Blessed with unreal natural wonders in practically every direction you look, New Zealand really is the otherworldly wonderland presented to moviegoers in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
To fly into New Zealand’s South Island from Australia is to experience humankind at our most predictable. At the first sighting of the twisty, mountainous, and lambspeckled landscape, everyone looks out of the plane’s windows in a simultaneous craning and angling of necks, and a rapid fire snapping of smartphone photos. In short, calling New Zealand pretty is like calling Liberace a modest dresser. New Zealand is a jaw-dropper.
Even better, the country is tailor-made for hassle-free tourism. Its roadways are elegantly paved, its people attentive and well mannered, even its ubiquitous grazing sheep (which outnumber humans nearly 18 to one) bare the uniform appearance of having all been recently shorn. What it lacks in dazzling cities and gay life, it makes up for in scenery so sublime even America’s most divided citizenry can agree it’s just beautiful all over the place.
There are few “queens” in Queenstown, where my friend Ryan and I enjoy an early evening arrival in balmy March. A city that would disappoint gay travelers in search of finger-snapping drag queens, a randy leather bar, or the appearance of an occasional rainbow flag, it nevertheless fires up the imagination of even the most armchair adventure seeker.
Hardly a major city (pop. 14,300), Queenstown is more like a chic base camp. If you’ve ever idled in Cairns en route to the Great Barrier Reef, overnighted in Arusha before hiking Kilimanjaro, or shacked up in a chalet before skiing the slopes of Whistler Mountain, then Queenstown will be instantly familiar. It’s a razzle-dazzle lakeside city where nobody is a true local and everyone rises and shines at the crack of dawn in search of nearby adventure—and there are plenty of them.
Our Queenstown hotel, the appropriately named Waterfront, faces Lake Wakatipu and by sunrise the majestic Southern Alps (including Mt. Dick) are photo ready. But we barely have time to snap selfies and scarf down brekkies on our enormous terrace (book the Waterfront for this reason alone) before we are in our car and racing against the clock to reach the famed Milford Sound by early afternoon.
Tucked in by cloud cover and pelted with a persistent drizzle, the Mildford Sound is a moody, mystical, and magical fjord carved by glaciers during the ice age and left untouched to dazzle visitors several million years later. A part of Fjordland National Park, some thrill seekers reach it via the arduous Milford Trek, but most do as we do and arrive via a scenic, three-hour drive from Queenstown and navigate the Sound by way of guided catamaran tour.
It’s an afternoon well spent. The mountains on this overcast day are all drooling, that is to say spitting forth dozens of waterfalls created from last night’s downpour. Dolphin, seal, and penguin sightings are common, and for a guaranteed applause most ship captains will steer their boats close enough to the side of the mountains so that its passengers are gently sprayed by water. Our ship happens to include a surprise marriage engagement (she said “yes”) and subsequent rounds of Champagne. Afterward, Ryan and I book a hilarious kayaking tour of the Sound; hilarious in that we are unable to correctly steer our two-man boat and spend the bulk of our hour going in circles and bickering the entire time (you’d think we were a straight couple).
We overnight in tiny Te Anau, a village of just under 2,000 inhabitants that nevertheless thrums with the chatter of day trippers returning from the Sound. The talk of this town is the Redcliff Café, a diminutive tin-roof charmer boasting hourlong waits even on a weekday, so we opt instead for the Fat Duck, a downtown gastropub offering New Zealand fare like salt-and-pepper squid and popcorn chicken with Japanese mayo. The garlic bread appetizer hits the spot.
Ryan has thoughtfully mapped out our journey for the next day. Unlike USA road trips, which tease motorists with roadside superlatives (like the world’s largest ball of twine), ever-present diners, and neon-lit motels, a Kiwi road adventure is largely pastoral. But unlike the pancake-flat prairie of the Great Plains, New Zealand’s South Island throws snow-capped mountains, glacier-fed lakes, and scenic vistas in front of our windshield at such a rapid pace it’s hard to keep up.
A feature likely to surprise first-time visitors to New Zealand is the prevalence of mining towns akin to the ones that pervade the American West. One such example is charming Arrowtown where we arrive by early afternoon. Gold was discovered here in 1862 and with it came a stampede of eager prospectors. Today, the town thrives on tourism, and who can blame visitors for wanting to stroll charming Buckingham Street while ducking in and out of its shops and cafés boasting the same Western false-front architecture you see in places like Dodge City, Kansas and Tombstone, Arizona. After shopping for souvenirs, we press onward.
