Queenstown, NZ -- You don't have to die to go to Heaven. Just visit New Zealand. Living up to all the hype of possessing one of the most awesomely scenic experiences on planet Earth, New Zealand never stops delivering on majestic views of snow-capped mountains, gigantic fresh water lakes, divine sunsets, and a mélange of colors so crystal clear even Martha Stewart's indoor house paint line couldn't come up with the names to all these hues. It's also the adventure capital of the world where your rock climbing guide conquered Mount Everest, your helicopter pilot does search and rescue missions at 6,000 feet, and your bungee jumping guru is more chiseled and tough than Russell Crowe.
But don't let a little adventure scare you. New Zealand is a haven for relaxation as well. Long strolls on lakefronts, tasting at local vineyards (they're everywhere), slow boat rides through islands on large lakes, and easy cafes and coffees shops where people-watching morphs into friendships make New Zealand an easy place to take in.
The country has a television channel devoted to tourism; Tourism New Zealand (www.newzealand.com), the country's official tourism board, has an incredible site with a sophisticated travel planner that matches your activity choices with a guided map; and every tourist destination or town where tourists stop has an "i Site" tourist center with brochures for activities and accommodations and a helpful staff who can book just about anything for you. Finally, with the American dollar strong against the New Zealand dollar and direct flights from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco into Auckland, New Zealand doesn't break the bank.
Did I mention New Zealanders might be the friendliest people on the planet? Every Kiwi seems to represents their country with a smile. Some people develop smile lines over time -- permanent facial lines fixed in place from smiling too much. (In New York, we have frown lines, so this change is very welcome.)
Getting to New Zealand is now a "no worries" situation, as the locals say. Air Tahiti Nui (tel. 877/824-4846; www.airtahitinui-usa.com), a world-class award-winning airline doing a great job connecting the world to the South Pacific, has special fares to and from Auckland with free stopovers in Tahiti currently costing $998 from New York and $698 from Los Angeles with travel good through September 21, 2006. June marks the beginning of ski season in New Zealand, still one of the only places in the world where you can go both skiing and surfing all within two or three hours of each activity. Stopovers in Tahiti are better than a good thing for travelers who can take advantage of reduced rates at two high-end accommodations.
Upon arriving in New Zealand, Air New Zealand (tel. 800/262-1234; www.airnewzealand.com) has flights to points across both the North Island and the South Island. From Los Angeles or San Francisco, a flight to Auckland with a continuation to Queenstown starts at $964 plus taxes from Los Angeles and $1,024 from San Francisco. Similarly priced fares are available to Wellington and Christchurch. Travel is good through September.
After a jet-lagged day in Auckland, a city you'll hear more about in these live travel reports, we headed straight for the South Island, something you should do upon your first trip to Kiwi Land. Why? Because stepping off the airplane in Queenstown might be the most attractive deplaning around the world right now. As soon as the flight attendants open the door to the great outdoors you realize how great the outdoors really are. The string of New Zealand mountains along the Southern Alps called the Remarkables, site of a popular Queenstown ski resort, stare you right in the face. If you deplane a little to the left of Queenstown's tiny international airport, you'll see nothing man made, only the white-capped mountain ahead and the green fields and tall pines leading into them.
Queenstown has many affordable places to stay and whether you want to spend a trinket on boarding or your life's saving, you can find a heckuva place to stay. For a look at area hotels and great deals to get you through the current shoulder season (in case you want to jump on a plane and see this land of plenty for yourself in the next month or so), Queenstown has their own regional tourism office with a site at http://www.queenstownnz.co.nz/ (tel. 0800 478 336; toll-free from in New Zealand where they have 800 numbers also) offering travel deals and detailed information on everything from activities to shopping to eating to accommodations. Winter officially starts in mid-June in New Zealand; until then you can take advantage of deal that offers one night free when you stay four nights or more, plus free wine with dinner. The program called "Do More in May" allows you to download more than 105 travel deals with a savings of up to $13,000 total. The Manata Lodge Apartments offers a stay two and get one free night special; the Millennium Hotel Queenstown is giving lodgers a free upgrade to a suite. In this case, the travel office has done all the work for you as you can save on everything from white water rafting to rock climbing.
