Since Queenstown isn't far from Wanaka we decided to take the scenic route. After another great breakfast we headed south to Cromwell, a town less than an hour away. It was an old mining town that was flooded when a dam was built creating a reservoir. Some of the old historic buildings from the center of the old town were actually moved about 200 meters to preserve them while the rest of the old town is nearby and under about 50 feet of water. Might be an interesting place to dive but I didn't see any dive shops. It was a Sunday morning and they had a small farmers market. The shops in the old section were open and vendors were set up on the street selling local produce. We got some fresh boisenberries for later (which were really good) and some "sticky buns" from the bakery. People bought fruit or cheese and had brunch at some picnic tables overlooking the lake. Very pretty.
Just outside of Cromwell there were quite a few wineries, including some that Lesley and Norman from the The Riverside B&B had recommended. We stopped at several along the far side of the lake and tried them out. The thing we both noticed were the Rieslings. Normally we don't drink Rieslings because they are too sweet for us unless they are explicitly a "Dry Riesling". But the Rieslings in New Zealand, at least in this part of the South Island, were quite dry and we really liked them. We got several bottles to take with us for the rest of the trip. The most frustrating thing was that we couldn't buy much because we didn't have a good way to get it home. Our luggage had just squeaked by the 20kg limit on the flight to New Zealand (lots of hiking stuff - had to plan for warm, cold, dry, wet) and excess baggage is *way* expensive. Singapore only allows travelers one liter of wine per person without paying duty anyway and the tax is quite high. One of the drawbacks to living in Singapore is that wine is very expensive. On a winery tour in the northwest USA we would always fill up the trunk of our car with cases of wine to take home that would last us for many months. (Ok, ok. A few weeks.). This trip we had to make tough choices - picking out only a few wines for the last couple of days of our trip and our one token bottle each to take home with us.
Queenstown bills itself as the "Adventure Sports Capital of the World". There are all kinds of action/excitement activities oriented around tourists. The most well known is bungy jumping which supposedly was invented in Queenstown. But there are jet boat rides, cable cars, tandem hang gliding flights, guided rock climbing, white water rafting, just to name a few. I wasn't really too interested - most of them just seemed like mountain versions of roller coaster rides. Hiking and mountaineering are quite slow and way too much work for most of the visitors to Queenstown. If you want a quick adrenaline fix though it is definitely the place to get it.
Driving the last bit to Queenstown we went through the Kawarau Gorge. The river and canyon were pretty but the tourist attractions started right away. First was a gold mining museum. Might have been interesting but we didn't want to stop or to pay. Then there was the equivalent of a water slide park - a place where you could go down a slide or swing out over the river and drop in and then get picked up by a jetski and towed back to do it again. Finally we got to the AJ Hackett bungy centre. That was actually interesting to see. There is a huge parking lot filled with cars and even tour buses. It's in a large building complete with snack bar and gift shop. There is a bridge across the gorge just for bungy jumping. It looked like they were busy and we saw several people go while we were there. Several observation platforms provided high or low, near or far views of the jumpers. There was even an interesting tv display inside the building. It was along the stairs and was two stories tall. About ten tv displays were stacked one above the other which showed the bungy jump from the bridge right down to the river. Sandy was especially interested in the bungy jumping since Shannon had done it in Queenstown on her school trip to New Zealand last February. She had done the jump at the mountain bungy centre though which we saw later.
We made one more stop in a small town called Arrowtown about 20 kilometers before Queenstown. The main street is a nineteenth century gold mining town but converted over to shops and eating places for tourists. Sandy found some more nice jewelry there and an awesome fudge shop. We read that Bill Gates and family had flown into Queenstown in his private jet the previous week to spend the New Year holiday and had stayed in Arrowtown.
We finally arrived in Queenstown about midafternoon. It was another gorgeous day. Queenstown has a very pretty setting on the shore of Lake Wakatipu with mountains all around. Being on the east side of the range it is in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps and has a warm, sunny climate in contrast to the nearby areas in Fjordland. The lake is long and narrow and shaped kind of like a giant letter Z. It is about 50 miles long but it is hard to see more than about a third of its length from any viewpoint, even high in the mountains, because of its zig zag shape. Queenstown is built on the side of a hill (called Queenstown Hill amazingly enough). You get a lot of exercise walking around. Our Bed & Breakfast was only about a ten minute walk from the city center but it was about a 200 ft climb on the way back. Tough work after a big dinner.
We stayed at the Balmoral Lodge - a very nice place. It was a slightly larger than the place in Wanaka. Our room was on the third floor and because we were well up the steep hillside we had a spectacular view of the town and lake and mountains. Interestingly, the room was actually arranged so that the best view was out of the bathroom. But it was a really large bathroom with windows all around and was actually pretty cool. Being on the hill privacy wasn't a problem - unless someone on a mountain ten miles across the lake had a really high power telescope. There was a lounge area with a big screen tv (for those rainy days), huge windows with a view over the lake, and a patio. Each evening wine and snacks were set out in the lounge. The owners, Cis and Les Walker, were very hospitable. When we got there on Sunday afternoon Les was watching cricket on tv so I watched for a while and got some analysis from him on the match between Australia and India. I hadn't seen cricket since the mid-eighties when I lived in the UK so it was kind of fun to watch it again.
