Amanda Jones
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Queenstown Winter Festival

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Queenstown, New Zealand —I had been just introduced to conservatively dressed businessman and I couldn’t help noticing he was wearing heavy black eyeliner. In the world’s major cities we have become inured to such details, but on a “bloke” (manly man) in the South Island of New Zealand, such a sighting is uncharacteristic, to say the least. So much so I felt obliged to enquire about it. “Blimey!” he responded, “Thought I got it off last night with vodka and a some loo paper. Still there, is it?”

The 29th annual Winter Festival was happening in Queenstown and one of the seminal events, I learned, is the Drag Race. The race (entry by invitation only) requires that the town’s leading captains of industry tear through the streets dressed in full-blown drag—dresses, wigs, fishnets, makeup and boas. The race is a steeplechase, and the “Draggers” must jump hurdles en route, heels and all. “It was snowing hard,” my 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.” I saw photographic evidence later. He’d worn a spangled lycra spaghetti-strap dress with leopard print scarf, lurid eye shadow, black stockings, white high heels, and redhead wig.

New Zealanders revere all things absurd. They love to make fun of themselves, and they never, ever miss a chance to don a costume. I know this because I grew up there, which entitles me to make such statements. The Winter Festival, a ten-day fiesta that rings in the ski season, is one of the finest times to witness these cultural peculiarities in action. And it’s also a chance to get in some mid-year skiing.

Winter arrives in June in New Zealand. Just as we’re pumping up the paddle pool, they’re praying for snow in the Southern Alps, the magnificent spine of mountains running parallel to the west coast of the South Island. And at the end of July, Queenstown, the happening hub of extreme sport hubris, turns up the volume and challenges all-comers—ski-bums, tourists, celebrities, farmers and athletes, to try their hand at a lineup of stupid human tricks.

I’d heard about the festival for years and been intrigued. So when a friend suggested we reunite in New Zealand to heli-ski, we decided to time it with the festival.

Americans often worry about the 12-hour flight to New Zealand. But from Los Angeles you board the plane in the evening, have dinner, a drink, don your eyeshades and when you wake, you’re there. It’s easier than getting to parts of Mexico. Plus, during the NZ winter, there’s only a five-hour time difference (the following day), which beats Europe. COULD CUT THIS PARA I THINK.

I spent a few days in Auckland and then took the two-hour flight to Queenstown where I met up with a group of old school friends. It was snowing hard when I landed and we’d just missed the Drag Race.

Instead, we settled into the lakefront Eichardts Hotel, a place so gobsmackingly luxurious that one should look elsewhere when signing the bill. It also happens to be my very favorite boutique hotel anywhere in the world, and I stand by the rationalization I make to my husband—the USD$740 a night (breakfast included) is worth every hundred-dollar bill. For the sake of economy, a friend and I shared a room.

The festival is serious business, with events in different locations, including in two opposing mountain ranges. 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 homemade winged costumes and jump from a pier into the 49-degree glacial waters of Lake Wakatipu; The Undy 500 has participants strip to their underwear and run along Queenstown Bay, the rulebook specifying: “long thermals do not constitute underwear” ; The Suitcase Classic has entrants sit inside their personal luggage and race down the ski fields of Coronet Peak—in costume, naturally. Pets on Parade awards a prize to the closest owner-pet look-alike; Fear Factor is a game of skill where entrants climb high by piling milk crates; the Cardboard Classic is much the same as the Suitcase Classic; Mountain Bikes on Snow promises “thrills and spills” while the bikers careen over jumps; the Pet Duck Race is self-explanatory; the Dog Barking contest, also self-explanatory; and the Top Bloke Mixer, a beauty pageant for men where they flirt outrageously to be chosen “Top Bloke.” Thankfully, 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, where multi-sport athletes ski, paddle, run, and mountain bike 27 miles from the peak of the Remarkables mountain range across lake Wakatipu and up to 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 scanty costumes. A band played outdoors to a gyrating crowd of underdressed, hearty partiers. During the evening, a string of theatrically garbed people floated through the crowd carrying lights and illusory Venetian-inspired masks.

The following morning we made our way to Coronet Peak to witness the Big Air competition. In this event, skiers and snowboarders perform gravity-flouting feats off a 10-foot jump. Afterwards I took a few ski runs, but the crowds were so thick and the snow coverage so light I gave up. Don’t go to New Zealand expecting the ski hills to compare to the States. They don’t. Heli-skiing, however, is a different story. August and September are the best months for skiing Downunder. With the festival being in late June, early July, you take your chances with the snow.

