience. I felt like a fraud, albeit a very welcome one.
It was a strange feeling as we were shuttled to the site at dawn, traversing the formerly metal road to the Cardrona Valley in a Merc, not behind the wheel of a beat-up Valiant as in years past.
When we pulled into the Proving Grounds, which now takes in the former Snow Park (a haven for snowboarders back in the day), we were greeted by the sight of 29 AMGs, lights blazing as the sun rose over the piste, with each car flanked by an instructor. It was like a scene from Star Wars. We had arrived on Hoth, with the Imperial troopers armed and ready to take us on.
We were taken through our paces by the experienced instructors, who served to make us all look like L-platers, in a series of exercises designed to emphasise the prowess of these vehicles in the hardcore conditions winter brings.
It was a day of broad slides, barely controlled slaloms and smiles as wide as the snow-capped vista.
That evening over dinner at chef Josh Emett's restaurant, Rata, the burble of delight from the day's drivers was matched only by the hiss of anticipation from those who had the next day's driving to come.
Then it was over. The best two-nights I've spent in the Southern Lakes district, all without my trusty snowboard. I never thought I'd ever be able to say that. Snow and gravity versus snow and V8 majesty. No contest.
A town for all seasons
Queenstown is both a winter wonderland and a summer outdoor adventure destination — but did you know that in spring the two collide to provide longer days and warmer weather perfect for combining outdoor pursuits of all kinds. With one of the Southern Hemisphere's longest ski seasons, Queenstown can make the winter fun last into spring.
Split your day in two
Ski in the morning, then grab some lunch and head off for a round of golf, or a hit of adrenalin with an air adventure. Does skydiving over the mountains you were riding that morning sound good? Your Queenstown holiday will feel twice as long if you take advantage of the nifty longer days.
The Audi quattro Winter Games attract epic skiers and snowboarders from around the world for 16 days of events across all four of Queenstown's ski areas. There's the North Face Frontier, night-time dual slalom under Coronet Peak's floodlights, Snowboard World Cups, freeski world cups and Paralympic events. For the curious there's also curling and three fast-paced ice hockey games between the Ice Blacks and Australia at the Queenstown Ice Arena. August 25-September 10.
The longer days in spring have another advantage, it's also often warm enough to set up a little outdoors dining. Go lakeside with a blanket and a mulled wine or craft beer at a bar, or grab some takeaways and head down to Queenstown Bay or a park and lie back as the sun sets. Menus also broaden with seasonal ingredients becoming more available.
Queenstown's little-city vibe continues into the evening when nightspots all over town light up. Start off your night with a craft beer or a cocktail at a cosy bar, before hitting some more boisterous venues to meet fellow travellers and locals. Choose from rooftop bars, where marshmallows are shared around to toast on the fire, to the classic pub with a live band, or underground hotspots with DJs.
Some of the mountain biking trails become rideable again from mid-September, opening access to some fun riding experiences all within stone's throw of downtown. There are bike rental shops around town and shuttle options too, or you can ride the gondola and explore the Queenstown MTB Park.
Queenstown isn't known as the Adventure Capital of the World for nothing. You can throw yourself from bridges, scare yourself silly on gigantic swings or zipline through forest canopies or steep canyons. For a more substantial high, options include skydiving, hang gliding and paragliding.
The great outdoors
Grab snacks and your camera and head for the hills! You can attempt many of Queenstown's most rewarding hiking experiences from downtown, and a couple of hours will result in incredible views of the surrounding mountains.
Top tips for winter driving
Head instructor and GT driver Peter Hackett's advice for driving in snow and ice:
1. If you find yourself in a slide, steer and look where you want to go. If you look at the hazard, you'll end up in it. It's a dynamic process, and a scary one at that, but you need to point the car, and your eyes, in the direction you want to travel.
2. Reduce speed in a slow, progressive manner.
3. Don't panic, don't stab at the brake pedal, just blend out of acceleration and ease on the brakes until you find grip again.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Queenstown.
Staying there: Hotel St Moritz, 10/18 Brunswick Street.
Further information: See queenstown.co.nz