March 1 – 4
And so we continue our journey through the beautiful South Island of New Zealand. With the stunning natural beauty that makes this the choice location for dozens of famous films, including the most inescapable – The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, of course – we know what you’re thinking. After the stunning ‘scapes and wild nature of the West Coast from which we’d just emerged, how could anything compete?
By casting historic towns, quaint cafes and scenic streets to star in the sequel, of course!
We open the scene on our ageless, beautiful leading lady. Wide shot. The viewer sees a snow-capped, bustling town filled with adventurous hipsters bordered by a lake clear as glass. At first glance, you might be in any ski town across the globe (Vail? Geneva? Stowe?), the Remarkables dominate your views to the east and you realize you’re in none other than Queenstown, the largest city in the Southern Lakes area of New Zealand.
Zoom in and you’ll notice the line stretching 30 deep outside of Fergburger, the world’s worst “best kept secret” burger joint that brought us to our knees with it’s sky-high topped patties and greasy onion rings, and a few of the more popular pubs (Mac’s Pub on the Wharf, where the full line of Mac’s beer is on offer and cozy Atlas Beer Café where local craft beers rotate through the handful of taps lining the bar) with the backdrop of snow-kissed mountains looming over visitors’ shoulders. Talk about star power.
Named in honor of Queen Victoria (as it was considered to be “fit for a queen”) it has modernized its way into the “adventure capital of the world.” With early 20-somethings flinging themselves from bridges with nothing but an elastic rope tied to their ankles, jumping out of planes with mere fabric on their backs and floating effortlessly to earth strung perilously to the winged parachutes of hangliders, it has earned its title. Us? We weaved between crop tops and barefooted dudes to target the nearby farmers market (deliciously tiny) and prepare elaborate meals from our booty at our favorite campsite to date, trek to the highest point of the city (knock-me-down-breathtaking) or sit along the shores of Lake Wakatipu (pristinely peaceful and shoot location for LOTR’s “Lothlorien,” home to elven Lady Galadriel). It wasn’t easy, but once you knock the wheels of one skater’s boards off the sidewalk, they tend to steer clear.
With over 1.9 million visitors per year, this place isn’t new to tourism, so only a few days here will do before you feel the crush of her celebrity. And as atmospheric nearby towns were in abundance, we easily took our adventure to the neighboring towns of Arrowtown and Glenorchy, to get laser-local.
Pretty little Arrowtown, just 20 minutes from Queenstown, makes for our perfect supporting actress. Easily overlooked and enveloped by beautiful mountain scenery, the former mining town is a lovely day’s escape and its tree-lined streets crowded with century-old architecture transport you back in time. To the 1860’s to be exact. Arrowtown sprang from that era’s gold rush with over 1500 miners working the river in hopes of finding the elusive glittery rocks. As the gold ran out, the town became a fading rural backwater. With no pressure to replace the old, it kept its heritage heart so more than 70 historic sites remain. Its resurgence as a holiday place began in the 1950s and luckily the importance of the town’s picturesque old buildings was understood, leaving a lovely string of 19th century miners’ cottages along one street, some of which had been converted to amazing bars or cafes.
Upon arrival, we made our way quickly to the crumbling remains of the Chinese Settlement. Poorly welcomed expats hoping to return home with fortunes built a separate settlement by the river, and were often neglected by the locals. Eventually, as things tend to go, acceptance crept in and Arrowtowners could be found stopping by the Chinese stores for Eastern food staples and playing “fan-tan” with the new settlers. You couldn’t help but feel the history – and admire the preservation efforts! – in this little nook of town.
We spent a cozy hour trying the local Gibbston Valley wines at the tasting room on the 3-block-long main street. While their 2012 Reserve Chardonnay left us wanting more, the blueberry nose and clove aftertaste of the 2012 Pinot Noir held our attention. The vineyards lie outside of town, and are a popular pitstop for visitors.
Shaded by lovely Sycamore, Willow and Larch trees, a stroll along the Arrow River will take you past old gold digging sites and – you guessed it – a Lord of the Rings shoot location (Gladden Fields, where Isildur is killed by orcs in battle and the One Ring is lost).
Finally, a bite at Fork & Tap will find you mingling with the locals and a beer by the fire at the New Orleans Hotel (established in 1866) will have you rethinking your mere 1-night stay. The sticky buns at Provisions Café will have you considering permanent residency. If they don’t help earn this idyllic dark horse a Best Supporting Actress nod, I don’t know what does.
In our particular experience, Glenorchy can only play the role of our villain. A reluctant one perhaps, but a villain nonetheless. Our afternoon outing to the “Gateway to Paradise” was shrouded in rain clouds, limiting the usually spectacular 48km drive from Queenstown clinging to the edge of Lake Wakatipu and passing through small bays and forest. We had envisioned a lovely picnic taken by the water and calming strolls along the must-adored shores and through the picturesque town. Upon arrival, the roaring winds and spitting rain rendered the plans moot, and while we indeed picnicked near the water, it was done from the shelter of our campervan. Cue evil music soundtrack.
The town’s entirety spans a 4-block radius, so with the lakefront activities being a non-starter, we were left grasping for what to do with our time.
At the head of the lake, Glenorchy is the jumping off point for several tracks (Routeburn and Rees-Dart stem from here), but as tramping wasn’t on the day’s agenda, we passed the rainy afternoon at the more welcoming looking pub (there are only two in town).
And while we know the potential of this much sought after location for the film industry (with recent shoots such as The Chronicles of Narnia, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the LOTR/Hobbit movies) lay somewhere beneath the fog, we didn’t find it that day.
After looping our way back to Queenstown, our time here was a wrap!
Let the credits roll.