13 November 2017

Thrills and Chills in Queenstown, New Zealand

After a bit of culture — coffee and otherwise — in Wellington, it was time to get back into the great outdoors. I almost didn’t come to Queenstown, but everyone I spoke to told me I was mad to come to New Zealand and not visit the South Island, so I ended up booking three nights in the self-proclaimed ‘adventure capital’ of the world. There had been snow overnight — very late in the season as it’s almost summer — and the landing into Queenstown Airport was beautiful, with the mountain range known as The Remarkables looking particularly spectacular with more than a dusting of snow on top.

There are airport shuttles into town, but you can also take the public bus, number 11, run by Ritchies. I found this a bit confusing to use and ended up walking half a mile outside the airport, directed by Google Maps, to a bus stop, which cost $7.50 to travel into the centre of town. On the way back, a ticket to the airport cost $12, although dropped off right outside the terminal. There is supposed to be a bus stop for the Queenstown bus outside the terminal, which would be more convenient if you don’t mind paying $4.50 more to have a shorter walk and can find it.

I stayed at the YHA Queenstown Lakefront, a 15-minute walk from the CBD along the beautiful esplanade along Lake Wakatipu. I thought I’d booked a private single en suite room, but it actually shared a (large and clean) bathroom with three other private rooms. The hostel has recently been renovated and both the bedroom and other facilities were in good condition. My room was tiny but I could catch a glimpse of the lake from the window if I tried hard.

The town is small but attractive, surrounded by mountains and with the glistening Lake Wakatipu at its centre. There are lots of hikes and bike rides in and around Queenstown and nearby Wanaka and Arrowtown, and plenty of good cafés, bars and eateries. When I saw that many of these were open long after midnight, I was glad to be staying in the more peaceful lakefront hostel. Numerous opportunities to do adventurous and/or thrill-seeking activities are available from the myriad tour agencies in town, so fear not if you haven’t already booked your adrenaline rush.

Skyline Queenstown
It was a glorious day when I arrived: crisp but sunny and with clear blue skies. As such, I headed straight from my hostel to the Skyline Queenstown, a scenic gondola ride that takes you up Ben Lomond. It costs $35 for a return gondola ride, but you can also combine your ticket with various other activities, including the luge. I paid an extra $17 to have three rides on the luge — you have to go on the ‘novice’ track on your first ride, so you’ll probably want to book at least two — and then headed on up. The views from the top were absolutely stunning and I took hundreds of photos.

To get to the top of the luge track, you have to take a chair lift (you can also walk but it takes a bit longer). Once you’ve got your helmet on and have been given some basic instructions, off you go. I really enjoyed riding the luge and my North Island road trip driving experience came in useful for some of the tightest bends. I met a guy who was taking part in a contest where he had to submit as many photos as possible of his Queenstown Marathon race number in scenic places in town, and as I helped him with a few photos, he gave me his extra luge tickets, so I had a couple more rides, before heading back down to town.

Milford Sound
Although the Milford Sound fiord — named for its Milford Haven namesake and once described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world — lies only about 50 miles northwest of Queenstown, to go by road, you have to go the long way, via Te Anau, a journey of about five hours (including a few stops). I wouldn’t usually want to spend so much time on a coach just to do a 90-minute cruise but the journey is also extremely scenic. I booked in with Cruise Milford, mainly because I got a discount through my car rental agency, and paid about $175 for the cruise and coach transfer. I was impressed that our driver made the whole journey by himself and that he does the same trip most days. We were picked up from near the hostel at 6:50 am and made it back to Queenstown just before 7:00 pm.

The 2.5-hour journey to Te Anau was itself pretty impressive by anyone else’s standards, but it was the second part of the journey that was really beautiful. The heavy snowfall on Tuesday night meant that the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound was closed on Wednesday, although the people on the tour only found that out when they got to Te Anau, and had to come back on our group’s tour on Thursday. We were treated to a rainbow on the lakefront in Te Anau, which I spent so much time photographing that I missed the chance to try some Roar Coffee, apparently the world’s most southern roasted coffee. Alas.

We lost the sunshine almost as soon as we lost mobile phone reception on leaving Te Anau, and it was grey and rainy for most of our time in the Fiordland National Park. The steep, winding roads through the snow-capped mountains were still very beautiful, though, and the numerous waterfalls were on particularly good form. We made a few stops along the way, including in the Eglinton Valley, the Mirror Lakes (sadly not very reflective that day) and a series of powerful waterfalls in the woods called The Chasm. We saw quite a few friendly kea — mountain parrots — in the Chasm car park.

We got to Milford at about 12:30 pm, and boarded our boat, which departed about 1:00 pm. Cruise Milford has smaller boats than some of the other operators — there were about 80 of us on board that day — and the enthusiastic staff were really great, pointing out geological, historical and ecological points of interest along the way. The outside deck had a glass roof, which offered some shelter from the rain, although not from the constant waterfall spray (especially when we drove through one — for fun!), and although a jolly in the sunshine might have been more pleasant, the views of the fjord’s sides and of the waterfalls were dramatic and impressive.

If you didn’t face the five-hour return journey, you could upgrade to a helicopter option. I didn’t ask the price but I figured it was probably way out of my budget. Besides, I enjoyed the coach journey, even if I dozed off during the most scenic part.

