A trip to Queenstown and its mountainous surrounds with a pair of hard-to-impress teens means seeking out the most adrenaline-spiking holiday activities.
Go where the crowds can’t find you in Wānaka
“The definition of adventure,” states Neil, our septuagenarian guide, as he expertly coaxes our 4WD down a precarious dirt track hewn into the side of a mountain, “is a physical activity with an uncertain outcome.”
By that definition alone, my wife, Shay, our kids Rosie, 13, and Flynn, 14, and I are very definitely mid-adventure: a vertiginous drop to the turquoise waters of Lake Hāwea looms out of the left-hand-side windows of our ride.
We’re heading off the beaten track in the South Island’s tourism mecca of Wānaka under the guidance of a still-sprightly former highlands shepherd. “I ran sheep up these mountains for nearly 20 years,” says Neil as he takes us to the isolated sheep station of Dingleburn – one of several hidden destinations you can visit with local outfit Ridgeline Adventures,
After a brisk hike to a hilltop that affords a stunning 360-degree vista, we find a spot down by the lake for a picnic in the sun and relax on camp chairs as the kids skim stones across the glassy surface.
Discover a new way to hit the slopes
The thing about skiing that I’ve never understood is its ridiculously high barrier to entry. Long before hopping on a chairlift to take in those magnificent mountains, I’ve had to re mortgage the house for gear rental, exchange my left kidney for lift passes and surrender my youngest child as surety for a pair of slightly dank ski boots.
Enter the Yooner, a sit-down luge contraption that’s causing a user-friendly revolution on the ski slopes of The Remarkables and Coronet Peak in Queenstown. Inspired by the paret – a traditional sledge French kids once used to commute to their Alpine schools – it’s comprised of a single short ski attached to a steering stick that pokes up between your thighs and a small seat upon which to rest your lazy, grateful butt.
A 30-minute Yooner tutorial is all it takes for even the most inexperienced snow rabbit to go from bunny slopes to blue runs – as we all happily learn. After that, we plonk ourselves down at the crest of a snow-capped peak, point our toes to the sky, take a deep breath and, as our infectiously enthusiastic guide, Tuki, instructs: “Let gravity – and the Yooner – do the rest.”
Our teens, both novices on the snow, are quickly carving with the best of them. My wife executes each run with her trademark panache. In my enthusiasm, I accidentally take out an unsuspecting snowboarder. But, good news: the low-centre of gravity means that when I fall – and inevitably I do – it’s about as elegant a snow tumble as I could ever hope to manage. Easily the most fun you can have sitting down in the snow.
Explore Queenstown’s cool cousin, Te Anau
Described by locals as “what Queenstown was like 20 years ago”, the township of Te Anau, with its laid-back feel, stunning lakeside position and wellspring of thrill-seeking attractions is a low-key alternative to its better-known neighbour.
Yes, you could join the throngs jet boating the Shotover River in Queenstown or, like we do, you could sign up with Fiordland Jet for a more personalised jet boat experience, with a nature twist, just two hours by car south of the adventure capital.
We skid along the Waiau River past instantly recognisable Lord of the Rings film locations before arriving on the vast, deserted expanse of Lake Manapouri. The motor is cut so that the only sound is the gentle lapping of water on the bow. Our guide points out an island in the distance – a “kiwi crèche” where an effort is underway to rehabilitate the endangered Haast tokoeka kiwi.
We pull up on a beach and stroll along a rainforest stretch of the Kepler Track before returning to base in another thrilling ride, complete with enough trademark 360-degree spins to make a couple of teenagers grin from ear to ear. Once there, we jump on e-bikes to make the lakeside cycle back into town and I’m reminded of the secret to any good family holiday with kids: wear them out.
Climb a waterfall in Mount Aspiring National Park
I’m 330 metres up a cliff face, clinging to an iron rung that’s hammered into rock. Shay and Flynn are four rungs ahead of me, Rosie is two rungs behind them and I’m doing my best to look nonchalant bringing up the rear. As a waterfall tumbles within arm’s reach beside us, crashing onto rocks below, it occurs to me that I can’t remember the last time I felt quite this petrified.