Speaking of rock climbing, try The Rungway (tel. 64 3 441-0074), an adventure tour provider offering a tangent to regular rock climbing giving first-time and intermediate climbers a chance to get a feel for the scaling the side of a rock by climbing on a metal rung based ladder system permanently fixed into the wall. While this isn't as challenging as rock climbing, it's no walk in the park either. You need to be limber and mentally prepared for this thrilling activity that offers vistas of the expansive Queenstown mountain region. It's a perfect get-acquainted activity for Queenstown and New Zealand as you'll see the area from a birds-eye view and get a feel for the level of activity in which you want to participate. Don't be worried, our Brazilian guide nicknamed Toto was patient, reassuring, kind-hearted, and, ta-da, he climbed Mount Everest. You can't get a better guide than that. Like most activities in New Zealand, photographs of your participation in the event are offered up at the end. The Rungway costs including a disc with photographs come to $95 per person for the four hour activity. In most cases, your guide will drop you back at your hotel if you like. That's an example of the kind of ease and friendly nature that you'll find all over New Zealand, especially though in Queenstown.
On the luxury side, for people who want to become one with nature, Azur (tel. 64 3 409-0588; www.azur.co.nz) is a one-year old luxury lodge with seven private cabins they call villas sitting on the elevated terrace banks of Lake Wakatipu with views of the Southern Alps. The brainchild of Anthony Ross, a former hotel manager and new properties specialist with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Azur leaves some guests tearful with the sadness of having to leave and joyful for one last look at the view from the lodge on departure. Not inexpensive at around US$650 per night, Azur is what you saved up on a rainy day for or decided to empty a little more than your bank account than you originally planned. It's just that nice, and with service that doesn't let you lift a finger (the helpful and attractive staff picks you up at the airport, drives you into town anytime you want, makes dinner reservations for you, cooks delicious breakfast and pineapple cookies for you, and books any activity you like), it's worth the extra few thousand dimes.
What you can't save on hotel, you can save on food. Queenstown is full of small seafood restaurants, Chinese and Thai places, and small coffee shops. The Vudu Café (tel. 64 3 442-5357) is a downtown coffee shop serving organic cuisine and solid cup of Joe. The eight-table shop is a local hang-out of sorts where people linger reading the avant-garde design magazines on the rack in the front of the store. With four movies being filmed all at once in Queensland as we speak, it's a good spot for some celebrity sightings as well. British-actor Ben Chaplin was spotted in The Vudu with some friends on a recent Friday at lunch. The blackberry pancakes are as soft as thick crepes.
While Queenstown is so stunning you'll want an extra day there even if you stay ten years, the rest of New Zealand awaits. A short day-trip or a little more than an hours drive, Arrowtown is a quaint country town with a history in gold mining. Home to Saffron (tel. 64 3 442-0131; www.saffronrestaurant.co.nz) one of the most "exciting" 100 new restaurants in the world according to Condé Nast Traveler magazine, Arrowtown is as charming as any New England town only its at the base of New Zealand's Southern Alps. The small town with a population of just 1962 is leaf-peepers fantasy with more reds, gold and orange than browns and yellows. The small miner homes that line the road out of town are like gingerbread houses or cold country bungalows. Some even have picket fences. The Lake District Museum (tel. 64 3 442-1824; www.museumqueenstown.com) tells the history of the small mining town.
Past Arrowtown, Lake Wanaka (tel. 64 3 443-1574; www.lakewanaka.co.nz) is a much smaller, more bohemian, version of Queenstown where sunsets and sunrises can both be seen from the same spot on the north facing lake. The tiny town brings the term peace and quiet to new levels. Shania Twain is building a house there. The town has three coffee shops just across the street from the lakefront, and from the lake you can see the small winery on the southwestern bank. While we were there, a big-budget Hollywood film titled 10,000 B.C. from director Roland Emmerich had commandeered the lakefront town. Goat-teed and dreadlocked snowboarders were waiting for the coming snow to hit the trails at Cardona Ski Field and Treble Cone, both popular ski resorts about a forty minute drive from Wanaka. For places to stay in and outside of Wanaka, the Edgewater Resort (tel. 64 3 443-8311; www.edgewater.co.nz) is an old luxury motel-style location with lake views from the second floor. In the middle of town, the Edgewater underwent a recent upgrade after more than 15 years of putting up local New Zealanders and large tourist groups coming through Wanaka. Rooms hover around the U.S.$125 range during shoulder seasons and go up to US$150 during ski season and warmer summer months.
