A navy of snowflakes drifted on the black, starless sky, swirling some in the wind before lending their mass to a layer of lacy white gilding the balcony outside my room. After days of rain, the weather had turned cold during a recent visit to Queenstown, where I hoped a night's worth of heavy snow might dress up some of New Zealand's photogenic mountains for my helicopter tour in the morning.
"There's a very extreme landscape around us here," said Katherine Mitchell, who owns Queenstown-based Heli Tours with her husband, Paul. "Much of that is pretty hard to access if you're driving or on foot, [so] helicopters have been a part of the culture here for a long time."
Mitchell said ranchers and hunters had been using helicopters in Queenstown's steep alpine settings long before the region became such an in-demand tourism destination, so routinely flying visitors over the area's dramatic mountain ranges and sprawling lakes has been an easy transition.
"And in this little part of New Zealand, it's like all those landscapes are on steroids," she added. "They're all the best you can possibly get."
Milford Sound, one of the South Island's most talked-about natural gems, attracts a great deal of helicopter tour business for Queenstown operators, thanks to its relatively nearby location about 40 minutes west through the air. And the overnight snowfall made my Heli Tours trip over the Southern Alps to the dazzling collection of oceanfront fjords absolutely outstanding.
We hovered over icy-blue glaciers and buzzed along glistening ridgelines and jagged summits. On several occasions, in fact, I felt as though I was flying through a Lord of the Rings or Hobbit film montage, loaded with shot after shot of New Zealand movie-making magic. Later, we even landed on one of those mountainsides to get out and trudge around in waist-deep snow.
According to Mitchell, Heli Tours commonly caters to luxury clients interested in more than just a sightseeing flight out to long-heralded Milford Sound, offering them a chance to customize their outing by exploring some of the large, high-country ranches of the region, meet with farmers and their Merino sheep, fish in the area's different lakes and streams, or even heli-ski or snowboard during the winter. And New Zealand's cuisine is typically a major component of the company's commissionable excursions, which start around $235 per person.
"On the way back to Queenstown, you'll drop in on a backcountry mustering hut, which are little shacks farmers used to sleep in while out working on the ranch, and I'll be there with all the food," Mitchell explained. "We often do legs of lamb cooked on the open fire or beautiful steak sandwiches. Or sometimes we have clients that pick up crawfish from fishermen on the coast, [and] I'll cook those up for them."
Beyond just adrenaline
Only a two-hour flight south from Auckland, the Queenstown region enjoyed a boost in international tourism during the 1970s, fueled in part by the introduction of several ski resorts, the Shotover Jet boat adventure and the later arrival of the world's first commercial bungee-jumping venue just outside of town at the Kawarau Bridge in 1988.
Since then the addition of more high-octane activities, like skydiving, ziplining, paragliding, whitewater rafting and even river surfing, has turned the destination into a must-visit for many adrenaline junkies.
"I guess Queenstown is most famous for the adrenaline-fueled activities you can do here," said Tania Labes, the sales and marketing manager for the Azur Luxury Lodge, located just five minutes from downtown. "But I think once people get here, it's not just about adrenaline and adventure."
Soaking in the show-stopping vistas of Lake Wakatipu and Cecil Peak from one of the Azur's nine spacious one-bedroom villas, each outfitted with floor-to-ceiling windows, California king beds and cozy fireplaces, is a fabulous way to balance out an otherwise high-energy day.
"One of our guests' favorite parts of the villas are the bathrooms with the double-person spa bath," Labes said. "They've got large windows you can open out, so you can be sitting in there with a glass of wine looking out at the magnificent view."
Queenstown is, in fact, home to a number of excellent vineyards producing some first-rate wines, and many of them, such as the Chard Farm Winery and Brennan Vineyards, offer travelers terrific tasting experiences.
Meanwhile, golfers will definitely want to set aside some time to play at least one of the region's gorgeous courses. During my round at Jack's Point, a stunning facility lying between the Remarkables mountain range and Lake Wakatipu, I ended up taking far more photographs than golf shots. And foodies certainly won't be disappointed with the restaurant options downtown, where sampling the cuisine at award-winning Rata is a must.
For those booked at the Azur villas, however, meals from most of Queenstown's top restaurants require only an order phoned up to the luxury lodge's front desk.
"Then we go and collect the food from the restaurant in a little portable oven," Labes said. "And once we get it back to the lodge, we replate it on our china and deliver it down to the guests dining table room service-style, so it's really a nice way of staying in and enjoying what we think are the best views in Queenstown."
Azur villas start at $1,435 a night during peak summer season. Visit www.azur.co.nz.