I had just been introduced to a conservatively dressed businessman and couldn't help noticing he was wearing eye makeup. In many of the world's major cities we expect such things, but on a bloke on the South Island of New Zealand, such a sighting is distracting — so much so that I felt compelled to inquire.
"Blimey," he said, "I tried to rub it off last night with vodka. Is it still there?"
I laughed. Only in New Zealand.
I was at the 29th annual Queenstown Winter Festival last year. Queenstown, in the Lakes District of New Zealand's South Island, is the country's main sporting hub, and many of those sports involve snow. Hence, 30 years ago Queenstowners decided to ring in the snow season in the Southern Hemisphere with a week of competitions and festivities.
One is the Drag Race. The race, with entry by invitation only, requires that the town's leading businessmen tear through the streets in full-blown drag — dresses, wigs, fishnets, makeup and boas — in a steeplechase. The "draggers" jump hurdles, heels and all.
"It was snowing hard," the businessman told me. "My frock was skimpy, the shoes were hard to handle and I fell a couple of times — but it was faan-tastic fun."
I saw pictures later. He had worn a spangled Lycra spaghetti-strap dress with leopard-print scarf, lurid blue eye shadow, black stockings, white high heels and a red wig.
New Zealanders have a wonderful sense of humor. They revere all things absurd. They love to make fun of themselves, and they never, ever miss a chance to don a costume.
The Winter Festival, a 10-day fiesta, is one of the finest times to witness these cultural peculiarities in action. This year, the festival is scheduled to happen from Friday until July 4th. It's also a chance for a North American like me to get in some midsummer skiing.
An icy June Winter arrives in June in New Zealand. Just as we Americans are pumping up the paddle pool, they're praying for snow in the Southern Alps, the spine of mountains that runs down the west coast of the South Island, as tall as 12,000 feet.
Every year during this time, Queenstown, the happening hub of mountain hubris, turns up the volume and challenges all comers — ski bums, tourists, celebrities, farmers, businessfolk and athletes — to try their hand at a variety of stupid human tricks.
As a native New Zealander, I'm aware of how seriously they take those stupid human tricks. I left the country 20 years ago but return to visit family and for some fun.
I'd heard about this legendary festival for years and was intrigued. So when a friend invited me to New Zealand to heli-ski, we decided to time our visit to coincide with the festival.
Americans often worry about the 12-hour flight to New Zealand, but it beats flying to Europe. From Los Angeles you board the plane in the evening, have dinner and a drink, strap on eyeshades. When you wake, you're there. It's easier than getting to some parts of Mexico.
On my trip last year, I spent a few days in Auckland and then took a two-hour flight to Queenstown, where I met a group of old school friends. It was snowing hard when I landed, and I'd just missed the Drag Race.
We settled into the lakefront Eichardt's Private Hotel, a place so gobsmackingly expensive that one should not look at the bottom line when signing the bill. It's also my favorite boutique hotel, and I stand by the rationalization I made to my husband: The $793 a night (breakfast included) is worth every hundred-dollar bill. For the sake of economy, a friend and I shared a room.
Festival high jinks The festival is serious business. About 30,000 people attend the events, which are held all over the Wakatipu Basin, including two ski areas. Coronet Peak and the Remarkables are each a 20- to 30-minute drive from Queenstown, and although there are shuttles to and from the mountains, it pays to have a rental car, preferably a four-wheel drive.
Festival events range from merely odd to outright lunatic. Besides the Drag Race, other highlights include the Bird Man, in which contestants wear outrageous winged costumes and jump from a pier into the 50-degree glacial waters of Lake Wakatipu. Prizes go to the longest flight, best costume and splash factor.
In the Undy 500, participants strip to their underwear and run along Queenstown Bay. The official rulebook mandates, "Long thermals do not constitute underwear." They mean briefs.
In the Suitcase Classic, each entrant sits inside a suitcase and races down the ski fields of Coronet Peak — in costume, naturally. Pets on Parade compares owners with pets and awards a prize to the closest look-alike. Fear Factor is a game of skill in which entrants climb high on stacked milk crates. Mountain Bikes on Snow promises "thrills and spills" while bikers careen over jumps and around a slalom course. The Pet Duck Race is self-explanatory, as is the Dog Barking Contest. And the Top Bloke Mixer, a beauty pageant for men, requires that they flirt outrageously. (The latter is in the name of charity.)
The week culminates in the formal and loftily titled Grandeur Stars in the Sky Ball, rivaled by the less assuming Old Farts Ball, attended by Queenstown's old-timers.
Of the 75-odd events, one of the most popular is the Peak to Peak, in which multi-sport athletes ski, paddle, run and mountain bike 27 miles from the Remarkables mountain range across Lake Wakatipu and up opposing Coronet Peak. There are also less vigorous events, namely theatrical performances, hair-art displays, snow-sculpture contests and comedy competitions.
The night we arrived was the Night of Lights Mardi Gras, and many of Queenstown's 17,000 inhabitants paraded through the streets wearing extravagant costumes. No one but me seemed to notice that it was snowing intermittently. A band played outdoors to a gyrating crowd of underdressed, hearty partyers. As we ate dinner at Tatler, a locals' favorite on the Mall, the pedestrian-only section of Queenstown, a string of theatrically garbed people floated through carrying lights and Venetian-inspired masks.
