Posts in the “Queenstown” category...
by Continental Club on April 30, 2009 | Leave a comment
In recent years, New Zealand has developed something of a reputation: a place of uncommon obsession with the notion of hurling oneself off, under, down or through cliffs, caves, bridges, towers or thin air; and the veritable crack house of this addiction is the formerly sleepy, lakeside resort of Queenstown.
It’s questionable what the Victorian founding fathers of Queenstown would have made of this modern-day mania but, arguably, it was they themselves who set the ball rolling when they gave rivers names like ‘Shotover’ and mountain ranges ‘The Remarkables’. Frankly, then, it was probably inevitable that similarly extreme-sounding thrills would be sought by their lycra, rip-stop polyester and lifejacket-clad descendents.
The town is now a mecca for the World’s backpackers and thirtysomething corporate sabbatical-takers. It features in and on almost every piece of marketing material pumped out by the tourist board. It is, in every possible way, used as a magnet to lure the tourists in the face of the otherwise pedestrian reputation of Kiwi culture.
Now, ever since ET hit the big screen, I’ve had something of an aversion to anything which is hyped. Hype is necessary, in my jaded eyes, only when the underlying quality is questionable. And so it is that, despite previous visits to New Zealand, this would be the first time that the much-hyped Queenstown had featured in an itinerary – and now only because we needed to kill some time.
The drive from John is another easy day, passing such one-horse towns whose horse died many a long moon ago as Twizel and Omarama. Indeed the latter has moved with the times and converted itself with admirable versatility into a one-sheep town – specifically a mega-merino called Shrek, whose ‘fame’ would appear to be fairly limited to strictly sheepy circles. Accusations that he is merely a gimmick to fleece passing tourists would be scurrilous and, what’s more, a baa-rely humorous joke.
In actual fact, both Twizel and Omarama were actually established quite recently, to service the intense hydroelectric power generating activity in the MacKenzie Basin. Believe it or not, there are even some quite unusual points of interest in these towns; there are no ditches or kerbstones next to the roads in Omarama, for example, as the town is designed to be temporary and to be returned to farmland at some time in the future. Accordingly the tarmac is profiled in an unusual way to avoid the need for the missing kerbing and ditching, so much the better to remove without trace, apparently.
The most impressive attraction en route is however, and without a shadow of doubt, Lake Pukake. Half way between Tekapo and Omarama, its blue waters are the first thing to catch the eye from a distance, but it’s only after a further few miles of driving towards the lake that the really stunning views appear.
At the junction with Hayman Road on the right, marked only by a Salmon Farm sign, it’s suddenly apparent that nature has conspired to orientate Pukake so that it forms a perfect aperture in the mountains through which to view Mount Cook – the highest of all New Zealand’s peaks. As the main road is not blessed with safe stopping places, take the Hayman Road turning and there is ample space immediately to pull up and then walk down an access track to the lakeshore.
There are a couple of alternative routes on to Queenstown after Omarama, but a pleasant detour is to the up-and-coming town of Wanaka, which sits alongside the lake of the same name. Wanaka, reportedly, is much as Queenstown was before ‘adrenaline’ was ‘invented’ there, and is a very pleasant little place with far less of the soon-to-be-experienced congestion of its near-neighbour.
Locals appreciate the lower-density development, and also that the shallower waters of the eponymous lake make it warn enough for Summer swimming. In recent years, a few of Queenstown’s businesses have opened Wanaka outposts, including The Cow restaurant which has almost been replicated brick-for-brick. There’s a verdant foreshore park backed by myriad bars and restaurants, some good shopping in stores specialising in New Zealand clothing labels, a very fine wine shop and the usual selection of cafés and coffee shops. Carefully developed, Wanaka has the bones of both a very successful holiday destination and a most attractive place to call home.
The next place of interest is the tiny settlement of Cardrona, with its restored (or perhaps never-changed?) hotel and attendant shops. A good job is made of arresting passing traffic, with some strategically placed vintage vehicles catching the eye and lending the place a slightly other-worldly feel. It’s a good place to use up a few more megabytes of the memory card, anyhow.
The final approach to Queenstown necessitates the ascent of Crown Range Pass, the highest sealed road in New Zealand and from which there’s a splendid view of this corner of the Southern Alps, before the road descends again and presents more teasing vistas, which become less wilderness-like and more pastoral with every break in the trees or twist of tarmac.
As the town is neared, the traffic builds steadily with increasing swarms of clapped-out, graffiti-liveried campervans driven by backpackers who’ve not recently had to pilot anything larger than a rucksack, jostling for space with rental-car drivers unused to driving on the left, tour buses disgorging hordes of grockles at inconvenient moments and all manner of commercial traffic utilising what remain the area’s only through-routes.