“You could lean back into your harness and go hands-free here,” offers our guide, Mark, an experienced mountaineer and owneroperator of Wildwire Wanaka, the world’s highest waterfall cable climb. “It’s quite the rush.” I remain resolutely, white-knuckle-attached to my rung, happy to take his word for it.
Called via ferrata (Italian for “iron path”), this ascent is actually as safe as rock climbing gets. Over four hours of meticulously attaching, detaching then re-attaching our climbing harnesses to a series of cables and rungs, we scale a sheer cliff face, despite having absolutely zero experience. The kids – hard to impress at the best of times – do their utmost to seem unmoved but the wildly shaking leg of my son and the rictus smile of my daughter tell another story. This is family bonding of the most extreme kind.
When we finally reach the top, we’re rewarded with epic views and an immense sense of achievement. For a fleeting moment, I even appear to have risen in my teenage son’s estimation – morphing from embarrassing fuddy-duddy to vaguely cool action man. I savour it, knowing it won’t be long before I’m brought back down to earth.
Hear icebergs in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
The most impressive thing about being in close proximity to New Zealand’s largest glacier is not the sight of all that ice, concertinaed over centuries, awesome though that is. It’s the sound. Every 20 minutes or so, a loud crack or low rumble reminds you of the slow march the Tasman Glacier is on, grinding away at stone as it carves out a valley.
The Glacier Explorers tour that runs out of the historic Hermitage hotel in the spectacular Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park takes us on a boat trip onto one of the world’s few accessible glacial lakes with icebergs. Lucky participants will witness great chunks of ice shear off the 23-kilometre glacier’s face and crash into the water. For me and my daughter, it’s awe-inspiring enough just to motor through an eerie graveyard of icebergs drifting in the milky waters of Tasman Lake, shape-shifting as they slowly melt.
“I can’t believe I’m touching an iceberg!” exclaims Rosie as our guide manoeuvres the boat to within arm’s reach of a floating giant and breaks off a shard to show us. “This piece of ice could be thousands of years old!”
Later, we retreat to the bar that adjoins the Hermitage’s Alpine restaurant. Taking a seat by the fire with a glass of local pinot noir (that’s for me), we stare through floor-to-ceiling windows as the last of the day’s light plays on the mountain peak.
Sleep on Milford Sound
There ought to be a sealed section of the English dictionary full of superlatives reserved solely for Milford Sound. Because once you’ve experienced it first-hand, descriptors you’ve used all your life – magnificent, breathtaking, incredible – will seem inadequate to the task of properly capturing its beauty.
During the day, the sound is a hive of tourist activity as boats laden with camera-wielding daytrippers queue patiently to poke their bows into the spray of Stirling Falls. But by virtue of casting off late afternoon (when most other boats are returning to dock to disgorge their human cargo into a waiting convoy of coaches for the four-hour trip back to Queenstown), an overnight cruise on the Milford Mariner offers a more exclusive, leisurely passport to one of New Zealand’s most popular attractions.
With its 28 cabins, the ship can host up to 64 guests. But even at capacity, it’s big enough that you never feel crowded. Our party includes a honeymooning couple from Brisbane, three generations of an extended family from Canada, a father-and-son duo from New York and a group of friends from Melbourne.
After watching the sun set on Mitre Peak, we launch kayaks in blissful silence in Harrison Cove which, according to our guide, is one of only two places in the world where rainforest, fjord and glacier meet. Paddling on the sound’s glassy waters as a penguin breaches the surface nearby before rock-hopping its way to its nest for the night is magical.
Later, after a gourmet buffet dinner, we head up on deck and throw back our heads to stare at a sky blanketed with stars. And as we settle into our family cabin and prepare for sleep, Rosie wings her head over the bunk bed rail above and softly whispers: “Dad, best holiday ever.”
Image credit: Pakata Goh