The next morning we made our way to Coronet Peak to witness the Big Air competition, in which skiers and snowboarders perform gravity-flouting feats off a 10-foot jump. Afterward I took a few ski runs, but the crowds were so thick and the snow so light I gave up.
By the way, don't come to New Zealand expecting the quality of snow conditions and ski resorts to compare to the States. They don't. Heli-skiing, however, is a different story. August and September are the best months for the sport Down Under, and many of the Northern Hemisphere's ski teams come here to practice.
That night we went to the Bunker, a tiny, clubby restaurant with nine coveted tables (reservations are essential), a roaring fire, a dimly lighted bar with deep sofas, leather armchairs and chocolate décor. It also has some of the best food in the country. It is high-end — a rack of lemon, garlic and rosemary lamb costs $24 — but excellent.
Sadly, we'd had to move from Eichardt's and into the larger 144-room Mercure St. Moritz Hotel on the hill above Queenstown. We had tried to get a lakeside condominium, of which there are many, but everything was booked.
Every morning we made a pilgrimage to Joe's Garage, recently voted New Zealand's best cafe. Hidden behind the post office, it's a hip hangout where Queenstown's unkempt beautiful people can be seen nodding at one another, as if 10 a.m. were an unseemly hour. It certainly had the best coffee in town, and the panini weren't bad either.
The following day we again drove half an hour to Coronet Peak, to witness the Cardboard Classic and Mountain Bikes on Snow. The cardboard race was mayhem, with laughing people smashing into one another and lovingly crafted contraptions dissolving into papier-mâché with each passing hillock. The strapping mountain bike racers were dead serious about their competition, and soared and cornered with extraordinary equilibrium.
After the races, I met more Kiwi friends, who invited me to join them in "popping up the Remarks for a spot of bubbly." Translated, it meant they were hiring a helicopter for a scenic tour culminating with a bottle of Champagne on the highest peak in the Remarkables. How could I say no?
Choppy, or Louise Patterson, is an infamous figure in Queenstown. Women want to be her, and men are terrified of her. She's gutsy, she's determined, she's successful, and she's a great pilot. She owns Over the Top, a helicopter operation running heli-skiing and heli-hiking tours and scenic flights. We had flawless weather, and soared over summits and snow-smothered valleys before coming to rest on a ridge overlooking blue Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown. We waded through thigh-deep snow to reach a cliff edge where we sat and drank Champagne as if this were something these Kiwis did every other day.
A black-tie finale The following evening, Saturday, was the Stars in the Sky ball, and we knew it would require a reserve of energy.
On Saturday we made a beeline for 101 Spa. On the edge of Lake Hayes and 15 minutes outside Queenstown, the spa has funky-chic décor with beaded chandeliers, wrought-iron furniture, a roaring fire and stylish therapists wearing all black. There were only two treatment rooms and a vast relaxation area with chocolate-box-top vistas of the lake complete with gliding swans. I surrendered to three blissful hours of facial, massage, body scrub and pedicure.
Back at the St. Moritz, we prepared for the ball, which meant wrapping ourselves in gauzy finery and then tottering on heels through the bitter night air to ride a gondola to the Skyline building 1,100 feet above the glittering lights of Queenstown. Once there, we were entertained by cabaret acts doing wry impersonations of Tina Turner, Tom Jones, David Lee Roth and Austin Powers. People had come from all over New Zealand, including national celebrities. I saw my eyeliner man there sans makeup and Lycra. He looked at my heels pityingly.
By Sunday we were done in, so it was good that the Winter Festival was ending. We'd witnessed the endearing eccentricity of these happy people, their drive to push the limit, and their readiness to do anything to ensure the word "boredom" never enters their lexicon.
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Dashing to the snow
From LAX, Air New Zealand and Qantas have connecting service to Queenstown. Restricted round-trip fares start at $1,707 June 20-July 20, $1,577 July 21-Aug. 28.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 64 (country code for New Zealand), 3 (the area code for Queenstown) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Eichardt's Private Hotel, Marine Parade; 441-0450, http://www.eichardtshotel.co.nz . Five-room hotel with views of Lake Wakatipu and mountains. Doubles $919 for a lake-view room, including breakfast but not 12.5% tax; $793 for mountain-view room.
Mercure St. Moritz Hotel, 10-18 Brunswick St.; 442-4990, http://www.mercure.com . Chain hotel with 144 rooms. Doubles $149-$177.
WHERE TO EAT:
The Bunker, Cow Lane; 441-8030, http://www.thebunker.co.nz . Main courses $20 for a vegetarian plate to $25 for venison. Reservations essential.
Joe's Garage, 15 Camp St.; 442-5282. Good for breakfast, lunch; $3 for sausage sandwich to $9 for a full breakfast, with eggs and sausage.
Tatler Restaurant, 5 The Mall; 442-8372, http://www.tatler.co.nz . Main courses $22 for char-grilled beef filet to $16 for pasta. Lively atmosphere.
Eichardt's Bar, Marine Parade; 441-0442. On the waterfront. Great for lunch. Meals $8 for soup to $17 for loin of lamb or confit of duck.
TO LEARN MORE:
Queenstown Winter Festival, 441-2453, http://www.winterfestival.co.nz . Festival runs June 25-July 4.
Tourism New Zealand, (866) 639-9325, http://www.purenz.com .
— Amanda Jones