Bungy by the wayside

A laid-back holiday in adrenalin central? Sounds crazy but it just might work, writes Sarah Maguire.

Floating in darkness, plugs in my ears, there's no way I'll hear anyone scream. In Queenstown, one of the world's adventure capitals, there are people screaming, somewhere, at any given moment. Unlike all the twentysomething backpackers throwing themselves off bridges and out of planes or speeding down river gorges on jet boats that do 360-degree spins, however, I am in Queenstown to be quiet. And I've found possibly the quietest spot in town: inside a Jetson-esque flotation pod, in a solution 10 times more buoyant than the Dead Sea, my "entire nervous system in a state of rest", according to the brochure.

That's precisely what I'm after. Being a full-time working mother puts adrenalin into the system daily, so I don't need that on a holiday. And I love Queenstown for other reasons: it's part of a region, the Central Otago, that bristles with wineries, the first cluster of them just 20 minutes out of town; there is good shopping, excellent eating, a recent proliferation of spas and a heritage full of 19th-century-style adventurers.

Most of all, Queenstown is a stunning part of the world: you can't escape the scenery and it's the sort that makes the heart ache a little because you eventually have to turn your back and walk away.

At our hotel, the Remarkables mountain range and Lake Wakatipu are laid out gloriously before us, uninterrupted by anything but our balcony railing.

The Rees Hotel & Luxury Apartments could well be the last major development in Queenstown so close to its centrepiece lake and it joins the town's small echelon of truly luxury properties.

It's a good spot for flopping in between bursts of non-adrenalin activity. The apartments are large, modern and chic, with plenty of "Made in New Zealand" cachet: the furniture has been designed and made by a craftsman in nearby Arrowtown, the carpets are New Zealand wool and stonework around the fireplaces is in Central Otago schist, a grey-coloured, white-flecked stone that you soon notice everywhere in Queenstown buildings.

The schist appears again in the foyer, which is one of the finest I've encountered in a hotel. It's in fact called the Rees Centre - which, like the name of the hotel itself, is after William Rees. This renaissance man was Queenstown's pioneer settler, an explorer with a long list of firsts after his name. He drove in the first merino sheep, built the first hospital, church and hotel and launched the first ferry on Lake Wakatipu. He was the bloke who named landmarks now synonymous with the town's adventure reputation, the Shotover River and Coronet Peak among them.

The lobby is in part a shrine to this remarkable man: a bronze bust of his heavily-bearded face sits just inside the entrance, while New Zealand artist Craig Primrose has depicted him in various oil paintings.

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Prints by Rees himself - an artist and international cricketer in his spare time - also hang on the walls, near a library devoted to rare books on the area's history.

We hear Rees's name again on a four-wheel-drive tour along Skippers Road. The perilous ribbon of dirt was hand-hewn through Skippers Canyon in the 1880s with pickaxes and shovels to facilitate a gold rush that brought thousands of men to New Zealand. A sign at the start of the road warns that it is narrow and prone to slips and you can't turn around for six kilometres. With the Shotover River far, far below us, and no safety rails to speak of, screaming becomes a possibility.

Along with remains of hotels, townships and homes, the ghosts of bungy jumps past linger in the canyon. Attached to a 109-year-old suspension bridge, 100 metres above the river, is an abandoned bungy platform. In contrast to the people who would have dropped, whooping, from the bridge is a cross nearby, at Pincher's Bluff, in memoriam to the men - many of them Chinese - who were killed during the road's construction.

These days, of course, people come to Queenstown from all over the world not to make their fortunes but to part with them, for the thrills here don't come cheap. It might sound like party-pooping to mention the tales of hardship and melancholy that lie beyond the exuberant facade. The reality is, you don't have to scratch very hard to find them.

Just outside Queenstown lies Arrowtown. Its manicured streets and beautifully preserved buildings from the gold-rush era make it a tourist drawcard, especially in autumn when the sycamores and oaks that line the main avenue turn blood-red and gold.

There is plenty for browsing tourists: shops, cafes, galleries, history all around and an excellent museum to explain it. Dorothy Browns, named after a deceased lady of ill repute, is a funky cinema, bar and bookshop; look up in the main theatre and you'll see chandeliers and ceilings of Chinese silk.