Any natural beauty is therefore temporarily but wholly obscured by the battle for asphalt-space and the desperate avoidance of campervan collision. Indeed, it’s only when the centre of town or, more specifically, the lakeshore is reached, and the safety of a car park achieved, that the view seems to open up again.
While Wanaka is dominated by leisure-orientated businesses, Queenstown has to serve as the commercial hub of the region and therefore its range of facilities is both more comprehensive and prosaic. Ultimately, then, whilst its physical surroundings are slightly more spectacular than Wanaka’s, the ribbon development of motels, hotels, apartment blocks, industrial and trading estates, and more chain-store like town-centre retailing makes it ultimately a less picturesque place in itself.
For the non thrill-seeking, it also has to be said that there is not a great deal to do in Queenstown outside of the Winter ski season. True, there are some significant attractions accessible only from Queenstown, but they’re not actually in the town itself. The two principal town-based attractions are therefore firstly the TSS Earnslaw, built in 1912 in Dunedin and transported to Queenstown by rail in sections to Kingston. From there, following reassembly, she sailed under her own steam up Lake Wakatipu and she now plies the lake from the town’s wharf.
The second attraction is the Gondola ride which, weather-permitting, affords a birds-eye view of the town and the surrounding Remarkables.
It’s also worth mentioning the Botanic Gardens, a short walk from the town centre, which incorporate an ice rink, a tennis club, well-tended flower beds, a memorial to Scott and his Polar Explorers and, most notably, a ‘frisbee-golf course’ which seems to hold the attention of at least some visitors. Briefing sessions on the rules and protocols are held regularly in the entrance car park.
The trail which traverses the lower levels of the gardens, below and through the woods, affords expansive views of the surrounding mountains and of the town itself, from a position of comparative peace and calm.
However, the number one destination for day trips from Queenstown is Milford Sound, the cover girl of most glossy marketing for the South Island. Vertiginous cliffs soar from the waters of this sinuous West Coast fjord, laced with cascading falls running the gamut from little more than wisps of wind-blown spray to thundering torrents of solid water crashing into the sea below. At the head of fjord, Mitre Peak is an iconic backdrop and the star of postcards and holiday snaps galore.
There are, however, two factors to bear in mind when planning a trip. The first is that, whilst Milford is only 90 kilometres from Queenstown as the crow flies, the only road is a typically-tortuous circumnavigation of the mountains in between, and ends up being a 5 hour coach or car trip. Each way.
The second is that this is a hybrid alpine maritime environment, which brings with it the prevalence of really unpleasant weather, as the moisture laden sea air hits terra firma, is forced up over the mountains and, in so doing, cools, forms clouds and then rains like there’s no tomorrow.
From a sight-seeing point-of-view then, this can conspire to create a very long day out, the highlight of which is seeing nothing very much other than the lower reaches of waterfalls emanating from solid, cliff-cladding clouds just above. And, for this privilege, the coach company will still have charged a hefty sum.
The clever money, therefore, is on an air tour from Queenstown to Milford, which takes only half a day, avoids the obligatory coach-tour stops at en-route tateramas and deposits the passenger at a smaller landing stage for a far quieter cruise than those incorporated in the coach itineraries.
The cleverest bit, however, is that if the weather is rubbish and therefore the views of Milford will be compromised, then it also means that the weather will render flying impossible too, and no monies will be expended.
So it was that Air Milford was contacted to arrange a charter, with the instruction from their office that we should call to confirm our arrival in the area the day before the planned flight, and at that time an indication of the weather forecast would be imparted. Following that instruction to the letter, Hank the helpful owner advised that the cloud cover had been too low for the last two days and that flying was very unlikely tomorrow. He’d monitor the situation though and suggested calling again at 7am for a definitive answer.
He’d obviously checked the forecast and made his decision later that evening however, for the ever helpful Hank sounded distinctly hungover on the phone just after dawn the following day.
Somewhat disappointed, but also pleased that not a cent had been wasted, we had an early breakfast and watched the coaches pass by outside, taking their loads off for a foggy day in the fjords, which improved our moods no-end.
Instead then, we headed to Arrowtown which, despite the mountain-top cloud which prevented flying, was warm and sunny. A short drive from Queenstown, Arrowtown is really a village – little more than a single street of early-colonial buildings beside the Arrow River – but one of New Zealand’s few intactly-surviving gold-rush settlements.
It serves its visitors well, however, with a wide selection of quality shops, restaurants and cafés as well as more utilitarian facilities like the picturesque public library.
A short side-trip takes visitors up to the Coronet Peak ski area, closed outside of the winter season but with an open car park from which the view extends for miles in a mountain-backed 180 degree panorama.
