Robert Upe picks his Queenstown top 10 — from pizza to parasailing.
As the snow melts in the mountains around Queenstown, jagged rocks in the dramatic peaks are exposed and the fast-flowing rivers are on the rise.
With spring coming on, there's an exodus of the snow crowd that has been here for the cream of New Zealand's skiing, at places such as Coronet Peak and the Remarkables. There are bargain four-wheel-drives for sale and ski gear is going cheap at the Saturday market on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, where buskers play and the vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw blows its whistle and bellows black smoke in preparation for another cruise.
The change of seasons does not mean there is a slowdown in Queenstown.
Paragliders, who have launched from a nearby hill, float over the town, paraflights behind a speedboat on the lake are in constant demand, and the screams from people at the end of bungy cords are ceaseless.
The city is busy, with buses ferrying people to jet-boat rides, whitewater rafting, helicopter picnics and on winery tours.
There are many reasons to visit Queenstown, which has positioned itself as the adventure capital of the world, alongside the likes of Interlaken in Switzerland and Whistler in Canada.
The exchange rate is favourable - each $NZ100 spent equates to $79 and there are more than 100 restaurants and bars.
Here are my top 10 reasons to visit:
1. Whitewater rafting
I've got white knuckles and I'm not even in the rapids yet. Our rafting group is in a minibus sitting there like scared little chickens as it bumps down the loose gravel on the skinny road that snakes down to Skippers Canyon towards a remote section of the Shotover River.
Our guide asks if anyone has been on the hairiest road in the world and some backpacker types immediately nominate Bolivia's North Yungas death road. But the guide says we're on it right now and looking outside at the sheer drop to the river valley, I think he is only half joking. In fact, we have to walk the last 800 metres down to the river in helmets, wetsuits and lifejackets because the road has collapsed and is impassable to vehicles.
After a safety briefing, our three-raft flotilla casts off gently enough on a 90-minute journey that fluctuates from calm to tumultuous in the two-degree water fed by snow melt.
As we go along with the forceful flow, there's time to learn paddling instructions and technique, to spot goats on the river cliffs and see rusting and decaying gold-mining relics.
But the focus turns to the river as we approach a serious set of rapids with names such as Aftershock, Toilet, Pinball and Oh S--t. No one tumbles in, but later on a calm stretch we are invited to jump in. Most take the plunge into the frigid water, but not for long.
It all ends with a 170-metre section through a dark tunnel (constructed by gold miners) and the final rapid, Mother-In-Law. I'm almost tipped out but, with white knuckles, I manage to hold on. Almost anyone can do this, but the minimum age is 13.
Adrenalin rating: 8/10 Cost: $NZ195 a person, $NZ279 a person with helicopter drop-off at the river. See rafting.co.nz.
The rock walls in a gorge on the Shotover River are seemingly within arm's reach and we are tearing through the shallow aquamarine water at 80km/h. Then the driver puts the jet-boat into a 360-degree spin. Screams all round. A local says the best seat in the boat is right behind the driver "because it's the part of the boat that goes closest to the cliffs" but I can attest the wettest seat is the back right. Wherever you are in the V6 supercharged boat, this is a thrill-a-second experience and when it's all over I'm left with a mouthful of water and wanting more. No wonder 3 million people have done this since 1970.
Adrenalin rating: 8/10 Cost: $NZ129 an adult, $NZ69 under 16. See shotoverjet.com.
3. Bungy jumping
No matter which bungy option you choose - the relatively mild ledge swing 400 metres above Queenstown; the massive Nevis swing with a 300-metre arc and a 70-metre drop; or the Nevis bungy which is the highest in Australasia, with a 134-metre drop and 8.5-second freefall - this is as scary as it gets. Bungy jumping was pioneered in Queenstown in 1988 and there seems to be no let-up in its popularity.
Adrenalin rating: 9/10 Cost: ledge swing $NZ150; Nevis swing $NZ180; the Nevis bungy $NZ260. See bungy.co.nz.
