Founded on gold, sustained on scenery, developed on adrenalin . . . Queenstown is unlike anywhere else in New Zealand.
It is so different in its physical and socio-economic settings it could just about fly its own flag – the sovereign state of Queenstown, resident population 10,000 and rising.
Tourism rules. Queenstown is New Zealand’s premier visitor destination. No argument. In the year 2000, it became the first New Zealand destination to host a million visitors in a 12-month period.
Exuberance abounds, not the least among those who think up new ways of entertaining visitors – whether the visitors seek high-speed thrills in the air or on water, or whether they have more sedate outdoor pursuits in mind such as a bush walk, a round of golf, fishing excursion or horse trek. Commercial bungy jumping started at the Kawarau Bridge in November 1988. It was a world first. Suddenly, Queenstown warmed to the idea it could become the world capital for adventure tourism. The label has stuck.
In the world of adventure tourism, Queenstown is a drawing board for new products whose main aim is to get hearts beating, nerves jangling and adrenalin pumping . . . high-performance jet boats, white-water rafting, river sledging, flying on wires across a canyon, paragliding, skydiving, luging, kayaking, bungy, bungy and more bungy, all of them in different settings.
In winter, there is an avalanche of activities to do with snow skiing, snowboarding, heli-skiing and cross-country skiing.
Queenstown is open all hours, all year around. Its sells itself as a destination no matter what the season – quite a feat for a town that would be considered small scale in large metropolitan countries.
‘Downtown’ occupies something less than a square kilometre, perhaps the highest-priced commercial precinct in New Zealand. Small is beautiful, and it can be mighty expensive as well. Real estate values and rents are way above Middle New Zealand expectations. Some of the luxury suites around town charge four figures a night.
All this highlights the international atmosphere of Queenstown, with its signs in various languages and its foreign chatter on the streets. A New Zealander may feel somewhat a stranger in his or her own land on a visit to Queenstown.
Yet New Zealanders still holiday at the resort, especially in the ski season. Statistics indicate a 60:40 split in foreign and New Zealand-based visitors. Asia provides the largest slice – half a million visitors a year, from countries such as Japan, China, Taiwan and Singapore. Australians come in similar numbers, with a surge occurring in winter for skiing and snowboarding. Britain, the United States and Germany are also big contributors to Queenstown’s economy.
There are over 11,000 beds for visitors. Major hotels, resorts and luxury lodges, including those of six international hotel chains, combine with a welter of motels, guest houses, backpacker hostels and camping grounds to produce this figure, which is rather at odds with the idea that Queenstown is a small and compact place.
The local wine industry is not without its admirers as well. A leading British wine writer, Jancis Robinson, named the Queenstown and Central Otago region as one of the five top ‘New World’ wine producing regions.
To reinforce its reputation, Queenstown stages a number of festivals and other events through the year. A popular winter festival lasts 10 days. In February, Queenstown Gardens hosts a stylish wine and food festival. There are multisport extravaganzas such as the Eco Challenge and Southern Traverse, and international cricket at the Queenstown Event Centre in summer. Occasionally, entertainment superstars show up for concerts at the Millbrook Resort.
Filmmakers and those who produce television commercials know a good location when they see one, and Queenstown and the Wakatipu area generally, from Arrowtown to Glenorchy, regularly host film crews. Many sequences in The Lord of the Rings were filmed in the Wakatipu area. Vertical Limit was made around Queenstown.
Living up to its name, The Remarkables range (2,324 m at its summit) is a broad wrinkled rock wall, 2 km high and stunningly steep. From Queenstown it appears to rise straight up out of the lake. A national icon, it is probably New Zealand’s most photographed mountain.
Whereas the mountains carry powerful stories of natural history and human history, the lake is in a class of its own. It owes its existence to the ice ages, which began about 2.5 million years ago when the earth grew colder. In Southern New Zealand, great glaciers flowed east from ice caps in the Southern Alps, smoothing the land and creating the beds for future lakes. Still fed by rivers that rise in high-alpine areas, Lake Wakatipu is a cold lake. Surface temperatures are a chilly 9-10°C throughout much of the year.
Queenstown lies in a climatic transition zone between phenomenally wet Fiordland and semi-arid Central Otago. Moist westerly airstreams sweeping on to Southwest New Zealand from the Southern Ocean drop their rain mostly on the western side of the Main Divide, leaving Central Otago in a rain shadow. Daytime temperatures in summer usually range between 19 and 29°C.
Milford and Queenstown are linked by road and by air. The connection is umbilical.
For most overseas visitors, the two destinations are a package. Although some visitors fly from Queenstown to Milford by light aircraft, most go by coach via Kingston and Te Anau. Coaches run on a daily basis to Milford Sound, except on a few days in winter and spring when the Te Anau-Milford highway is closed by snow or avalanche risk.
The Wakatipu region rubs shoulders with two outstanding national parks – Fiordland and Mount Aspiring. They form the bulk of a World Heritage Area called Te Wahipounamu Southwest New Zealand, which is renowned for its spectacular mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes and fiords. It is one vast wilderness, where roads are few and a remote experience is guaranteed.
Queenstown is the jewel in New Zealand’s tourist crown. It got its name back in the gold-digging 1800s, when someone was supposed to have dubbed it a town ‘fit for a queen’. The phrase, so the story goes, was stamped on an anvil in a local blacksmith’s shop.
They chose a right royal name for a town destined to become a tourism monarch.
Extract from Neville Peat’s guidebook
Queenstown – New Zealand’s Adventure Capital
Published by Otago University Press 2000