Now, when the TSS Earnslaw arrived in Queenstown, it did so having been brought to Kingston, at the Southern end of Lake Wakatipu by rail. A section of that railway track still remains and, with the clouds which had stalled the Milford Sound flight descending rapidly, a ride on the Kingston Flyer from Kingston to Fairlight seemed like a sensible plan.
The drive from Queenstown passes the town’s airport and then the Kawarau Falls, close by which the new Westin Queenstown will open in 2010. The next waypoint is the access road to The Remarkables Ski Area and, from thereon in, the road hugs the shores of Lake Wakatipu as it snakes beneath the cloud-covered mountain tops. Fifty minutes or so later and the valley broadens slightly as the lake comes to an end at the village of Kingston.
As is so often the case in New Zealand, signage for what one might be assumed to be a fairly major tourist attraction (and therefore the intended destination of less-than-locally-knowledgeable folks) is limited, however since there is very little else of note in Kingston, it’s not an onerous challenge to locate the tiny station building and adjacent car park – helped of course by the steady plume of smoke from the vintage steam engine.
The uncharitable might suggest that the Kingston Flyer is, in itself, a microcosmic representation of the whole of New Zealand. It goes from nowhere to nowhere much else, at a glacially-slow pace, with no apparent purpose or self-concern. The line, from one end to the other, is a mere 14 kilometres in length – but takes half an hour for the hissing beast and its attendant snake of variously appointed carriages to clank and lumber along it.
And then it comes back, very much in the same manner but, erm, in reverse.
A flyer it is not, but a less jaded observer might however notice that the Kingston’s carriages are actually ahead of their time. To prove the point, witness the following, per British Airways service class nomenclature:
World Traveller –
World Traveller Plus –
Club World –
First Class –
Notwithstanding the lack of obvious practical achievement in travelling aboard the Kingston Anything-but-Flyer, the whole experience is rather charming. The rocking and rolling of the restored carriages is gently soporiphic once the rhythm is tuned into and, assuming that eyelids remain rolled up, the carriages themselves are wonderfully detailed.
Passengers can wander freely between them, look out on the retreating scenery from the open platform at the rear or stand on the similarly open stage at the front, immediately behind the engine’s tender and in direct line of fire for the passing smuts and sparks from the iron horse ahead.
If you’ve ever approached Fort William in the Highlands of Scotland from the South, you’ll be feeling quite at home arriving in Queenstown. For miles before any obvious indication of the town centre is reached, the roads are lined with motel after guesthouse, hotel after apartment block, timeshare after B&B.; There are literally hundreds of them which, of course, means both lots of choice and heightened risk that the first-time visitor will ill-advisedly select, ending up in a poorly converted or designed property, which then turns out to be a four-day camel ride away from the attractions of the town itself.
The Crowne Plaza however, blessed with at least a reasonably detailed page on Intercontinental Hotel Group’s otherwise prehistoric and tough-to-navigate website, seemed likely to offer an acceptable compromise between a central location and chain-property reliability. Good value rates and added package amenities cemented the decision to book.
The hotel, having battled through the town-centre traffic, is immensely easy-to-find on the lakeshore Beach Street. The forecourt area provides an easy place to discharge passengers and baggage, before staff valet cars to the hotel’s high-level car park, which is built on the hillside behind the property and accessed from the top floor.
Fresh from a recent refurbishment which seems to take the internal appointments of this and other similarly-appointed Crowne Plazas beyond their rather pedestrian branding, the lobby of the CP is a fresh, light and bright space with trendily-uniformed staff behind Reception, and at the ‘Leisure Concierge’ desk.
The staff members themselves are as youthful as the design of their vestments, and are positive and eager if not exactly process-perfect. In this adrenaline sports capital, it’s probably reasonable to assume that the majority of them are skiers and rafters as opposed to long-term career hoteliers.
The first indication of this being that one of the rooms booked as a twin was allocated as a King. This kind of thing can happen anywhere, of course, but a rather odd response that my Priority Club loyalty scheme profile had overridden the booked room type suggested that they didn’t really know what they were talking about. It also transpired that the hotel had forgotten to take payment for this pre-paid booking, so that had to be resolved as well.
Observing the interactions between other guests and Reception staff during the course of the stay revealed fairly widespread unfamiliarity with systems and, it has to be said, those casual uniforms didn’t really instil a great sense of confidence or professionalism. I’m sure that recruitment and retention is exceedingly difficult in somewhere like Queenstown, but sometimes that’s made even more difficult when stressed travellers lose confidence, start complaining and make the staff’s job yet more stressful. If the traveller additionally feels that the person they’re dealing with is a little more style than substance, cool than capable, then no-one really wins. It’s a personal thing, I suppose, but somehow it all felt to me like a Brands Team, somewhere deep in the offices of Intercontinental Hotels, had been trying just a bit too hard and using up all the budget that Operations could have better used for training and reward.
