It'll all end in cheers

With one bar for every 75 people in Queenstown, Amy Cooper finds a winter party paradise.

Queenstown, the southern hemisphere's thrill-seeking capital, is famous mainly for its outdoors. The alpine resort on New Zealand's South Island is a magnet for adrenalin junkies who hurtle, spin and plummet all over its abundant natural assets.

But we're seeking our action in Queenstown's other adventure playground: its bars. This little town of 23,000 boasts the most watering holes per capita in New Zealand, reckons its nightlife outdoes the liveliest metropolis and even declares in a brochure that its Winter Festival is "the world's ultimate winter party".

The festival is on while I'm visiting but drop in any time of year, the brochure states, and you'll find "unrivalled warmth and friendliness". It's certainly the most enthusiastic airport welcome I've ever had raucous applause from a small crowd at the arrivals gate. At festival time a cheer squad greets all incomers, says our hotel rep, but "people are like that here anyway". It's almost unsettlingly hospitable but it beats a body search.

No bus or taxi here; we're spirited across the road and into a yellow Kawarau jet boat in which we zoom and spin up Lake Wakatipu into Queenstown. This allows us to practise the local language: whoops, cheers and squeals.

Whirling to your hotel like a crazy toy, says our captain, affords the newcomer immediate immersion in Queenstown's effusive vibe. "Might as well start the fun now," he grins, hurling us into another hair-raising turn. At the jetty a welcome party awaits, bearing hot chocolate. It's led by our host from the Crowne Plaza Hotel and by now I'm not at all surprised her name is Julie Jolley. I'm only surprised it's spelt with an "e". I ask Jolley where Queenstown's bars are and she gestures at the pretty old timber and stone buildings surrounding us. "There are 120 within walking distance," she says, then leads me to the hotel's own bar, threesixty. Manager Adam Blythe rustles up a Chilli Chocolate Concubine a heart-warming combination of chilli-infused vodka, bourbon, creme de cacao and cream then an apple and fig martini, then a burnt lemon and vanilla margarita.

"Do you know there's one bar for every 75 people in Queenstown?" he says and I nearly swallow my swizzle stick. Honey, I'm home.

Upstairs in my room at the 4?-star hotel, I find a freshly poured local pinot. Our hosts' dedication to seamless drinking is impressive; I haven't been without a beverage since setting foot on shore.

The view through the window is arresting. The Remarkables which sound like characters in a superhero movie but are in fact Queenstown's stunning surrounding mountains look so much like the Himalayas they should have yaks.

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Despite their embarrassment of bars, the Queenstowners have erected a temporary festival party palace with stained glass windows called the Pavilion. Amid its ocean of dancing revellers I bump into an old friend who edits the local paper, Mountain Scene. "People here love life," he says. He tells me Queenstown's high spirits date back to the town's 19th-century gold rush. People mining the rich fields discovered celebrating in style then and haven't stopped since.

Today's crowd is egalitarian; here a mayor, there a goth, bosses and staff, grans and teenagers mixing it up. Even the Prime Minister's here. In Queenstown, partying is a universal and democratic pursuit.

I'd stay but 120 bars await. We begin with Barmuda and its roaring outdoor fireplace. The bartender greets us warmly.

"Al said you were coming," he says. Then he looks with alarm at our empty hands, because a hand minus a drink in Queenstown is a matter for deep concern.

While introducing the house speciality 40 premium tequilas our bartender explains that Barmuda's owner, Al Spary, heard about our visit through unspecified international bar communication channels. Al sounds omnipotent and his bar suggests he might be, because the margaritas are better than any I've had in Sydney.

We move on to nearby Bardeaux, where leather couches surround another open fire. Queenstown bars give good hearth, as you must when winter temperatures sink to five below and snow falls regularly. Bardeaux, famous for its library-like wine list, is pinot heaven but bartender Dan Whiteside also mixes a mean signature shot: white chocolate Zubrowka vodka, Frangelico and fresh passionfruit, shaken and dusted with chocolate. "They keep out the cold," he grins.

