New Zealand’s busiest resort town – Queenstown, is otherwise known as the country’s Adventure Capital. The happening hub hugging Lake Waktipu pulses with momentum – thrumming with the accelerated heartbeats of thousands of people ready to make the most of this playground tucked into the mountain folds of the South Island. As soon as the sun rises, out they pour, smartphones and Go-Pros ready to record thrills and spills. If you were looking down from atop the town’s 2300 metre-high Remarkables mountain range, they’d look like ants streaming out of many mounds – most making a beeline for the iridescent beauty of the lake.
Every day, lycra-clad cyclists stream along the roadsides headed for the insanely steep inclines into the mountains towering around Queenstown like barracks – lands beyond the Remarkables, Coronet and Mount Hutt beckoning them onwards for more challenges. Those into less calf-wrenching exercise cruise along smooth tracks winding their way around the lake, breathtaking views spanning in every direction. And pumped-up mountain bikers head for the suspension-testing trails crisscrossing the wild bushland like haphazard spiderwebs, every turn or drop holding the possibility of another heart-lurching feat.
The famous lake is tranquil throughout the night – bar some ripples caused by keen fisherman and the odd local boat out for a cruise. But as soon as breakfast is over, Queenstown ramps it up a notch – jet skiers leaping aboard their speed machines and slicing across the brilliant blue mirror while hang gliders take leaps of faith from the cliff-tops. Skydivers get hyped and hooked on highs while beneath them –Zen-like – paddle-boarders skim the lake-top with rigid stance and yoga teachers warm up classes on shore.
Meanwhile, the excitement of thrill-seekers has been building because the jet-boats that Queenstown is famous for are also kickstarting the day with a rev of engines and the strapping in of passengers. Resident ducks squawk and shoot skywards as The Shotover Jet and the Hydro Attack (aka the Shark) hurtle into Wakitipu, spinning out everyone aboard with their neckbreaking speed and well-rehearsed twists and turns that leave passengers breathless and open-mouthed.
Behind it all, on Bob’s Peak, people travel 450-metres skywards on the Southern Hemisphere’s steepest gondola: the Skyline Gondola Queenstown. The hordes arrive at the summit, have a cuppa and a bite to eat, and then hurtle back down again on the luge. It’s a rite of passage for those new to Queenstown, and the steel, widely snaking path regularly glints in time with the shouts of joy, as luge carts take the corners, shooting their passengers onwards, back down towards the lake.
There are few places on earth where so much is happening at any one time in one mountain-ringed space, but somehow Queenstown manages to also be a place for chilling out. Check out some of these more laidback activities that will have you loving this South Island paradise for a host of different reasons.
Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown
Gently does it
Even if you haven’t yet sloughed off sleep, there’s something invigorating about standing in a dew-laden paddock surrounded by mountains – the first birdcalls in the air as the sun creeps towards the horizon to then spread across the land like honey. And if you have a staggering amount of nylon gradually being pumped full of hot air from propane burners laid out in front of you, then all the better, as that probably means you’re about to see the earth from the air. And if it’s a paddock in Central Otago that you are standing in, then you’re lucky enough to be on the brink of ballooning your way across one of the most spectacular pieces of scenery in the Southern hemisphere.
That, in anyone’s books, is worth hauling yourself out of bed at 4am for.
Standing in a hot air balloon basket waiting for the rope to be loosened, anyone new to ballooning will probably have a moment of anxiety. How does this work? We’re all relying on a balloon filled with air to suspend us in the sky? Are we all mad?
But then the journey begins. Gently. The rope is undone and there is a strange feeling as the ground slips away and the paddock become wider as the balloon rises higher. There is no sound, except for the intermittent pumping of propane gas into the mass of inflated nylon, now perfectly bulbous and beautiful in its grand expanse. The basket filled with 12 people then drifts up and away, skirting across a quiet morning world of checked green fields, sprawling vineyards of neat fertile rows and homes nestled in among the valleys and winding roads. Rabbits skittle across the paddocks, their white tails flicking in the morning sun that has begun to wake up the people below.
The balloon rises to almost 1800 metres and simply floats along silently.
Coasting along with Sunrise Balloons
When the balloon pilot catches a certain breeze, all aboard are whisked off to float above a suburb of Queenstown – where children who are up early race into their yards to call out hello, racing back inside to excitedly wake their parents. Calls of “Come look at the balloon!” can be heard below as the balloon shadow moves across rooftops and garden plots. There are many waves and morning calls as the balloon carries on, floating above lakes, rivers and hilltops where farmers are out doing their early morning chores. An hour later the balloon touches down in a paddock as gently as the journey began. The look on people’s faces is enough to give anyone watching them the urge to head into the sky themselves. Champagne and orange juice is poured and pastries and fruit are served. That’s a hot ballooning tradition if you weren’t aware – bubbles with breakfast while taking stock of one of the best soft adventures in the world.
I’ve heard mountain bikers and road cyclists scoff at the Hybrid Electric Mountain Bike, otherwise known as the E-Bike, saying it was a lazy way of riding a bike. So having spent my life in both camps, loving a good mountain bike ride and always getting about on a road bike, what better place than Queenstown to check out eBikes by ChargeAbout.
