When you talk to other tourists in NZ, Queenstown is like a point on a pilgrimage road - some kind of Holy Land of outdoor activity that might hold Sir Edmund Hilary's ashes inside a quad helmet. Everyone's going to Queenstown. Or they're on their way home, and they're broke.
Considering the hype, I was pleasantly surprised at how small it was. Downtown Queenstown is a half-mile grid of a few busy streets packed with cafés and outdoor shops snuggled up against sapphire-blue Lake Wakitipu. Sailboats and jetboats cavort around the harbor. There's a brick walkway full of street performers along the lakeside where tourists in hiking packs wander around with ice cream cones. At the edge of town there's a botanical garden on the peninsula with a limestone walking path that extends out to the airport. People are relaxed and smiling - even the tourist-harassed café workers and bike shop guys. It felt like a Colorado ski resort town without as many pretentious Americans.
Gold and green mountains jut up around the city. Five minutes from downtown there's a network of pristine hiking trails so fantastic it's stupid (you can even get to the famous Routeburn track). Most of the hiking trails are mountain-bike-friendly, there's a freeride park hidden in the woods east of town, and a gondola that takes a bunch of smelly downhillers to the top of a big hill so they can show off their baggy shorts to tourists. Paragliders jump off the top of the gondola hill and float into town.
I was smitten.
Lauren and I spent four days hanging there out to recover from the bus trip. We did a lot of eating. On the first day, we met up with our program advisor Jane - a Queenstown native - at a fantastic ice cream place on the water. We bought groceries at the supermarket and luxuriated in being able to use the hostel fridge. We sampled a more few cafés, went on a bar tour, and ate at the famous Fergburger.
Trevor and Lauren had something called the "Mr. Big Stuff" - a half pound of beef with bacon and cheese. My single-patty brie cheeseburger and its gluten free bun looked a little malnourished in comparison.
I hadn't had a good burger in New Zealand. Their beef tends to taste a bit different, maybe because NZ cows eat cleaner grass. But I can attest that those burgers were pretty damn awesome. I also realize now that getting a diet Coke with a burger the size of my head was a pretty dumb idea.
To offset all the eating and alcohol consumption, we walked up the hill by the gondola and watched grown men giggle to themselves on the luge track.
I also ran around town every day. One of my favorite runs was the Queenstown Hill Time Track.
It starts outside of town close to the hostel where we stayed. The track switches back and forth through the pines and opens up on a high point where the trees and hills cancel out the noises of the town. A couple vagrant Merinos had been grazing in the grass when I ran up, but they'd moved on when Lauren and I hiked up later to take pictures.
Criminy. This place is awesome.
In retrospect we didn't take advantage of Queenstown. We didn't go Bungy jumping, skydiving, canyoning, fish-feeding, zoo visiting, jetboating, golfing, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, or kayaking (I can do those for free at home). I never got around to doing any bike riding since nobody else was keen on going with me.
But that's okay with me. I didn't end up broke, and Lauren and I were well-rested and well-fed on the fifth day when we got up at 5:30 to start our long walk on the Kepler Track.
I do plan to go back to Queenstown sometime, provided it's not too snowy in June. In that case, maybe I'll rent some skis.