The smiles go a long way to compensate however and, once installed in the correct room, it’s a very comfortable place to be. The hotel is built at a regressive angle up the hillside, so rooms facing the lake are particularly light and bright with a small furnished balcony from which to fully enjoy the views.
The rooms are neither grandly spacious nor overly compact, but they’re clean, comfortable and – like the rest of the hotel – newly refitted.
The bathroom is an up-to-date tiled affair – one step up from a Holiday Inn, but a place to ablute rather than linger.
Hotel facilities are limited to a sauna, bar and the ‘three-sixty’ restaurant; there’s no gym or pool. The bar is a modern series of spaces which comprise a traditional standing bar, a white lounge area and then a darker, more atmospheric room to the rear of that, referred to as the bedroom.
three-sixty occupies a glass box-like adjunct to the main building and looks out across the lake to the mountainsides beyond, the internal atmosphere very much taking on the mood and atmosphere of the weather outside. It’s a bit of a shame that the view is compromised at this level by the passing traffic however, with tour buses regularly rolling up and obliterating the panorama. Indeed it seems that the best view in the hotel, oddly enough, is from the sixth floor lift lobby. The second best is from one of the function rooms – a boardroom in which it must be very difficult to concentrate on business with the distraction of the scenery outside.
Breakfast in three-sixty is principally from the well-presented buffet, with a small a la carte selection and eggs prepared in the kitchen. The buffet includes both Western and Asian options and a couple of interesting options – like a small oven in which to warm pre-prepared cheese and ham croissants. The front-of-house team are very friendly and do a good job of keeping on top of the coffee service, table clearing and buffet replenishment. Things are apparently not quite so slick out back however, so the top tip is to order eggs pre-cereal, juice and patisserie, and there’s a reasonably chance that the chick will have hatched, grown, laid and its ovum poached, fried or boiled by the time you return to the hot counter.
The evening menu is a quite elaborate Pacific Rim sort of construction which, to me at least, looked very interesting. At teatime-ish, a presentation of canapé-sized tasting versions of the menu is offered in the ground floor lift lobby, next to the bar entrance. It’s a nice touch, although it rather belies the fact that the menu doesn’t really suit the clientele who seem to form the vast majority of guests during this Summer stay. There were more than a few tour groups in-house, skewing yet further the overall demographic toward the fifty-pluses. Indeed, among our own party, the fairly unadventurous FCC and GCC were entirely unmoved by the menu – preferring to eat out in Queenstown. So the canapés seemed to be a brave attempt to try and educate and demystify the menu, which seems to ignore the fact that it’s the menu that probably needs the attention, not the guests….
Shame though, because I (and presumably Chef, GM and Crowne Plaza Menu Planning Department) thought it looked good. But I’m not (and they’re not) representative of their average customer, or so it would appear.
Not that guests are left with little other choice; the location of the hotel brings an abundance of dining options within reach, from the waterside complex right outside the front door to countless cafés, bars and restaurants a short walk away in the town centre.
The Lonely Planet recommends the Fishbone Bar and Grill, which is really a rather elaborate fish and chip shop. Certainly the quality and variety of seafood cannot be faulted – from humble Hoki and Chips right up to stunning lobster and assorted other crustacea. It’s a fairly frenetic atmosphere though, so not the place for a relaxed meal in spacious surroundings – for that Roaring Meg’s might be a better bet, further up Beach Street and on to Shotover Street.
However, if casual dining is your thing (and even if it’s not) then you could do very much worse than The Cow, a converted stable up a back street which is little more than some tables, benches, a bar and a stone oven. The pizzas, in particular, are fabulous; served on a wooden trivet with a knife the only concession to decorum and costs kept low by the use of BYO cutlery for any further needs. And by that, I mean your fingers.
The menu has not, allegedly, been changed since the restaurant first opened. The constant stream of hungry diners waiting for a table (no reservations) would suggest that there’s no requirement to and, indeed, such is demand that an almost brick-for-brick replica has been built in nearby Wanaka. The atmosphere is almost Savoyard, high alpine rustic and it’s highly recommended by this happy trougher.
Check-out from the Crowne Plaza was quick and undemanding, however the Priority Club points which the stay generated failed to post automatically. A zero-pointed ‘ineligible stay’ appeared on the statement instead, which again tended to add to the perception of back-office confusion at the hotel – possibly connected with that initial pre-pay failure.
Final Verdict for the Crowne Plaza Queenstown: 7.0/10. An excellent combination of superb location, good design, tasteful and modern furnishings and comfortable accommodation. The lakeside rooms have great views too. However, the restaurant menu is too specialised for a hotel with only one dining option and the otherwise positive, friendly, obliging and enthusiastic staff seem to be let down by processes which are lacking somewhere behind the scenes, or training, or both. Overall though, a very solid choice for a short stay in Queenstown.