Now I can’t wait to go back.
Queenstown, located on New Zealand’s South Island, boasts achingly beautiful turquoise lakes and thrilling alpine scenery familiar to Lord of the Rings film fans. The landscape feels exotic, but New Zealand is such an easy place for Americans to visit in terms of language, currency, cleanliness, and an efficient tourism infrastructure that travelers quickly get over long-haul fatigue. Although Queenstown village is bustling and the local population is growing fast, the area still feels remote and reminded me that humans do not own the planet.
Queenstown is the perfect choice for adventuresome modern families—whether looking for adrenalin kicks (among them, the world’s first commercial bungy jumping site at Kawarau Bridge), or for easy to challenging outdoor activities including world-class skiing and hiking. The vibe is youthful and super athletic, somewhat daunting to us boomers who have slowed down a bit. When I told a local acquaintance that I liked to walk, she replied enthusiastically: “I just got back from a great four day hike around the lake!”
Instead, I opted for a leisurely stroll along the banks of Lake Wakatipu, the 112-square-mile, impossibly blue, gorgeously pristine body of water that defines Queenstown geography. After arriving at the airport, it’s worth arranging for a jet boat to transport you to the town dock, whizzing past unspoiled scenery and possibly a caribou sighting before arriving at the low-slung town center with its wild-west, easygoing atmosphere. There plenty of tourists here, too, perusing the shops and restaurants.
Queenstown had plenty to offer our mixed bag of boomers and millennials, with various levels of fitness levels and risk tolerance. You couldn’t pay me to try bungy jumping, but it was great fun to watch my pals conquer their fears and take a thrilling leap from The Kawarau Bridge. And we all loved a Dart River Wilderness Safari that took us to a remote and stunningly beautiful area of snow-covered peaks, waterfalls, and crystal-clear water. After leaving our jet boats, helicopters were waiting to whisk us away for a scenic flight over the magnificent Middle-earth landscape of glaciers, fiords, and pristine deep blue lakes. We were dropped off at Homestead at Walter Peak, a working sheep farm, and enjoyed a barbecue lunch on the lovely, flower-laden lakeside terrace before boarding the TSS Earnslaw steamship back to Queenstown.
KIWI FOOD AND DRINK
Here’s the thing about Kiwi cuisine: it’s fresh, farm-to-table, and local. You don’t have to search for grass-fed meat or sustainably caught seafood because these are the standards. There’s not a strong Maori influence in Queenstown, but rather a kind of fusion of Pacific Rim cooking with wholesome, indigenous ingredients. Everything I ate popped my palate with clean, vibrant flavor. My favorites were the plump, juicy New Zealand Bluff Oysters, harvested from March to August. And although I generally don’t eat red meat, I savored small bites of beef and lamb, which were succulent and flavorful without tasting gamey.
New Zealand also has an increasingly robust wine industry, mainly known for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. A fun alternative to an outdoor or high-adrenalin activity is a visit to the Amisfield Winery and Bistro, housed in a beautiful stone building overlooking yet another mountain range and bluer-than-blue body of water, Lake Hayes. Established in 1988, Amisfield is a specialist producer of Pinot Noir and aromatic white wines sourced from fruit grown on their Estate vineyard. The latest vintage of their Amisfield Pinot 2011 was recently awarded 92 points in Wine Spectator Insider.
IF YOU GO
There’s a wide range of places to stay in the Queenstown area, from backpacker hostels to five-star luxury lodges. I stayed at two very comfy, high-end hotels: the Queenstown Hilton Resort & Spa overlooking Lake Wakatipu and the mountains beyond; and the elegant Sofitel Queenstown Hotel & Spa in the center of town. The lodge-like Hilton, an eight-minute water taxi from the town dock, has spectacular views and beautiful walking trails right outside the entrance—a great choice for the modern family looking for a New Zealand retreat close to town. A bit further afield, Millbrook Resort is a gorgeous five-star country club with a 27-hole golf course and 175-room boutique hotel. And if money is no object, the breathtaking yet serene Matakauri Lodge, where Prince William and Kate Middleton stayed recently, will not disappoint.
Remember that New Zealand has the opposite seasons of the U.S. Queenstown is a four-season destination: skiers will want to visit in the winter, but I wouldn’t want to miss seeing the extraordinarily vivid flowers blooming in spring, summer, or fall. Whenever you visit, you’ll find exceptionally clear air and a pristine environment. New Zealand has strict biosecurity procedures at airports to prevent the introduction of pests and diseases of animals and plants—if you bring hiking boots, make sure to clean all the dirt off them or they will be confiscated. A Visa is not required for U.S. citizens, but you’ll need a passport with at least six months validity before expiration. Among the airline choices is Air New Zealand, recently named 2014 Airline of the Year by AirlineRatings.com, which impressed me in all classes of service.