Half-naked and crazy? This is the place for you

If you want to go crazy, there's no better place than Queenstown's biggest party, writes Craig Platt.

She's standing in a white bikini, dancing on a dock. Angel wings spread out behind her as she gyrates to a pumping, techno beat and heads towards a set of pearly gates.

Clearly, she is insane. How else to explain this behaviour – and outfit - in the freezing cold New Zealand winter?

As if further evidence was needed, she passes through the makeshift gates and leaps from the dock into the icy waters of Lake Wakatipu.

A huge crowd roars approval. Yes, she may be crazy, but if you're going to do something wacky, there's no better place to do it than Queenstown.

It's my third visit in as many years, and while I've done a lot of the traditional tourist activities – bungy jumping, jetboating, eating at Fergburger – this is my first time here in winter.

The antics taking place on the shores of Lake Wakatipu are part of the annual Queenstown Winter Festival, a week-long party that combines wild activities during the day with wild parties at night.

The town boasts the highest per capita number of bars in New Zealand (one for every 75 people) and all are pumping during the festival.

Right now, a morning crowd is watching the festival's 'Birdman' competition, where competitors in crazy costumes leap into the lake in an effort to impress the judges and win prizes.

Safety crews are on hand to pluck the competitors from the freezing waters before they get hypothermia.

When I spot the winged angel back on dry land shortly after her jump, she's wrapped in a blanket and looks nowhere near as happy as she did before her dip.

Next up is the 'drag' race, which involves various male members of the Queenstown community dressing up in drag, including heels, to take part in a foot race.

It's a bit of fun and an example of the some of the more quaint, community-minded elements of the festival.

While there are big-ticket items – free concerts (Dragon headline the Mardi Gras event this year), a masquerade ball, a comedy gala (last year Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby performed) – there are also smaller elements that allow locals and tourists and opportunity to participate, rather than just spectate.

Of the 60 events in the program, the vast majority are free and the handful that are ticketed sell out quickly.

The Winter Festival began in 1975 when some locals felt the arrival of winter in Queenstown was worth celebrating. It has also become the launching pad for Queenstown's ski season.

With two of New Zealand's best ski fields, Coronet Peak and the Remarkables, just a short bus ride from the centre of town, it's easy to hit the slopes during the day and party at night.

The ski resorts also get in on the festival action, hosting night skiing, retro-skiing (where skiers are encouraged to go old-school in both clothing and equipment) and the rather crazy 'Mountain bikes on snow' event, which is as ludicrous as it sounds.

In June, the temperature typically hits close to zero at night, though snow in the town is still unusual. It is, however, imperative that, while you might wish to dress to impress, you need to rug up with an overcoat, gloves and hat if you're walking further than a block or two.

During the day, the ski fields benefit from their positions high above the township. When you wake to grey, overcast skies down by Queenstown's lake, chances are the sun will be shining above the clouds on the the slopes.

But a day on the slopes can be exhausting, especially with so much going on at night.

About 60,000 people attend the festival, including locals (whose total population comprise just one third of that number) and tourists, with the majority of visitors being young Australians.

Aside from its many bars, Queenstown is home to plenty of excellent dining options.

For the hungover or those short on time, Fergburger is an institution, offering a range of enormous burgers hot off the grill. For something more sophisticated, the Botswana Butchery on the banks of the lake offers a wide variety of steaks for carnivores.

After dinner though, it's time to hit the bars.

While we start off at one of Queenstown's more traditional puts, the Speights Alehouse, by 2am I've found myself in a small-ish bar with an even smaller dance floor that's heaving with hot bodies that have shed most of their winter woolies (though they're still wearing more clothes than those crazy birdman competitors).

We've been to five or six different places over the course of the evening, but hardly seem to have travelled more than a block.

The next day, despite a throbbing, alcohol-induced headache, I head along to join another community event at the festival – a drumming class.

About 100 enthusiastic students have turned up at one of the local school's classrooms and it's a struggle to find seats, and drums, for everyone.

The teacher keeps things fairly simple as the plan is for all the would-be drummers to participate in the festival parade in a couple of days' time.

I beat my way through the hangover and have to admit that I'm bitterly disappointed when I realise I'll be on a plane back to Australia on the big day. Oh well, there's always next year.

Can't ski? Fear not

Even if you can't ski (or aren't keen to learn) you can still enjoy the spectacular scenery from the mountains.

New Zealand Guided Nature Walks runs guided snowshoe hikes around the area.

Co-owner and guide Peter Hitchman is an eccentric British ex-pat with plenty of stories to tell from his past life in the UK (ask him about working with Duran Duran).

Half and full-day treks are available. A reasonably easy half-day trek takes you up above the Remarkables ski field to a frozen lake and an incredible view. See www.nzwalks.com.

Alternatively, for something a bit less strenuous, take in a wine tour.

Queenstown is one of the world's biggest pinot noir producers and the Queenstown Wine Trail tours take in several of the nearby wineries, including the likes of Peregrine and Amisfield. See www.queenstownwinetrail.co.nz.

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand and Destination Queenstown.


Getting there

Air New Zealand flies direct to Queenstown from Sydney and Melbourne.

Buses to Coronet Peak and the Remarkables leave regularly in the morning from the Queenstown Snow Centre, Station Building, Duke Street. Return trip NZ$10.

Staying there

The Dairy is a cosy, boutique luxury hotel with a distinctive home-style vibe. Rooms from NZ$450 per night twin share. Freshly cooked breakfast and afternoon tea is included. See www.thedairy.co.nz.

The Crowne Plaza offers less personal service, but great views over Lake Wakatipu. Rooms from about NZ$137 per night twin share. See website.

The festival

This year's Winter Festival runs from Friday, June 25 to Sunday, July 4. For full details of the schedule of events and ticket sales see www.winterfestival.co.nz.