We seek out the notoriously elusive Subculture, a backstreet basement cocktail bar and nightclub so tricky to locate that locals swear it actually moves. Even with a map supplied by Adam from the Crowne Plaza we make some wrong turns. But it's worth it for the smoochy, jazzy vibe and comprehensive cocktail selection.

The town centre bars are only half the story. On Queenstown's surrounding slopes there's a whole extra slice of nightlife based upon the philosophy that what goes up must need a drink before it comes down again.

At the plush new $30 million base building at Coronet Peak ski fields, bands play amid alfresco bars warmed by braziers. Or you can ride the Skyline Gondola direct from town 450 metres up to Bob's Peak and take in concerts and DJs in the newly refurbished Skyline complex bar and restaurant while you dance with the sparkling town at your feet.

Friends are acquired in Queenstown as effortlessly as drinks and our crew soon fills a petite hideaway called Mini Bar. What's lacking in space (it holds about 20) is compensated for by a hefty menu of 100 international beers. "Welcome to the University of Mini Bar," says the bartender, handing me the tome. "Your subject is beer." We study hard.

Next morning I awake with my fingers curled as if still cradling a glass so I order hot chocolate, which is what Queenstowners use to fill their hands when it's still too early for their beloved pinot.

But then it is time for pinot again, at George Kerr's winery, Amisfield. It's one of 75 wineries surrounding Queenstown and produces some of the area's award-winning Central Otago pinot noirs. When I arrive at the wood and stone cellar door complex overlooking Lake Hayes, George and his friends are already well into a bottle. Another Queenstown characteristic: when you chance upon locals drinking, they often appear to have been doing so for quite some time.

Amisfield has a bistro serving delicious organic fare but there is no time to eat because we're off to Arrowtown, a nearby historic goldmining town.

Barmuda's Al owns the heritage New Orleans pub there, too, and we find him by the fire, cradling of course a pinot. Al is Queenstown's bar tsar. As well as owning a chunk of venues, he's the architect of the town's thriving bar culture.

After starting his first bar in a garage with just a beer fridge more than a decade ago, he successfully campaigned for 24-hour licences in the town.

He's recently launched the Travelling Goodbar, a 15-metre-long, granite-topped mobile cocktail bar and has filled the wine cellar at his latest restaurant, Botswana Butchery, with 1800 bottles.

The cosy New Orleans bestows cold beers and hot roasts. A fine prelude to the sleek comforts of late-night haunt Skybar, back in the town centre, where decorative and talented bartenders mix perfect classic cocktails and we sink deep into soft lounges in a happy, dirty martini fog.

Next day I head reluctantly to the airport, unable to shake the feeling I'm leaving a party too soon. Queenstown's boasts are justified.

Its bar scene can match any city for quantity, variety and quality and the disarming sincerity of this cold town's warm heart is impossible to resist.

The writer was a guest of Air New Zealand and Tourism Queenstown.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Daily trans-Tasman flights direct to Queenstown operate from Sydney by Air New Zealand and Qantas.

STAYING THERE

Crowne Plaza hotel is in the town centre and has great views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables. See crowneplazaqueenstown.co.nz.

The heritage, boutique Eichardt's Private Hotel offers five opulent suites and has a chic bar of its own open to non-residents. Phone +64 3 441 0450, see eichardts.co.nz.

WINTER FESTIVAL

The New Zealand ski season kicks off with the Queenstown Winter Festival. This year's festival celebrates its 35th anniversary and runs from June 26 to July 5. Headline acts include Flight Of The Conchords star Rhys Darby.

BARS

Bardeaux Bar, Eureka Arcade, The Mall, +64 3 442 8284; Barmuda, Searle Lane, +64 3 442 7300; Skybar, Camp Street, +64 3 442 4283; Minibar, Searle Lane, +64 3 441 3212; New Orleans Hotel, Buckingham Street, Arrowtown, +64 3 442 1745; Subculture, Church Street, Queenstown.

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