Queenstown, New Zealand -- On our first day in New Zealand, our guide on a tour of the emerging Central Otego wine region mentioned all the opportunities on the South Island to "get the heart-pumping in different ways."|
From bungee jumping -- invented here in 1988 -- to skydiving, paragliding, helix-skiing, river rafting and zip lining, there is no shortage of activities for adrenaline junkies.
"The unofficial rule of Queenstown is that you have to jump off something when you're here," said Iain Forrest, senior guide for Appellation Central Wine Tours, of the resort town touted as "the adventure capital of the world."
Call me a wimp, but that's one rule I didn't intend to follow.I was content on that late spring afternoon touring boutique wine cellars in Cromwell and Gibbston and sipping some of the southern hemisphere's fine, small-batch Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs.
And I could have been happy the rest of the trip simply soaking up the spectacular scenery in the Southern Lakes region around Queenstown (pop. 23,000) and its smaller sister resort town, Wanaka, an hour north.
The alpine landscape is stunning, a pastiche of glacier-draped mountains, verdant valleys, green forests and jewel-blue lakes. There are movie-set-worthy views at every turn. The region stars as "Middle-earth," including Misty Mountains, Pillars of the Kings and the Ford (fjord) of Bruinen in Peter Jackson's award-winning, three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's literary classic, "The Lord of the Rings."
The film director and native New Zealander's second homage to Tolkien called "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is in theaters now. He bases it on Tolkien's earlier work, "The Hobbit."
In "Q-Town," as locals call it, even a Saturday morning waterfront art fair is scenic, with colorful handicrafts displayed against a backdrop of crystal Lake Wakatipu and the snow-capped Remarkables mountain range.
Called the Creative Queenstown Arts & Crafts Market, the free weekly event also offers a chance to chat with locals and buy relatively affordable native souvenirs such as New Zealand greenstone, possum fur cuffs and slippers, merino wool neck gators, bones carved into Maori symbols and healthy Manuka honey.
One night we boarded the Skyline Gondola for sweeping sunset views of Queenstown -- but skipped the racy luge ride at the top. And late one afternoon, we cruised the vintage TSS Earnslaw, a restored coal-fired steamer with a red funnel, white hull and kauri timber decks.
After dinner at our destination, Walter Peak High Country Farm, we watched an impressive display of working sheep dogs and sheep shearing.
But when you're visiting a destination known for its outdoor lifestyle and adrenaline-stoked activities, it's hard for even a staunch couch potato to resist getting in on the action. Luckily, there are plenty of "soft" adventures offered by outfitters throughout downtown, an international center for backpackers.
We signed on with Nomad Safaris for a guided, 4-wheel-drive expedition outside Queenstown that took us over rugged mountain switchbacks and through rushing rivers, more than 20 times by my count.
We saw bungee-jumpers plunging from a tall bridge, explored the historic Chinese miners' settlement in Arrowtown and panned for gold, a throwback to the region's gold rush heritage. Even our guides expressed surprise when one traveler found a tiny gold fleck in the Arrow River.
Then it was on to Wanaka in the Southern Alps, a laidback lakeside town of 7,000 that's a popular base, along with Queenstown and Cardrona, for winter skiing and snowboarding. On a morning jet-boat excursion with Maori-run Wanaka River Journeys, we held on tight for 360-degree turns and other acrobatics on the Matukituki River.
As the wind whipped our faces and the occasional spray of glacier-cold water made us gasp, we sped through the remote wilderness valley toward snow-draped Mt. Aspiring, which, at 9,951 feet, is considered the Matterhorn of the South.
Near the ice-carved gateway to Mt. Aspiring National Park, a designated World Heritage area, we stopped for a shore-side picnic on the flats along the shifting braided river. Some tour-goers took an optional heli-flight to Mt. Aspiring, where they stepped gleefully onto the glacier. The rest of us tramped through a beech forest, crossing a mountain stream and pausing to commune with a herd of sauntering horses in an adjacent pasture.
But it wasn't until our last day on the South Island that I was able to win some real adventure cred with my zip-lining, bungee-jumping friends. Resolved to face my fears and push my personal limits, I took a deep breath, signed a safety waiver and stepped into the cockpit of a small, single-engine plane at U-Fly Wanaka.
My pilot, Ruth Presland, an experienced veteran at 38, inspired confidence. She learned to fly on her family's sheep station in the remote bush before she learned to drive, she said, adding that her mother was New Zealand's first helicopter pilot in 1972. "I wasn't born in a plane but just about," she said.
After brief onboard instructions, I took the controls on a short, scenic and exhilarating flight over Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps, with Mt. Aspiring in the distance. It was the best and most relaxing way yet to experience the magnificent South Island scenery.
On the runway after we landed back at Wanaka Airport, I noticed a sign that read: "Passenger Warning. Flying can be addictive." Emerging from the plane with tears in my eyes and grinning from ear to ear, I had experienced an adrenaline rush of a llifetime. And loved it.
IF YOU GO
Information: Check queenstown-NZ.co.nz and lakewanaka.co.nz
Getting there: Air New Zealand has frequent flights to Queenstown (via Auckland) through Los Angeles.
Staying there: Try the well-located Crowne Plaza in Queensland, crowneplaza.com/queenstown; and the Edgewater in Wanaka, edgewater.co.nz
Playing there: Appellation Central Wine Tours, appellationcentral.co.nz; TSS Earnslaw Vintage Steamer, raljourneys.co.nz; Nomad Safaris Professional Adventurers, nomadsafaris.co.nz; Wanaka River Journeys, wanakariverjourneys.co.nz; and U-Fly Wanaka, u-flywanaka.co.nz.
Dining: Step back in time in Cardrona at the vintage Cardrona Hotel for a memorable meal of lamb medallions or salmon with lemon couscous, topped off with a local favorite, sticky date pudding with butterscotch sauce and hokey pokey ice cream. Hokey Pokey is a vanilla ice cream stirred with chunks of honeycombed toffee. cardronahotel.co.nz,.
Etc.: If time permits, add a daytrip to world-famous Milford Sound, a five-hour-drive or short flight from Queenstown or Wanaka. Rudyard Kipling referred to the area as the "eighth wonder of the world."
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