A quirk of nature that has turned into an Internet darling thanks to apps like Instagram is the Lone Tree of Lake Wanaka, which is located in the town of Wanaka, our endpoint for the afternoon. Standing alone and aslant in the middle of the lake and framed in the background by the Southern Alps, it’s an irresistible shot, and we’re among the many who come to photograph it on a sunny afternoon, then follow it up with a scenic drive around the bendy lake.
Our accommodation for the night is the kind of unique lodging for which Airbnb has become justly beloved. It’s perched upon a hillside on the outskirts of the city (and not particularly easy to find). Our host is a Kiwi woman in her early 60s who sat down with a tight-knit group of childless friends 20 years ago and asked the question, “Who will be there for us when we’re old?” The answer was to collectively buy a large tract of sloping land overlooking town, build cottages on it, and eventually all retire in them together. At present time, this group of friends share a main house, while up the hill (reachable only via funicular) are work-in-progress studios. The highlight of ours is an outdoor sunken bathtub where Ryan takes a midnight soak and which I enjoy the following morning at the crack of dawn.
The South Island countryside is a like an adult version of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. Drive the iconic coastal road? Overnight in bumping Dunedin? Cross the ferry to Wellington? The possibilities are endless and all rewarding. Pressed for time, we stick to the path of least resistance, but it’s not as if our excursion through the South Island’s interior isn’t insanely gorgeous. The highlight of it is a photo op along glacier fed Lake Pukaki with snow-capped Mt. Cook in the backdrop. Ryan and I are both pinching ourselves, but the lake’s vivid color is no dream; it really is a shade of blue neither of us have ever seen in our lifetime, and we can’t stop idling before it.
A first-time visitor would be forgiven for mistaking the havoc wreaked upon Christchurch in recent years as the result of poor city planning or of a local population who decided long ago to abandon its downtown in favor of the suburbs. Alas, Christchurch’s disorienting hodgepodge of empty office buildings, hastily erected art installations, chaotic architectural styles, and a shopping mall constructed out of shipping containers are the result of a devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake that flattened much of the city in 2011. Currently in the midst of an energetic resurgence, it may nevertheless be decades before the city fully “comes back.”
But sifting through the rubble, the gems are easy to find. For starters, there is the boutique bargain Hotel 115 located smack in the heart of downtown and close to the city’s hop-on tram line. It’s also just a block from New Regent Street, a collection of specialty shops and restaurants housed in Spanish Mission architecture that opened to the public in 1932 and was once named New Zealand’s most beautiful street. Lastly, there is TK, a bumping indoor/outdoor pizza joint where Ryan and I play the role of token Americans and completely embarrass ourselves during trivia night. (I mean c’mon, one of the categories was Kiwi television).
While in the area, intrepid travelers may want to explore the otherworldly Banks Peninsula, an hour’s drive from downtown Christchurch. Reminiscent of Marin County in Northern California. We explore it on a perfectly sunny afternoon (the best weather day of our entire trip). The anchor town of Akaroa with its sparkly harbor, waterfront restaurants, and fancy boutiques is reminiscent of Sausalito, but the real reason to visit the peninsula are its twisty, mountainous roads and scenic lookout points. It’s yet another South Island showstopper.
If the Eagle, the global staple of fun and frisky (and increasingly endangered) leather bars conjures up flickering images of vintage porn, the unexpected grab of a hand on your ass, and a backroom marked by the permanent stench of urine, you’ll either be appalled or delightfully relieved by the Auckland installment of it. Scrubbed of any semblance to the Eagle bars of San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, this diminutive version boasts a rowdy and youthful karaoke night during my visit. I am here enjoying a night on the town on my own as Ryan has an early start in the morning (a sunrise tour of Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings). My ongoing flirtations with the bartender turn out to be the closest thing to getting action I’ll see during this trip.
Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, is a misunderstood gem. Hardly a megalopolis (pop. 1.3 million), we nevertheless encounter both Kiwis and Americans who shun its bumper-tobumper traffic and featureless skyline (although the impressive Sky Tower does pop out) in favor of tramping through the countryside.
We have booked a long weekend here merely as a base for exploring further afield highlights like the Bay of Islands, but persistent downpour tethers us to the city more often than we like and forces us to give it close inspection; it has its moments.
For starters, it’s a harbor city, and although that means cruise ships are forever dumping the masses into its energetic downtown, it also means it’s an excellent region to explore via boat. While Ryan spends a day in Hobbiton, for example, I catch the short ferry to nearby Waiheke, an island celebrated for its numerous wineries (there are literally dozens), hippie chic small towns, and stellar beaches. To call it a misty day would be generous (it’s downright rainy), so instead of beaching I find boozy shelter at the chateau-like Goldie Winery (the island’s oldest), where a delightful pair of expats (one British, one American) got me drunk while custom-designing a generous plate of cheese and crackers, charcuteries, and fruit for me.