Backpackers or snowboarders heading through Wanaka, the Purple Cow (tel. 64 3 443-1800; www.purplecow.co.nz) has rooms for two starting at $45. Another hospitable option is the Lake Wanaka Lodge (tel. 64 3 443-9294; www.lakewanakalodge.com) which offers 10 rooms, a relaxing lounge, BBQ facility, and a skiers dry room with a kitchen available upon request. Rooms start at just $60. For a bed and breakfast, Lake Wanaka Homestay (tel. 64 3 443-7995; www.lakewanakahomestay.co.nz) has single rooms starting at approximately $50 per night that includes a fully-cooked breakfast and free coffee, tea or home baked goods.
Wanaka offers the rare triple threat -- an activity that combines the air, the land and the sea. Lovers of slow walks in the wilderness can combine a great trek with a jet boat ride and a helicopter flight 5,000 feet up into snow-covered mountain peaks. You can book this trip by calling Southern Alps Air (tel. 0800 345 666; www.siberiaexperience.co.nz) as they co-ordinate the departure times and bookings for the rest of the trip. A 40-minute drive outside of Wanaka, the three-pronged trip takes you into the real New Zealand forests and mountains of the Makamora region and the Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand's World Heritage National Park or their version of Yellowstone only with more peaks, higher peaks, giant glaciers, countless waterfalls, and turquoise rivers running through it packed with salmon and rainbow bass. The beauty of this trip is that you can see at eye level what you're looking at when you drive around and by these mammoth mountains of the Southern Alps, the shrubbery that covers the side of the mountain until the snow starts, and finally the mile-high glaciers from which these lovely rivers are spawned. To cap it off, after the helicopter ride through the mountain peaks and a two-hour mellow hike through the forests, a speed boat piloted by a guy named Mo who's competed in his share of local boat races picks you up on a river and drives you back to base after doing turns and spins at high speed over rapids and under pine trees.
Wilken River Jets (tel. 64 3 443 8351; www.insidenz.co.nz) which handles the jetboat section of the tour, has been in operation since 1968 taking skiers, trekkers and hunters into the national park. Their helicopter pilot is one of New Zealand's leading search and rescue pilots. Now 49, he's been flying choppers in these parts since 1968. The cost of this four to five hour mellow and easygoing adventure goes for US$190. Invigorated, tired, accomplished. You'll feel all this and even more awe for the natural landscape of New Zealand. Wilkin River Jets also takes families and skiers heli-skiing on a 3,000 foot drop at the top of Mount Turner. They do more than a few fishing excursions as well. Ask for Patsy when you want to book any type of trip.
After such an adventure, there's no place to rest your weary but strong bones (and take a warm bath) than the nearby Silverpine Lodge (tel. 64 3 443-9008; www.silverpine.co.nz). Built by New Zealand commercial fisherman Mike Yates and his American Honolulu-bred wife Sue, Silverpine looks north over Lake Hawea with a stunning vista that hasn't changed at all in the last 4,000 years. The road below is invisible from the lodge's perch, making it seem even more isolated.
Comfortable and luxurious at the same time, the lodge has four spacious and rustic rooms. Every element they used building the property is natural, and comes from right here in New Zealand, some materials from the hill where the lodge sits. "There's nothing synthetic here," says Mike Yates, who likes to spin a yarn or two about anything from New Zealand folklore to big sea fishing life.
Trying to stay affordable given the constraint of building the new-style lodge from scratch, the Yates' prices are very accommodating at US$180 per person per night. Along with the room, however, you get every meal you want while staying at the lodge including a huge gourmet dinner, full breakfast, and lunch snacks. Wine is included with pre-dinner cocktails and they have a wine list if you want to order something extra for the meal. Selections are from local vineyards like Shaky Bridge. Scotch is also always at hand around this homey lodge complete with three friendly, well-bred dogs, who keep guard over the Silverpine hill where more than a few lost sheep have been known to roam. The dogs, too, have some stories about them. At this price, the Silverpine is a must stay. You may never want to leave. But that's par for the course in New Zealand.
Next: Glaciers, helicopters, New Zealand's West Coast, seals and Christchurch. Also, the ten bests things to buy in New Zealand, and as if you need them, ten reasons you must go to the home of the Kiwis.
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