Queenstown, one of the most remote travel destinations you can point to on a map, is located on the South Island of New Zealand along the shores of Lake Wakatipu.
Among a mountain backdrop known as the Remarkables, made famous in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, it's a four-season resort destination ruled by adventure. Winters are known for the area's impressive ski mountains and summer for adrenaline sports, ranging from canyon swinging and bungee jumping to jet boating and river surfing. For more timid travelers, the area of Central Otago is also one of the hemisphere's most productive wine-growing regions and home to countless wineries ready for tasting.
One of the many picturesque hiking trails surrounding Queenstown.
Getting there, Air New Zealand:
If you listen to the idle travel talk, you would think the flight from Los Angeles to Auckland were 20 hours when actually it clocks in around 12, with a two-hour connecting flight to Queenstown. My travel begins on a newly refurbished Air New Zealand 747-400 in Premium Economy priced 30% higher than economy but 60% less than business class. Located on the upper deck, a three-by-three seat configuration offers personal LCD entrainment system, a chair that reclines to a full 45-degree angle and footrest. Landing in Queenstown ranges from harrowing to spectacular, depending on weather and the captain's discretion, through a series of acrobatic turns that seem almost to touch wing to mountain.
Where to sleep, Sofitel Queenstown:
Airport to hotel is no more than five minutes, winding through town where glimpses of the majestic lake are framed by architectural homes and glassy storefronts. While most luxury hotels are all-inclusive lodges where all meals and activities are planned from the hotel,
allows you to keep your travel freedom without sacrificing the five-star fluffiness. Sofitel recently relaunched its brand concept with the debut of several cutting-edge properties like this mid-rise hotel located in the center of Queenstown. The lobby connects to two separate restaurants offering a cool terrace bar and sleek onyx-clad interiors.
A lackluster façade of pseudo-ski-resort design leads to a dazzling interior lobby of natural stone, raw woods and modern furnishings that don't look like they just got beamed down from some Italian spaceship. Rooms offer impressive lake views decorated in tufted-leather headboard opposite sleek upholstered sofas and white ottomans. The bathrooms dazzles with a deep soaking tub and recessed television, controlled by waterproof remote control. While still on the pricey side for a Sofitel, the hotel is on average 30% to 50% cheaper than most of the town's luxury lodges and won't force you into communal dinner or afternoon tea.
Day 1, adrenaline adventures:
Queenstown is not for the timid traveler, at least not when it comes to the endless
that include canyon swings, bungee jumping from a bridge, G-force acrobatic flights and your run-of-the-mill paragliding experience. Having made most of the seatmates in rows 3 to 5 on my Air New Zealand flight thoroughly nervous on what was your average Queenstown landing, I decide to remain fully on the ground with some mountain biking.
I live in L.A. and own a mountain bike, which led me to tell my instructor at
that I was an average mountain biker. Expecting the kiwi-version of my meticulously paved Santa Monica path, I pack into a '90s Land Rover and make the two-hour drive up a sheer cliff of Central Otago that seems more sit-and-scoot than get out and ride. At the top of the mountain we unload our bikes on a promontory so steep that I would think twice of skiing down it even if covered in snow. But fluffy snow this was not, apparent after my third fall and endless scrapes to my ego before getting my downhill groove.
Queenstown by night:
Unlike many of the luxury lodges in Queenstown, the beauty of the Sofitel is that you can actually walk to most restaurants and bars in town without ever having to wait for a cab. I decide to go check out
, located within the lobby of the ever-chic Spire Hotel in the town's center. A cozy lobby feels more bourgeoisie library than boutique hotel reception. The rear dining room has no more than 14 tables and a small bar. The dinner menu offers spectacular flavors like salmon with cauliflower cream and fresh wasabi, venison with foie gras mousse and braised radish or caramelized pumpkin tortellini with brown onion consommé.
After dinner, I walk off some calories and head to
, heralded by a few hipster locals as the best in town. By day, the space is used as a supper club. There is a local clientele and seasonal fusion menu. Later in the night, around 9 p.m., the upstairs bar heats up as all the adventure seekers and hospitality workers invade to share stories of 200-foot freefalls and near-death adventures among a round of pool and beer. Around 10 p.m., the dance floor kicks into action as house DJs spin alternative rock, hip-hop and house hits to a hip crowd of under-40 revelers.
Day 2, take a hike:
After spending a pretty penny on room accommodations, evening dinner and a pricey day of mountain biking, I decide to see what can be done in Queenstown for free, or at least for as little money as possible. I decide to take the day and hike the famous Routeburn at Hollyford Valley. It's one of the best hikes in the area, advised the hotel concierge, doable in a day or even as a two- to three-day adventure that I had no interest in making alone. The drive takes you out of Queenstown along Lake Wakatipu past Glenorchy. Through deer farms and grassy panoramas, the paved round turns to gravel as you traverse a few shallow rivers like an SUV commercial before arriving to a dead-end dirt lot where your hike begins.
The hike begins along a steep trail leading to a shaded forest of fallen trees and infinite silence, uninterrupted by even a chirping bird. The trail winds and eventually lets out in a grassy field overlooking one of the most panoramic mountain vistas you will ever see. The grass sways in the wind and beckons your attention, where I sat for more than an hour marveling at such natural beauty. Walking farther, you approach a number of streams and rivers used for jet boarding. On my entire hike, I did not pass a single person, eventually turning back after four hours for lack of water and a case of the city jitters.
Day 3, hit the wineries:
My final day in Queenstown is spent exploring the wineries of Central Otago, one of the most famous wine-growing regions in the world. Located about 20 minutes outside Queenstown, the area is home to more than 75 wineries serving 177 vineyards producing pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay and sparkling wine. Numerous wineries including
, feature wine tastings, full-service restaurants and gift shops. While many tour operators offer day tours usually in the comfort of an air-conditioned mega-bus, it's also fun to navigate the roads in private or hired car.
Afterward, I make the drive into nearby Arrowtown, a famous gold-mining post, and explore the cozy one-story shops and boutiques before hitting the area's most celebrated gourmand for an early dinner.
offers a cozy summer terrace with fireplace perfect for late-afternoon lunches as well as a more formal dining room decorated in stacked-stone walls, beam ceilings and carved-wood accents. The menu is modern New Zealand, complete with surf-and-turf menu with Asian accents like Hereford Beef with pumpkin mash, rack of lamb with white-bean puree and a trio of red, yellow and crab curry curries that end the trip with a fragrant culinary bang.
Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com -- a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.