The city’s food scene is also up and roaring. During our first night out, we hit up Culpeper, a tropical gastropub serving pork belly corn dogs, Peruvian coal-fired rotisserie chicken, and the irresistible Culpeper Smash (Tanqueray, bitters, grapefruit sherbet, rubyred grapefruit) that we can’t stop pounding. Our friendly bartender points us to our second night’s meal at Monsoon Poon, a roaring pan-Asian Kitchen whose firecracker chicken rubbed in Malay chilli paste tests my love for spicy food. No joke, it’s the hottest thing I’ve ever tasted, and it’s amazing.
On our last night, we head for Federal Delicatessen, a Kiwi twist on an old-school Jewish deli in the shadow of the Sky Tower Casino. It is so packed on a Saturday night, the unbearable wait forces us next door to the Grill by Sean Connolly, a sleek steakhouse where I break my no red meat rule with a thick and juicy burger made from New Zealand beef (when in Rome).
Our thirst for urban cool is satiated along Ponsonby Street, a long and rambling road consisting of food stalls, indie boutiques, five-star restaurants, hipster hangouts, and so much more. It is to Auckland what Sunset Boulevard is to Silver Lake in Los Angeles or Bedford Avenue is to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. We adore it.
As for gay life, it’s thriving, but small. The Eagle Bar I visited on Thursday night is bumping on weekends, and it seems the nightlife routine for queers is to cruise back and forth between it and sprawling Family Bar (Auckland’s youthful gay disco) across the street. After putting Ryan to bed one night, I sneak away to Centurian Sauna, a vaguely Greco-Roman-themed bathhouse that manages to get the job done.
The next morning, as we pack for our return trip home, I can’t help but wonder about the future of New Zealand. Relatively unspoiled by humankind, I imagine it’s the demi-paradise that California was before 39 million people showed up, or what places like Costa Rica and Tulum must’ve been like before the tourists rushed in. Blessed with unreal natural wonders in practically every direction you look, New Zealand really is the otherworldly wonderland presented to moviegoers in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sure, it sees its fair share of visitors, but its tucked away location in the southwestern Pacific Ocean means it’s still a luxury destination for most North Americans and Europeans. I guess what I’m saying is get there now, right now. Trust me, you won’t be sorry.
Hotel 115, 115 Worcester St, Christchurch. Tel: 64-3-928-2434. Charming, comfortable, centrally located boutique hotel with affordable rates. www.hotel115.co.nz
Waterfront, 109 Beach St, Queenstown. Tel: 64 3-442-5123. Become one with nature at this affordably priced lake-facing inn with delightfully spacious rooms and wonderfully huge balconies. www.thewaterfront.nz
The Culpeper, 22 Princes Wharf, Quay St, Auckland. Tel: 64-9-320-4373. Hip, downtown eatery with a vaguely tropical vibe. www.theculpeper.co.nz
The Fat Duck, 124 Town Centre, Te Anau. Tel: 643-249-8480. Charming gastropub serving up Kiwitinged pub fare.
Federal Delicatessen, 86 Federal Street, Auckland City, Auckland. Tel: 64-9-363-7184. Talk-of-the-town eatery done to replicate an old-school Jewish deli. www.thefed.co.nz
Goldie Winery, 18 Causeway Rd, Surfdale, Auckland. Tel: 64-9-372-7493. Oldest vineyard on Waiheke island with great charcuterie plates. www.goldieestate.co.nz
The Grill by Sean Connolly, 90 Federal St, Auckland. Tel: 64-9-363-7067. Upscale steakhouse serving New Zealand fare, excellent meats. www.skycityauckland.co.nz/restaurants/the-grill
Monsoon Poon, Lower Hobson St, Auckland. Tel: 64-9-379-9311. Always busy, downtown restaurant serving Pan-Asian food with a lot of heat. www.monsoonpoon.co.nz
Redcliff Café, 12 Mokonui St,Te Anau, Fiordland. Tel: 64 3-249 7431. Iconic restaurant beloved by tourists coming from the Milford Sound; expect a wait. www.theredcliff.co.nz
OUT & ABOUT
Centurian Sauna, 18 Beresford Square, Auckland. Tel: 64-9-377-5571. Gayborhood bathhouse drawing in a diverse crowd of locals and tourists. www.centuriansauna.co.nz
Eagle Bar, 259 Karangahape Rd, Auckland. Tel: 64-9-309-4979. Friendly neighborhood queer bar; not oriented around leather/levis. www.facebook.com/the.eagle.bar
Family Bar, 270 Karangahape Rd, Auckland. Tel: 64-9-309-0213. Busiest gay bar in town featuring karaoke, dancing and drag shows.