We had a couple of options for our time in Queenstown. We had heard so much about Fjordland from everyone that we were thinking about doing a day trip to Milford Sound. It's about a five hour drive each way so it would be a long day. Several operators run bus tours from Queenstown that drive there, do the two hour scenic boat ride, then drive back. We also thought about driving ourselves so we could leave as early as we desired and could stop along the way at points of interest. But the weather forecast had finally turned bad. And if anyplace in the whole country is wet and rainy and cold, it will be Milford Sound. So we decided to spend the next day around Queenstown and see how the weather looked for Tuesday.
The next morning was indeed cloudy. After a leisurly breakfast we walked down the hill into town and cruised through the shops. There were certainly a lot of them and I found some tshirts and a cool Canterbury rugby-style shirt. Sandy found some clothes too and some nice jewelry. We also bought a lot of gifts. Don't be surprised if this year's Christmas present comes from New Zealand. If you were good that is.
Even though there was some light rain off and on we decided to hike up Queenstown hill. The trail to the top starts right in town - we went past it every time we walked from the place we were staying to the center of town. We grabbed our packs and raingear and started up. After about ten minutes we left the last houses behind and went into the woods. The forest is actually quite controversial because it is mainly pine trees, which are not native to New Zealand. Some people want to preserve the native flora, which doesn't grow nearly as high on mountains as pine trees do and are rapidly being displaced by the pines. The NZ forestry agency that manages the area is actively trying to eliminate the pine trees. Other people in town like the pines because they think it makes Queenstown look more like a North American resort. Irregardless, the pine trees seem to be winning and are taking over.
We narrowly avoided a disaster on the way up. We stopped and I took a picture of Sandy by one of the signs along the trail. About ten minutes later a guy we had passed who was heading down came running up the trail behind us shouting to us. Apparently our camera had ended up on the ground and not in my pack after our stop. The guy had been nice enough to run back up the hill for ten minutes to return it. Wish I knew who he was so I could have bought him a beer later. Maybe even two.
We finally broke out of the trees a short distance below the top. By now it had stopped raining although it was still cloudy and mists were swirling all around the mountaintops. I am a fair weather hiker and like sunny days in the mountains but the effect was pretty cool. The climb was just 1200 feet and only took us about two hours round trip but it gave us a chance to stretch our legs. And at least we got to use the rain gear that we had brought with us.
The forecast was looking better for our last day but we decided against the trip to Fjordland. Instead we opted to climb Ben Lomond - the standard day hike in the area. It is 4700 feet of elevation gain from the lake but there is a scenic cable car you can take from town that does the first 1300 feet for you. Kind of like hiking in the Swiss Alps. At the top of the cable car there is a visitor center, the mountain bungy center, a luge ride just like the one on Sentosa Island in Singapore, and various other tourist attractions. This was where Shannon had done her bungy jump the year before. It is right next to the cable cars so you have a view of it as you go by. We did see two guys do a jump in the morning right after we arrived but it certainly wasn't packed like the place in the gorge. Les told us that it wasn't nearly as popular, even though it is closer to town and being up on the mountaintop gives it a really airy feel. After watching bungy we took the trail that leaves from the upper cable car station and traverses around the ridge to connect with the Ben Lomond summit trail coming up from town. We felt that 3400 feet of elevation gain was enough of a challenge.
The weather was perfect again. There was a bright blue sky and although it was warm it was quite breezy. We broke out of the trees after about 15 minutes and could see the peak directly ahead. The track ascended a valley, followed a ridge up to a saddle, then went straight up the summit ridge to the top. We could see the whole route and the signs said it was three hours to the summit. And it took us just about that long. Once we were on the ridge crest we had great views over the lake. Then when we reached the saddle we could see north to Mt. Aspiring and the area we had been hiking a few days before. The track got a little sketchy near the summit and we even had a few feet of scrambling. But nothing hard. On the upper part of the mountain it was actually quite windy and we put on our wind shells. Finally we reached the top.
The view from the summit was magnificent. And this summit felt much more like a mountaintop. Lots of rocks where you could stake out your own spot to sit down and have a great view while eating your lunch. We took lots of pictures and stayed on the top well over an hour. Finally we headed down. It was nice to get a cold Coke at the cable car station before riding the last bit down to town.
The next day we had another excellent breakfast before leaving. We chatted with Cis and Les for quite a while. They gave us the low down on a lot of the issues current in New Zealand - things that aren't visible when you are on vacation. Then it was time to drive back to Christchurch and fly home the day after that. We really enjoyed our trip to New Zealand. The weather was great and the scenery is spectacular. We stayed at some nice places (except for Christchuch). We did some great hikes. Touring the wineries was fun. And the people in New Zealand were really friendly. We decided we would go back next year. There are some places, like Fjordland, that we didn't get to visit even with 10 days for our trip. Sandy found a company that offers "deluxe" Milford Track trips so we are really interested in doing that next year, probably around New Years again. We're both anxious to go back.