4. Gondola and luge run
If you ever want to beat your children at anything, the two luge runs at the top of the Skyline Gondola provide a place for keen competition, though no bumping is allowed. After a ride up the gondola, head for the 800-metre tracks and career down the hill in three-wheel carts. There's also the ledge bungy swing and jump up here, a 30-minute Kiwi haka show and a buffet restaurant with stunning views but which seems too big and impersonal.
Adrenalin rating: 5/10 Cost: For gondola and three luge rides $NZ44 an adult and $NZ34 a child. Haka show $NZ39 an adult, $NZ26 child. See skyline.co.nz.
There is an insatiable appetite for these juicy burgers that come wrapped in a brown paper bag. There are queues at Fergburger in Queenstown's main street at 4am, 11am, 3pm ... whenever we go. Where else does a burger have such a cult following? The basic Fergburger ($NZ11) has a big soft bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, aioli and tomato relish, or try Mr Big Stuff ($NZ16), Sweet Bambi ($NZ12.50) or The Codfather ($NZ14.50). Eat in and savour the buzzy atmosphere if you are lucky enough to find a seat. Otherwise Lake Wakatipu is just around the corner and it seems almost everyone along the shore has a Fergburger in hand.
Satisfaction rating: 8.5/10 Cost: $NZ10-$NZ18.50. See fergburger.com.
Among a lot of good choices, Barmuda, Bardeaux and the Bunker are essential Queenstown nightspots. Barmuda for its big open fire, courtyard and cocktails; Bardeaux for its big open fire, upmarket air and pinot; The Bunker for its small restaurant, lounge bar and, of course, big open fire.
Cool rating: 9/10 See goodbars.co.nz, thebunker.co.nz.
7. The Cow pizza
Tucked away in a stone building with a warm timber interior and a blazing open fire, this compact-size pizza and pasta restaurant in Cow Lane in central Queenstown is worth finding. There's usually a wait to get a table but you can hover at the small bar till your name is called. The homemade bread with lashings of garlic, butter and parsley ($NZ8.50) is a good way to start, followed by a 14-inch pepperoni.
Satisfaction rating: 7.5/10 Cost: Pizzas $NZ18.90-$NZ32.90, pasta $NZ19.90-$NZ23.90. See thecowrestaurant.co.nz.
8. Ivan Clarke Gallery
You are likely to end up with a big smile across your face in this gallery, especially if you are a dog lover. It is full of work from local artist Ivan Clarke's Lonely Dog series that has hounds, and sometimes cats, in all sorts of situations such as skiing and cruising in a convertible. There's also a book, and a Disney movie deal is on the cards.
About a 20-minute drive from Queenstown, this historic gold-mining town has a beautiful main street of old buildings that have been renovated to their period glory. The lanes and arcades are filled with shops, cafes and restaurants. The boutique Dorothy Browns cinema and bar is a good place to catch a movie with a drink and a gourmet food platter, and the Arrowtown Bakery has a reputation for outstanding pies.
Pie rating: 8/10 Cost: $NZ5.50 a pie; $NZ12 for pie, peas and pud. See arrowtown.com.
A big yellow parachute with a smiley face inflates from the launch deck on the back of a speedboat on Lake Wakatipu and rises 180 metres into the air for a gentle sightseeing flight. The tethered flights can be taken solo, tandem or triple and you don't even get your feet wet.
Adrenalin rating: 4/10 Cost: $NZ139 a person solo. See paraflights.co.nz.
Getting there Air New Zealand has a fare to Queenstown from Sydney and Melbourne for about $640 low-season return, including tax. Fly non-stop to Christchurch (about 3 hr) and then non-stop to Queenstown (1 hr 5 min); see airnewzealand.com. On certain days of the week there are non-stop flights from both cities to Queenstown and prices will vary. Australians do not require a visa.
Staying and eating there Peppers Beacon Queenstown is in a prime spot on the shore of Lake Wakatipu and has modern self-contained apartments with lake and mountain views. A gourmet food package in a lake-front apartment is from $NZ599 ($470) a night (garden suite $NZ450, studio for two $NZ249). See peppers.co.nz/beacon/packages.
Robert Upe rafted courtesy of Destination Queenstown.