ChargeAbout has been going strong for about a year, and they buy all of their bikes from Moustache Bikes in France – considered some of the world’s most reliable, efficient and easy to ride bikes around. Each bike has a Bosch eBike system that allows the rider to cruise along with as much effort or indeed as little effort, as they want. It’s simply a matter of putting some pressure on the pedals, the motor kicks in, and the bike starts helping you – up to a maximum of 25km an hour. The motor cuts out as soon as you stop pedaling.
The result is an amazing time out in Queenstown, hitting the paths that beautifully wind their way around the lake, or you can set yourself a bigger challenge and get out into the surrounding hills and mountains. It’s just like riding a normal mountain bike, but if there are times when you want a little more wind in your wings, you simply rev it up and off you go – when you get a boost it feels as though someone has come up behind you and given you a big soft push.
Riding around Queenstown on the Chargeabout bikes, you meet many others taking them out for a spin as well, and you can tell from a distance that they are eBikes if the riders whoop with joy every now and then, as they speed up and get the joy out of these very cool contraptions. Hardly lazy. More like great fun.
Wildlife is abundant while cycling around around Lake Wakatipu with Charge About Bikes chargeabout.co.nz
Produce to plate
Chris Scott is the Executive Chef at Josh Emett’s Rata in Queenstown (one of three restaurant under Emmett’s name), and if you want to indulge in the finest of Central Otagos’ produce in a setting that is as relaxed as it is cool and stylish, then this is where you want to head for a long leisurely lunch or a complete treat of a dinner.
The décor pays homage to the rainforests of New Zealand - a stunning photograph with thick moss-laden floors and an abundance of leaves as rich, green and glossy as as they come, flanking the back wall so that the tables and chairs appear to be sitting in among a fern-tree patch of paradise.
The dishes that Chris and owner/founder Chef Josh Emett create together (“It’s always a joint effort with us, and we have a lot of respect for what we both do,” says Josh) pay homage to the spectacular, fertile environment around them. The Central Otago region is so completely abundant in fresh produce – think juicy stone-fruit, the finest of crayfish, bluff oysters and plump berries galore – that there is no other way the food can be treated, than by letting it do the talking. Though that doesn’t mean the meals are artistic – they are like works of art with Mother Nature’s guiding touch, all highlighting the fresh, pure tastes upon which they are based.
Southland hapuka crudo, ponzu, watermelon & wasabi at Rata.
And the wines you might ask? After all, we’re in New Zealand here. First up, nowhere in Queenstown where there is food and alcohol available would have a bad wine list – even the local Irish pub – so expect some of the best from Rata. Not only do the sommeliers know how to match the best offerings with dishes that are like summer gardens arranged around premium offerings of meat, poultry and seafood (eat as much lamb as you can while in New Zealand), they also know how to have an amusing and educative chat, offering interesting tidbits that guests are bound to find interesting, even if they are vino buffs too.
Amisfield, ahh Amisfield
Speaking of vino, any lover of fine wine visiting Queenstown must (no questions asked) head out of town to the wonderful world of Amisfield winery, cellar door and restaurant. A graveled driveway leads into the estate that is positioned on a remarkable (excuse the pun) property on the shores of Lake Hayes. The spectacular spot was chosen to entertain guests in and outdoors, and to showcase the punchy, fine tannin pinot noir that the winery has famously produced for ten years on loose gravel-driven soil. Lovely aromatic white wines (think riesling, sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc and a wonderful pinot noir rose), are also grown on a vineyard beneath the Pisa Mountain range in Cromwell Basin.
Ascending the staircase to the bistro, one thing is immediately clear – this isn’t somewhere you go to for a quick lunch. It’s a place that you settle in to, surrounded by 1500 tons of Glenorchy schist stone, beneath impressive hardwood beams that create a huge, open-plan gallery-like space with a Swiss chalet-style ambience.
Children play in the fields, lolling atop the old tractor near the beer garden, where trees throw shade for those sitting outdoors beneath a vista of vineyards and strikingly craggy hills.
Children play on the tractor in the garden at Amisfield
The chefs here bring a special homely touch to the meals lovingly created at Amisfield. You can’t go wrong with the Trust the Chef menu (4 courses with matching wines) and the dishes showcase the local produce in a relaxed, unpretentious way, – the simple balanced flavour combinations complementing the vineyard’s world-class wines.
Start with some duck fat crackers or honey focaccia then move on to some salty West Coast whitebait with lemon, garlic, chili and rocket (with a 2010 Amisfield Brut) And then dig into something you should eat as much of as you can while in New Zealand –lamb. Again, things are kept beautiful and simple – with combinations such as charred eggplant puree, baby bok choy with chili oil. Get into that with the most famous wine on the menu – the 2011 Amisfield Pinot Noir.
Lamb delight with the 2012 Pinot Noir at Amisfield
Finish your Amisfield adventure by visiting cellar door – where the lovely, clever and highly entertaining staff will have you spending even more time in this Queenstown institution. And looking around, at the busy cellar door space and the packed restaurant, you just know that this restaurant is doing all the right things because everyone – staff and customers – are so happy. No one seems to want to leave. And when they finally do, not many do so without a bottle of something special in their hands, or an order slip for a case of the fantastic Pinot Noir to be delivered to their home.
Relaxing and writing on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown.
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