Saturday, November 22, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 5

We left the hotel at 9 and headed for the airport, where I can truly say we’ve never checked in and gone through security so smoothly (I don’t even think it took five minutes). The flight to Queenstown took off on time, and after a couple of hours we started our descent over deep green mountain ranges, down and down until the little town was close enough to touch….and then suddenly the plane rose up again, the landing aborted because of wind issues. We were informed we’d make one more attempt; if that didn’t work we’d have to divert to Christchurch (not sure what would have happened then). Fortunately it was second time lucky, although I felt a bit queasy for an hour afterwards (Ally was OK). It was a pretty miserable day, especially bad for the town as it had been the morning of the inaugural Queenstown marathon, with entrants from some twenty countries (as we drove in, we passed some drenched back-of-the-packers). We’re staying in a downtown hotel called the Spire, in a large “de luxe King suite.” As we waited to check in, we were wondering whether we got lucky in even finding a room during the marathon weekend (given that we didn’t plan the trip that long ago), but once we saw the room we realized there’s probably no one in the race who would have wanted to pay that much. I guess I must have known the cost at the time I made the reservation, but I subsequently forgot. Anyway, we're glad we did it. The room has a gas fireplace, many gadgets, and better wifi than we had in Auckland (one of the Auckland waiters told us it’s a problem throughout the city there). The name “the Spire” is a bit of a misnomer though as it only has around ten rooms and isn’t very tall – from our room we have a wonderful view in the background, but in the foreground it’s dominated by the roof of the pub across the street.

We had lunch in the lobby bar, and soon after that things started to brighten up; we went out around 3 pm. Queenstown is built around an inlet on Lake Wakatipu, with spectacular views of mountains in all directions; our hotel is right downtown, mere steps from the lake as they say. We walked around the water for a while, the wind and rain steadily dying down (at around 3.30 pm, the presumably very last marathoner passed by, 1 km from the finish line, and long after all spectators had called it a day). I’d had it in my mind that the town would be somewhat refined and rarified, I don’t know why, but this was obviously an unrealistic notion for such a popular destination; actually the waterfront is a series of bars, burger joints and the like, with a standard resort vibe. We left that behind and then spotted the start of a hiking trail, heading up a mountain; the map indicated various possibilities for walks, from 45 minutes to 8 hours. We ended up doing around an hour and a half, along quite steep and often slippery trails, through woodlands and ultimately allowing us fine views of the snow-capped, cloud-rimmed peaks across the lake. The walk intersected often with an extensive network of mountain bike trails, or one can take a cable car up to a big restaurant. We didn’t see anyone else walking for most of the way, but the numbers increased as the day went on (it stays light until 9 pm, so lots of possibilities for evening hikes). We walked around the town a bit, just confirming the impression set out above; perhaps it’s telling that according to TripAdvisor, the top attraction here isn’t any aspect of the natural wonder but rather the “Fear Factory,” some kind of haunted house set-up.

That aside, the most prominent draw is the Milford Sound, a fiord which has sometimes been judged one of the world’s leading attractions, and which Kipling called the eighth wonder of the world. Queenstown is the most common base for traveling there, but it’s still 300 km away, and per the most conventional approach to the trip would involve many hours sitting on a coach. Of course, the few hours at the fiord would probably stick in our memory long after the tedium of the bus journey had faded away, but we’re still finding it hard to commit to such a plan. It’s also possible to be flown in, but that seems overly extravagant, notwithstanding the earlier comments about the room. At this moment it seems more appealing to spend our days walking, but perhaps we’ll change our minds tomorrow.

The Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies constitute no part of our reason for coming to New Zealand or of our trip planning (haven’t seen the recent ones, presumably never will), but apparently parts of them were shot in this vicinity, as was Top of the Lake (did see that). It’s hard to avoid the Peter Jackson stuff though – when I bought a stamp the other day it had a hobbit on it, and the Air New Zealand in-flight video is done in the style of the movies. They are inexplicably proud of this video as we’ve seen it advertised several times on billboards. Anyway, just thought I’d get that content out of the way.
When we arrived, the hotel people did a big routine about needing to make a dinner reservation because everywhere in town would be full, but this was plainly overstating things. Regardless, we were happy to eat at the hotel’s own restaurant because it’s apparently one of Queentown’s best: we had a tasting menu which left us seriously overstuffed (and added very significantly to our excess meat consumption). The restaurant was otherwise empty long before we were finished; a bit more surprisingly, the surrounding streets cleared out too. However, we could hear the boom of late night partying, not too many blocks away. We went back upstairs and hung out for a while in front of our fireplace! Later on I had a bath; however, I didn’t take up the suggestion made to us earlier, of lying in the bathtub with the shutters to the main room open, so as watch a movie….

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