While you might think I've been living in a Hobbit hole or shacking up in the underbrush with a Kiwi (the bird kind) for the past several weeks, I have actually spent some time in New Zealand's cities. Cities however is a bit misleading. Towns are more what they feel like. The Great Outdoors is certainly where it's at here. So, from my experience, the main South Island towns have been... good.
On the journey southbound from wine country, I spent a few nights in Christchurch (named for the English college that one of the city's planners attended). With English influence throughout the city, I was drawn in to the lazy River Avon meandering its way through beautiful Hagley Park and the ease of walking to a neighborhood pub or restaurant. But there still seems to be a sadness that hangs over that city since the devastation of the earthquakes that were centered nearby in 2010 and 2011. The city center, and what I can speculate was the cultural and social energy of Christchurch, is still cordoned off for blocks enveloping crumbling buildings and dirty, gravel-strewn sidewalks. I was told that many people moved away after the earthquakes which has likely added to feelings of desolation in the area. Plans are in place to rebuild and rekindle the city but, of course, that will take some time.
Further down the coast, I stayed in Dunedin. No surprise that Dunedin is a scenic and lively town with its Scottish influence. They serve a lot of dark beer in that town and have a bagpipes player in the street (next to the accordion, I'm a sucker for bagpipes so I flipped him a few coins). After taking a quick penguin safari to see the most endangered penguins in the world (the yellow-eyed penguin- unfortunately hard to get a picture of), I was on the road again in less than 24 hours.
But now I have arrived in Queenstown (so named due to a local back in the gold mining days proclaiming that the area was "fit for Queen Victoria"), the Adventure Capital of the World (I'm telling you... they love their superlatives and self-proclaimed titles!) and the crown jewel of cities has appeared. Nestled on Lake Wakatipu in the Southern Alps, this place really delivers. The lovely little town. Its own local wine region. Friendly people. Surroundings that provide for a year-round sportsman's paradise. Not to mention it's a perfect home base to explore some of the country's most iconic hikes (more on that later).
I've experienced some of this area's amazing sights, scenery and locations but, with a plethora of heart-racing, blood-pumping activities in Queenstown, at least one had to be on the agenda. It turned out to be paragliding; something I've always wanted to do and, bonus, in one of the most scenic places in the world. Frankly, by Queenstown standards, I probably chose one of the least extreme options! But Stephen Tobolowsky (my tandem paragliding partner, Jim, who was a dead ringer for the actor) was a trustworthy and low-key flying companion that put my mind at ease by telling me it's as easy as walking off a mountain.
And it was! Maybe more of a power walk with a 180 pound man and wind-catching parachute behind me, but a walk nonetheless. The exit off the roughly 3000 ft Coronet peak was seamless and the entry into the arms of the valley was breathtaking. The truest sensation of floating on air as we weaved around jagged summits over the beautiful Queenstown basin.
Surely an experience and a place I won't soon forget. For me on the South Island, Queenstown is king.
Christchurch city center destruction from 2010 and 2011 earthquakes
Peaceful, verdant Queenstown Gardens in the heart of the city
Queenstown Bay. In five minutes, this view produced the mountain gondola and luge, paragliding, parasailing, power jet boats, and kayaking in the Adventure Capital of the World.
Coronet Peak (upper left side) from where we paraglided from.