The man behind the counter at QT Queenstown sums it up pretty perfectly when I tell him that, at 35 years old, it's my first visit to the region. I can't print his colourful response here, but it was a sentiment shared by many of my friends. Partly because Queenstown is famous for being ludicrously, can't-quite-believe-it's-real beautiful and partly because my greatest loves so closely align to its entire vibe. Winter? Love it. Mulled wine? Sign me up. Cosy, chalet-chic clothing? Just ask my sweater drawer.
I have long been guilty of that classic Kiwi conundrum where I've travelled overseas – god knows we love an OE – but there are large swathes of my own country I've never seen and Queenstown was the most glaring omission. In this global pandemic and subsequent recession, we are being asked to give our country the time, attention and money it deserves – so what better time to finally make it to Queenstown?
As one of our most popular tourist destinations, Queenstown has been hit harder than many regions by our borders being shut to foreign tourists. This is immediately apparent on the first couple of days after we arrive, as the sheer number of hotels that line the drive from the airport – not to mention the sprawling Lake Wakatipu - does not fit with the quiet streets we find as we wander around in the town and on the famously scenic roads. However (I say this with no small amount of guilt), it does make for a very good tourist experience – and we find ourselves far more likely to have an extra course, or have a second glass of wine, because we know we are helping an economy that really needs it. (That is my reasoning for so much mulled wine and I stand by it).
The good news about Queenstown being a local favourite is that we have no shortage of recommendations and our first full day out starts perfectly, as we pull back the curtains of our Lake King room at the QT Queenstown and the view of snow-capped mountains – the best kind of mountains – beams back at us in the morning sun.
We don our winter woollies and decide to start off with the famously spectacular drive to Glenorchy. The morning mist shifts quickly and, like dumbstruck cartoon characters, we are open-mouthed in disbelief at the views ahead of us. There comes a certain level of beauty that is so excessive you can't help but laugh and we reach that point very quickly as we travel along this extraordinary stretch of road that starts out in the forest and then skims along the cliff edge, overlooking endless scenes of lake and mountains.
We stop at the Trading Post cafe for coffee and homemade fudge, sitting out in the bright sunlight, before driving further into Paradise itself.
With the cold seeping in through our jackets, it's time to get the kind of full-body toasting you need in the winter months, with a trip to the Onsen hot pools. I'll admit that, due to the pools being an Instagram Influencer hotbed of activity, I'd been a bit wary of it as a location but I'm here to say, no eye-roll is necessary as we plonk ourselves in our private bubbling hot pool, which overlooks a stunning slice of southern landscape.
With our snacks and wine in hand, we watch the colours of the Earth glow and deepen as the sun sets. I know it's a cliche to say that looking out into nature is good at getting you out of your head – but it's a cliche for a reason. For the first time since we went into the first lockdown, for the first time since I lost my job, something that looks and feels a little like relaxation starts to hover around the edges of my brain. And the gratitude at being able to travel somewhere like this, to travel anywhere at all, grows and grows as we sit in happy, stunned silence and take in the land around us.
Midway through our week in Queenstown, the bustle of the city is picking up. We are lucky enough to nab the last table at Madame Woo's on a Wednesday night and our fellow patrons look delighted at how busy the popular restaurant is.
Our to-do list has been a pretty equal split between eating and sight-seeing and we're excelling at both. We make a stop at Fergburger, which is as good as everyone says, and sit along the bar at Taco Medic while they create the best tacos of my life in a matter of minutes. And then, due to the freezing cold weather – and yes, our greediness – there's an entire range of delicious warm beverages that can be sipped while strolling around the moonlit city. The chilli hot chocolate at Patagonia, the Steaming Sailor spiced rum and chai at Akarua winery, not to mention a mulled wine on Perky's Floating Bar, a docked boat decked out in fairy lights, where we sit outside wrapped in blankets.
The weather is cold but beautiful on a day trip to Wānaka, up and over the spectacular Crown Range, where sleety rain turns into a light dusting of snow, before disappearing entirely as we reach the town. On the shores of yet another extraordinary lake, the blistering sun keeps us cosy as we lie on the pebbled sand in our warm coats.
At Francesca's Italian Kitchen in Wānaka, they have combined the past needs of social distancing and the current demands of icy temperatures by creating tiny, two-person greenhouses outside their restaurant. Complete with fairy lights, blankets and a table for two, each greenhouse is named after a famous Italian city – meaning that even in this home-bound year, you can have a dinner date in Bologna, Naples, Venice or Florence.
It's a sweet detail that offers something larger than just a good photo opportunity – it's the chance to be a tourist again, to escape our lives for a bit. We have all spent more time in our homes this year than we would have normally and thanks to a combination of luck, strategic planning and an ability to follow rules, New Zealanders can now do something few others currently get to do – go away. It was only once I got on a plane that I realised how relentless the drum-beat march of "pandemic, redundancy, pandemic, redundancy" had been inside my head – and it's a drum-beat that took a break in Queenstown and has yet to return.
Yes, our country and its economy need us to take a holiday, if possible, but also, so does our mental health. The international crowds are on pause, so when we do go away we are surrounded by just two things: New Zealand's spectacular scenery and a bunch of Kiwis who can't quite believe how lucky they are.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com