I thought I should challenge myself to do at least one extreme activity while in New Zealand, and tandem skydiving appealed more than bungee jumping — not least because the experience lasts longer. I booked with NZone Skydive, and arrived at their CBD office just before my allocated 8:30 am check-in time. I’d booked a 12,000-feet drop but on a penultimate-day-of-the-holiday whim upgraded to the 15,000-feet option ($349 vs $449). And of course, you’ll want photos to help you remember the fear and exhilaration, right? The cheapest package, which includes both photos and videos from your tandem master’s two GoPros, costs another $189.

The weather had been so bad last week that there had been a lot of cancellations so it wasn’t until I suited up and boarded the small plane at the drop zone, a few miles out of town, that I knew for sure I’d be jumping. There was quite a lot of hanging around — an hour at the office and another hour in the drop zone — which didn’t help my nerves, but was, I suppose, unavoidable. We got to watch the tiny plane taking off and landing a few times and a few other skydivers landing.

I then met my lovely tandem master Mike, who took great care of me. We, along with another Brit and his tandem master, were the only ones in our group going to 15,000 feet, which meant we got to watch everyone else go first. The flight on the plane was great fun — and quite something not to be wearing seat belts or anything like that, although we were all wedged in pretty tightly — and had fantastic views of Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables. At 15,000 feet, we had to put on an oxygen mask to prevent hypoxia, and it took a few minutes for the pilot to get us to a safe jumping point.

I was pretty cool and collected right up until it was our turn to go, when I did feel a stab of panic, but once I told Mike I was ready, it was pretty much out of my hands, and before I knew it, he’d rolled us out of the door and we were freefalling for about 60 seconds. For the first few seconds, I was very scared, but then I began to enjoy it, although as the video shows, Mike had to pull my hands off the straps to get me to ‘fly’ (I’d tried myself, but I’m not sure if it was my survival instinct or gravity that brought my hands back to the straps).

Before I knew it, the chute came up and then we were gliding, which was probably more fun, if less literally breath-taking. Mike let me take the reins briefly, until we hit a spot of turbulence (it’s never a good sign when your tandem master starts saying, “oh shit”), but before I knew it, we were landing at the NZone drop zone.

There was a bit of a wait for a shuttle back to town, but I was so revved up and happy that I didn’t mind. I hadn’t pre-warned my friends or family that I was doing this (not least because, given the weather, I wasn’t sure I would be able to) and for a few hours, only the few strangers in the plane and I knew what I had done. I loved the whole experience and although I wouldn’t do it again tomorrow, say, I don’t think this will be the last time I skydive either.

Mike’s 200-odd photos and the video were great. Most of the freefall photos were hugely unflattering but they do capture the fear, excitement and joy I experienced very well. And despite my doubts about whether I’d actually watch the video or show it to anyone, I suspect I will indeed look back on that day when I challenged myself to do something really scary. It was also fun to take off over the drop zone on my flight to Auckland the following day and snap a few photos from the window seat.

On my last afternoon in Queenstown, after a thrilling morning of skydiving, I wanted to go for a run to help me unwind. The staff at the hostel suggested I go to Sunshine Bay, an easy 30-minute (allow an hour if you’re walking) round trip route from the hostel, along a path that hugs the lakefront. It’s a little steep in places, although nothing by Queenstown standards, and there are some great viewpoints, including from Sunshine Bay itself, where the sun was indeed shining.

One evening, I also walked through the Queenstown Gardens, the botanical gardens that fill the small peninsula that sticks out of the southern part of the town centre's waterfront. There's frisbee golf, plenty of rope swings and some nice trails for a short, relatively flat walk. It's particularly nice at sunset. 

Food and Drink
There are many dining options in Queenstown from fast food and cheap eats, to fine dining, although some are a bit overpriced — the curse of the resort town. As much of my budget for this stage of the trip went on activities, I tried to limit my food and drinks expenses, stocking up with breakfast and picnic food and snacks at the Fresh Choice supermarket a short walk from the CBD, and making most of my coffee in my Aeropress.

I’d heard from several sources that Shotover Street burger joint Fergburger was worth a visit and there was always a queue outside (it’s open from 8:00 am until 5:00 am, and at peak times, you’ll probably wait about 10 minutes to place your order and another 15 or so to receive it). For both convenience and financial reasons, I ate there twice: the Ferg Deluxe (bacon cheeseburger) was pretty good, although the Codfather (cod tempura) was less impressive, not least because the fish barely filled the huge bun. For under $20 for a burger and fries, it wasn’t cheap but it was tasty and good value.

I almost went to FergBurger again on my last night but did a quick bit of Google Map searching instead and came across Ivy & Lola’s, a bar and bistro on the waterfront. The menu had slightly creative, Asian-influenced modern New Zealand cuisine, and I ordered a really nice grilled salmon with various interesting accoutrements. I also had a martini made with a New Zealand gin called Black Robin, which was very nice.

After my skydive, I treated myself to a ridiculous and beautiful brunch at Bespoke Kitchen. I had the vegan cinnamon pancakes with poached apple, berry compôte, chia clusters and coconut cream. I don’t normally go for sweet brunch options but I felt like I needed a bit of a sugar rush. The coffee, from Allpress, was pretty decent too.

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