Walk just a hundred or so metres off the main street to the banks of Bush Creek and you'll find the Chinese settlement, which dates to 1869 and features original and restored buildings that were home to miners with names like Old Tom and Tim Pan. Up to 80 Chinese men lived here, a marginalised community. In 1983, when an excavation of the settlement began, there were still Arrowtown residents who could remember the miners; the last of their number, Ah Gum, passed away in 1928. I'm told there are no descendants of the Arrowtown Chinese, who never brought their families to join them.

Back on Skippers Road, at Wong Gong Terrace where a market garden once grew, a hand-written sign on a piece of iron sheeting bolted to a signpost remembers Wong Gong: he had three sons in China but never returned, dying at age 49 after 26 years in New Zealand, where he was also a rabbiter, storekeeper and interpreter at Arrowtown.

By this point, a bungy jump could almost be the thing to shake off the ennui that comes with too much peering into the past.

The Queenstown bungy action is headquartered at Kawarau Bridge Bungy, the world's first commercial operation. I passed by here 20 years ago in its very early days. Ignorant of the existence of an endeavour that appeared to involve putting your life at the mercy of an oversized rubber band, I stood in open-mouthed awe as early adopters dived head-first into the water below. There was no way I was going to do it.

Two decades later, I'm still not willing to jump. I'm back at Kawarau Bridge, however, but off to the side a little, in a farmhouse that was saved from a fire brigade training exercise by none other than the co-founder of the bungy operation across the way.

Henry van Asch, now the sole owner of AJ Hackett in New Zealand, relocated the farmhouse, restored it and in 2005 opened the Winehouse and Kitchen, a 20-minute drive from Queenstown at the winery hub of Gibbston. On its brochure it declares, "Children welcome: Sandpit supplied!"

As we graze on the sauvignon blanc platter - its highlight a green lip mussel stew with chorizo, potato, tomato and saffron - our toddler, along with several other children, has a free run of the dining area and nobody cares, except in a good way. It's the vibe: you can have your rugrats and relax, too, an extraordinary combination. There's a chest full of vintage books and toys, a match for the formica and linoleum surfaces all around us.

It's country comfort, all right: the food is wholesome and delicious, much of it sourced locally, including from the restaurant's own vegetable gardens. In winter you'll find roaring open fires; after lunch you can walk around beautiful gardens, even play a spot of croquet.

Or, you could head to the world-class spa at Millbrook, a five-star golf resort at Arrowtown in the requisite spectacular setting. The steam infusion, 45 minutes in a wet sauna at 45 degrees, is not for the faint-hearted, in the most literal sense.

Masseur Veronica is a dark form moving around in the steam as she applies almond oil then a scrub of Brittany sea salt before passing rosemary oil under my nose and leaving me alone to melt. I can't hack the full 45 minutes. Six minutes to go and I'm out the sauna door, as unable to complete this spa equivalent of a high-octane adventure as I am to jump from any great height.

But, mission accomplished, it was quiet. And nobody heard me scream.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Queenstown.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies daily from Sydney to Christchurch and Auckland, with connections from both cities to Queenstown.

WHERE TO STAY

The Rees Hotel & Luxury Apartments, 377 Frankton Road, has doubles from $NZ175 ($137) a night. Phone +64 3 450 1100, see therees.co.nz.

Millbrook Resort, Malaghans Road, Arrowtown, has doubles from $NZ355 a night. Phone +64 3 441 7000, see millbrook.co.nz.

WHERE TO EAT

The Winehouse and Kitchen, State Highway 6, Gibbston, entry via the Kawarau Bungy Centre car park. Phone +64 3 442 7310, see winehouse.co.nz.

WHERE TO SPA

Body Sanctum Massage and Floatation Centre, Level 1, 10 Athol Street, Queenstown has floats from $NZ65 for 30 minutes. Phone +64 3 442 4336, see bodysanctum.co.nz.

The Spa at Millbrook, steam infusion treatment $NZ130; massages from $NZ65 for 30 minutes. Phone +64 3 441 7017, email thespa@millbrook.co.nz.

TOURING THERE

Queenstown Heritage Tours runs twice-a-day, four-hour tours of Skippers Canyon, adults $NZ150. Phone +64 3 442 5949, see queenstown-heritage.co.nz.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See queenstown-nz.co.nz.

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