Beyond Queenstown's more obvious attractions are some fascinating history-rich gems and raw thrills, writes Anna King Shahab
Mountains, lakes, rivers – as a holiday destination, Queenstown sure knows how to make the most of its blessed geography to lay on the magic for visitors. And the same dramatic features of its landscape that constitute today's natural playground were also vital in shaping the post-European history of this area – from high country farming to gold rushes and the subsequent boom-and-bust economy. You don't have to search to find wonderful things to do in and around Queenstown, but sometimes a little digging pays off.
Hulbert House perches regally on the hill just five minutes' walk from the lakefront and heart of town, and gazes out across the city's rooftops to Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables.
Part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, Hulbert House was built as the private home of Horatio Wilson Firth, "keeper of gold" during the Otago gold rush. The home has been restored and renovated beautifully in a fittingly Victorian maximalist style. It boasts all the modern touches you'd desire, but effort has gone into sourcing period items like the salvaged cast-iron radiators, pull-down light switches, antique tiling, and plenty of old photos from the site and region. The plush blue willow-patterned carpet and blue and white china accessories throughout the house are touching homage to the Chinese gold miners treated terribly in their time.
There are six suites, all boasting lake and mountain views and individual interiors. In the airy Palm Lounge, evening drinks and complimentary breakfast are served, as well as refreshments including home-baking guests can help themselves to through the day. In the evening, chatter and live music drift gently up from town's bars below, as the front verandah of the house plays host to a moving display of dusk over the lake.
The staff are a highlight of my stay: Jay and Jade who manage the property and whom I get to know over the hotel's pre-dinner drinks and canapes, and Saniya who serves me breakfast. Saniya and I talk food; she's well-versed in recommendations for the area, especially of the dining kind, and I can only sympathise that none of the excellent restaurants she recommends serve the horse meat she tells me she's missing from her native Kazakhstan. One of the things I love about Queenstown is meeting people from all over the world who've made this their home.
With the flow
You'll have heard about, if not experienced, jet boating and river rafting, and they can sure deliver the adrenaline, but if you're up for a low-fi, hands-on, all-in thrill, I can now recommend you try your hand (and arm, leg, whole body) at river surfing.
Not an activity you'd be advised to take on uninitiated, Serious Fun offers guided sessions on the Kawarau River. Tucked in behind the Goldfields Mining Centre conservation site is the humble tin shed Serious Fun operates from. After slipping (okay, fumbling ungracefully) into thick wetsuits, dive booties, helmets, buoyancy vests, and grabbing fins and a bodyboard (the same kind used at the beach), we sit and listen to owner and guide Neil Harrison's safety briefing.
We learn that we'll be bodyboarding downstream – grade 2-3 rapids, whirlpools, eddies piquing interest as we go. We're tasked with following our up-front guide's hand signals to prompt us to do things like alter orientation, pull off into an eddy to reconvene, or kick hard to avoid an upcoming obstacle. Then our intimate group (just two of us noobs, with our guides Neil and Dallas) is dropped 9km up the road where we climb down the steep bank and enter the river.
We use an eddy to circle us out into the centre current, and then, dear reader, it's on – as you can see from the look of my face in the photos here. While said hand signals indeed prove helpful, the experience is like being thrown into a washing machine on a vigorous cycle.
My mind and every muscle in my body are on high alert to keep in line with Neil and tackle the succession of three rapids we encounter early in the piece. At the same time as my body is rigidly fighting to perform the slight turns and necessary dives under waves, it's also quaking with laughter at the absurd fun of it all. Neil schooled us up in "squirting": looking for a particular seam of water which, ducked down into with the board held correctly, will pull you along in an underwater current then squirt you back up and out – an underwater warp, if you like. Neil – always on the lookout for his next squirt, manages to pull a few to impress us, but us noobs aren't quite quick enough, so we vow to return for squirt-finding adventures in the future.
One of the aspects that makes river surfing truly adventurous is that every trip is different, because the river conditions are ever-changing. It's a relief that the rapids and most of the intensity are over in the first five kilometres, leaving a gentler cruise for the final stretch, punctuated by one last stop to jump off a cliff.
A hot shower back at the tin shed is bliss, and that feeling continues into the evening thanks to a lovely dinner at recently opened, totally pumping Margo's in the town centre. Over shared plates of zesty Mexican fare and frozen margaritas, we continue to be gripped by fits of laughter about our river antics.
Full steam ahead
My second day's plans require a tweak, with the morning's weather not conducive to a planned scenic flight up to Walter Peak High Country Farm. It's a shame, but not entirely – it just means we'll be cruising up the lake, as well as taking our intended return cruise, aboard what is a true fixture of this town: TSS Earnslaw.
The good ship's been steaming up and down Lake Wakatipu for more than 100 years, but although I'd cruised on board a decade or so ago, this is my first time since tour operator Real Journeys completed a major restoration of the historic Walter Peak station several years ago, creating a multifaceted heritage-focused experience.
Just as the rain clears and the surrounding landscape is again revealed in full glory, TSS Earnslaw pulls into the jetty and we disembark, towing our appetite into the Colonel's Homestead restaurant for their "gourmet BBQ lunch". If you're inclined to dismiss buffet dining at tourist destinations, I hear where you're coming from, but here's the place to change your mind. It's all impressive, from the flavours and freshness of the produce to the service and the fit-out.
A chef at the woodfired grill station is turning out impeccable morsels of South Island meats, including local Zamora sausages and Cardrona merino lamb. The salads are seasonally superb, featuring beaut small-scale produce. There's Nevis Gardens asparagus, rocket from "Tony the rocket man" in Arrowtown and from further afield, Curious Croppers heritage tomatoes from Clevedon – executive chef Mauro Battaglia is really selecting the premium stuff. The dessert section is fabulous and features the best sticky toffee pudding I've had in years, served in cute individual copper pans. After lunch, we take in the farm show (so clever, those working dogs) and say hello to some donkeys, alpacas, and goats.
Most people in possession of a shiny, rather expensive new vehicle probably aren't terribly keen on taking it on a rough, dusty, rock-strewn back road. But Nomad Safaris owners Amanda and David Gatward-Ferguson added two 4WD Tesla Xs to their fleet last year, and the snazzy vehicles get a full workout on adventures like the one David takes me on.
We travel along Skippers Rd, hacked by hand over seven long years during the gold rush into the cliffs towering over the iridescent-blue Shotover, known back then as "the richest river in the world". We're riding in air-conditioned, sensor-monitored comfort but the dramatic, perilous scenery is still raw and tangible, and David's insightful commentary brings the fascinating history of the area to life.
We make it over the suspension bridge strung 100m above the river, visit the cemetery, and stop in at the restored old schoolhouse at Skippers Point for morning tea – I enjoy a hot cuppa and David's homemade banana cake while perusing the old photos lining the walls. It's amazing to think there were once several hotels operating in this spot, now entirely abandoned.
Driving back to town past the turnoff to Cardrona, it's interesting to ponder how snow is now the white-gold drawcard to this area, but the old stories from up that road remain – spoken riches for visitors to discover.
Find out more about Queenstown adventures at queenstownnz.co.nz