When you book your Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Queenstown, take this word of advice and request a window seat—trust me, it's worth it. Not only does the whole of Middle-earth (as Peter Jackson saw the area in “The Lord of the Rings”) spread out beneath you in an impressive bas-relief of snow-capped mountains and velvety green valleys, but the landing is a cinematic thrill in and of itself: the runway at Queenstown Airport emerges abruptly at the top of short cliff that the plane briefly appears to be heading directly into.
Shortly thereafter, I checked into Matakauri Lodge, perched above the azure waters of Lake Wakatipu. The intimate property is comprised of just four suites and six villas—each with a private lakeside terrace—and is a convenient 10-minute drive from downtown Queenstown. Contrasting with the luxurious accommodations (which include a flat-screen LCD TV, open fireplace, walk-in closet, a bathroom with two vanities and floor-to-ceiling windows with mountain views), the overall atmosphere was laid-back and casual.
For instance, even though a jacket may have been required for dinner, this rule seemed to be lax, and many guests—myself included—went without. Adding to the informal vibe, executive chef Dale Gartland stopped by our table at breakfast each morning to ask what we wanted for dinner that night, and he always did his best to accommodate. When I'd asked for a type of oysters that were out of season, he managed to track them down (clarifying that they had been frozen) and prepared them four different ways for dinner that very night. This was just one of the many special requests he happily obliged during our stay, making each meal at Matakauri Lodge an anticipated event.
Complementing the menu was an excellent selection of wines from nearby Central Otago. The region, best known for its Pinot Noir, is the most southerly wine-growing destination in the world, but still ideally situated for winegrowers, as it mirrors the same latitude as Burgundy, France (45 degrees). I booked an afternoon tour of Central Otago with Black ZQN, a tailored chauffeur service that took me to three different wineries in the comfort of a luxury sedan. (Clients can choose from a Bentley Continental Flying Spur, Range Rover Sport, BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.) Our driver had an intimate knowledge of the area, which meant that the short drive from vineyard to vineyard was peppered with interesting anecdotes and stories plucked from his infinite mental Rolodex of information.
A highlight of the day was lunch at Northburn Station's restaurant, The Shed, where we helped ourselves to a plate of seasonal produce, cheeses, chutneys and pickles that were all prepared on site. I suggest previewing the meal with the wine tasting, paired with light bites, as we did. And since the weather was cooperating, we were able to enjoy the whole experience while catching some rays on the patio.
Enjoyable as an afternoon spent casually cruising the nearby wine country may be, Queenstown has been a longtime favorite for adrenaline junkies, and I would be remiss not to get a fix during my visit. Jumping off the Kawarau Bridge Bungy is de rigueur, since that's where the practice began over 20 years ago, but I wanted to do something a little different, which is what led me to the Shotover Canyon Swing.
Standing on a platform 360 feet above the Shotover River, I might have remarked on how beautiful the view was, if I wasn't being fitted into a harness for my impending jump, and so I was a bit too nervous to appreciate the natural beauty. The jump styles are limited only by your imagination, but I opted to do "The Chair," which strapped me to a plastic lawn chair that I then leaned back in until plummeting off the edge for a 200-foot free fall. Unlike its older brother, the bungee, the canyon swing literally swings you back and forth, rather than up and down.
If that doesn't cut it, you can always opt to jump from 15,000 feet with NZone Skydive, New Zealand's first commercial tandem skydiving operation. The instructors are fun and reassuring, getting you geared up and briefed in a remarkably short time frame, before piling you into a plane for the big jump. Surprisingly, this was a lot easier on my nerves than the canyon swing, and I was so completely absorbed in the breathtaking scenery below me during the 60-second free fall that I was almost surprised when my instructor pulled the shoot. I suppose that's why I jumped tandem!
When it was time to leave Queenstown behind, I decided to embrace a more tranquil ethos for the remainder of my trip, and Kauri Cliffs, located in the Bay of Islands, proved to be the perfect place for this. The property is a mecca for golf enthusiasts, with a par-72 golf course measuring more than 7,000 yards, and a well-appointed spa to soothe the joints after a round or two. My room overlooked the greens, which I was only mildly impressed by, as I'm admittedly not much of a golfer, but luxe amenities (a private porch, open fireplace, massive DVD collection and super king bed) more than made up for this.
The day after my arrival, though, I developed a new appreciation for the golf course. Bay of Islands is almost the antithesis of Queenstown, with very little to do aside from golfing, except relaxing and enjoying the views, so I decided to take a brief golf-cart tour of the grounds and do just that. In the end, the short tour lasted more than two hours because of how spectacularly beautiful it all was, not least of which was Pink Beach, named for its crushed pink shells. Even if the closest you've ever gotten to a game of golf is a Caddyshack DVD, you'll have a hard time leaving this golfer's paradise.
Unfortunately, the real reason we had a hard time leaving was because of the weather. Overnight it had taken a turn for the worse, and heavy rains and strong winds threatened to delay our departure from this small airport. We were told that by the time we could get a flight to Auckland, we would have missed our connection to the U.S., leaving us in a bad spot. Incredibly, Air New Zealand solved this problem by calling a local bus company to drive me and the other 12 stranded passengers three and a half hours to Auckland for our flight. Never in all of my travels have I seen anything like this, and I was still flabbergasted when I boarded my flight to the U.S. at the end of the day.
Leave it to New Zealand to amaze at every turn, whether it's with a thrilling adventure, relaxing afternoon or the country's unparalleled drive to keep visitors happy. These are just a few of the things that ensure returns to this charming corner of the globe.