Later that night it snowed, so we called Southern Lakes Heliski, a company that assembles groups and transports them to privately owned mountains for guided heli-skiing. We were a party of four, and the company needed to have three groups to shuttle up and down the mountain in relay. We were in luck, there was a group of Japanese snowboarders and some Americans wanting to go out too. The cost of a days heli-skiing was USD$360 per person for three runs, USD$430 for five runs. This includes a boat ride across Lake Wakatipu to the helicopter lift off, the helicopter shuttles, the guides and lunch.

The following morning we met the boat at the Queenstown marina and motored south to the Thompson Mountains. The point of difference about heli-skiing in New Zealand is that you don’t have to be an advanced skier. Skiers are grouped according to ability and dropped off in appropriate terrain.

The helicopter dropped us at the summit, beating up a blizzard before spiraling away, leaving us in vast, empty, mountain silence. We stood, snapped on boards or skies, and make our way back down to the helicopter. Initially, we’d opted for the less expensive three-run day, but after our second run we reconsidered and upped it to five.

Because it was early in the season the snow was heavy, making for tiring skiing. But the weather was glorious, the company good, and the scenery the stuff of storybooks. A cobalt sky arced wide behind the toothy peaks. Behind us lay a dazzling virgin snow valley and ahead were the blue depths of Wakatipu Basin and the surrounding sister lakes. And lying to the west towered the proud crest of Mount Aspiring.

At the end of the day we boarded the boat ruddy and euphoric drank Steinlager from the onboard bar, and made our way back to Queenstown.

That night we went to The Bunker, a tiny, clubby restaurant with a coveted nine tables (reservations essential), a roaring fire, a dimly lit 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 for US$24), but excellent. IF ITS TOO LONG WE COULD CUT THIS TOO AND JUST KEEP RESTAURANTS IN THE WHERE TO EAT SECTION.

Each morning we made a pilgrimage to Joe’s Garage, recently voted New Zealand’s best café. Hidden behind the post office, it’s a hip hangout where Queenstown’s beautiful people can be seen unkemptly nodding at each other, as if ten a.m. were an unseemly hour. It certainly had the best coffee in town.

The following day we drove to Coronet Peak to witness the Cardboard Classic and the Mountain Bikes on Snow. The cardboard race was mayhem, with laughing people smashing into one another and lovingly crafted contraptions dissolving into papier maché with each passing hillock. The strapping mountain bike racers were dead serious about their sport and soared and cornered with extraordinary equilibrium.

After the races, I met up with more Kiwi friends who invited me to join them to “Pop up the Remarks for a spot of bubbly.” This meant they had hired a helicopter for a scenic tour culminating with a bottle of champagne on the highest peak in the Remarkable Mountains. How could you say no?

Choppy, or Louise Patterson, is an infamous figure in Queenstown. The women want to be her, and the men fear her. She’s gusty, she’s determined, she’s a great pilot, and she owns Over The Top, a popular helicopter operation running heli-skiing, heli-hiking and scenic flights. We had flawless weather, and Choppy spun us over summits and snow smothered ravines before coming to rest on a ridge overlooking the lake. We waded through thigh deep snow to reach a cliff-edge where we sat and drank the champagne.

Saturday night was the ball and the day was spent in apt preparation at 101 Spa. Located on the edge of Lake Hayes, a bucolic lake situated 15 minutes outside Queenstown, the décor was funky-chic with beaded chandeliers, wrought iron furniture, a roaring fire and stylish therapists in all-black. There were only two treatment rooms and a vast relaxation area with chocolate-box-top vistas of the lake. I surrendered to three blissful hours of facial, massage, body scrub and pedicure.

Back at the hotel, we prepared for the Stars in the Sky Ball by wrapping ourselves in ludicrously gauzy black tie finery and tottering on heels though the bitter night air to ride a gondola to the Skyline building, 1,100 feet above Queenstown. 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 for the event, including national television celebrities.

By Sunday we were exhausted and the Winter Festival was ending. We’d witnessed the endearing eccentricity of these smiley, happy people, their drive to push the limit, and their readiness to do absolutely anything to ensure the word “boredom” never enters their lexicon.