Queer as Queenstown: calling all warrior princesses, the land of Xena offers openness and adventure.
It's my first day in Queenstown, New Zealand, the adventure capital of the world. Even the flight into Otago was an adrenalin junkie's hit. As we descended, the downdrafts from the Remakables, a mountain range whose high point is 7,545 feet, caused the plane to dip up and down like a rollercoaster. Thankfully, The Lord of the Rings-style scenery saved me from the sight of the airline attendants bouncing around in the plane.
Queenstown is like the girl Mom warned you about: dangerous, seductive, beautiful--and if you're not careful, she'll have you spinning out of control. Built around the deep-blue Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is famous for its adventure activities: mountain biking, jet boating, white-water rafting, and of course bungee jumping. You'll spot the tourists easily: Bungee protocol requires that you have your weight branded on your hand in red marker, like you're a two-legged form of livestock.
New Zealand is beautiful, whichever part you visit, but Queenstown is beautifully butch. In the winter, the streets are full of ski-toting girls in their snow gear, with tousled hair and mountain-kissed pink faces.
While the Kiwis, as they're known, may be famous for producing world-renowned wine and food, they are also famous for producing one other savory piece of work: Lucy Lawless. It is no surprise that Xena: Warrior Princess was brought to life by a New Zealand-born actress. The irony is not wasted on me when I meet my Kiwi host, Xelia. I waste no time asking her if she has ever taken Lucy bungee jumping.
"She's a little bit before my time," Xelia says, smiling. "But as a kid I remember her on a TV travel show, before she got big. There was one episode where she went bungee jumping from a helicopter. She's really cool." I agree and ask Xelia if all Kiwis have the daredevil spirit running through their veins, just trading in their leather plates and armour for North Face skiwear. "I guess we live on the edge of the world, so we treat life on the edge as normal!"
The next day, we're off on a spine-tingling drive through Wanaka and up to Cardrona Alpine Resort. Although the Remarkables ("Remarks," as the locals say) are closer and more accessible, it's Cardrona where the Kiwis like to ski. The snow is better, the runs are wider, and the crowds are kept to a minimum.
On the drive, I ask Xelia about the legend of the Cardrona Bra Fence (I'm pretty sure she's on to me now). I'd read about a fence on the side of the road somewhere in sheep-farming country where it had become weirdly customary for women to hang their bras, hundreds at a time. "Unfortunately, the District Council removed the bras in 21306," says Xelia. "There were around Soo bras before they shut it down. The Council thought it was an eyesore and a distraction for drivers." We drive on through the completely braless winding roads. The higher we get, the harder it is to see. Everything is white.
Aotearoa is the Maori word for New Zealand; roughly translated, it means "the land of the long white cloud," and up here in these heavenly surroundings, the description couldn't be more apt.
Although it's September, the end of ski season, the snow hasn't begun to diminish. When we reach the slopes, I tell Xelia that I've never seen this much snow before. "Really?" she asks me with a smile on her face. "I haven't been up this season because we haven't had a very good snowfall." I look around in amazement, because it's white as far as the eye can see. Once we're boarded up, we wait at the chair lifts to be given the all clear by the snow officials. We slide our snowboards along, making the first tracks of the day.
I'm not a very good snowboarder, but I spend the day with that Christmastime pop standard "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" playing in my head. The snow is so thick and powdery that it cushions my falls, and the turns I maneuver make me feel like I'm surfing in soft waves. I meet Xelia at the end of the day and tell her about the awesome powder I've been carving up. She laughs and says, "It's so cute how you think this is powder. I go off-piste [backcountry] skiing up here and have been in snow so deep I've been stuck up to my waist."
Xelia and I are already playing out some sort of read-between-the-lines Xena and Gabrielle relationship. But this farm girl can't wait through six seasons of unrelenting subtext, so we hit the bars of downtown Queenstown.
There's a great mix of bars in the heart of town, dotted around the cobbled lanes. After a few apres ski drinks, you'd almost think you're in Europe. There are backpacker bars where you can get lost in a sea of twenty-somethings doing an organized pub-crawl. Or you can settle into one of the many wine bars where the fire is roaring and the ambience is elegant.
Queenstown has the highest bar-to-person ratio in New Zealand and that's no surprise, given that what goes up must come down. After a day of bungee jumping, alcohol is a necessity.
Honestly though, I was coaxed into the first jump almost through trickery. Taken to the Kawarau Bridge, which boasts the world's first commercial bungee jump, I was told we were there just to participate in some people watching. After I'd taken a few quick snaps of the brave, incredibly fearless people throwing themselves off the 147-foot bridge, Xelia says, "Well, now that we're here, you may as well jump."
For this sort of thing, perhaps "unprepared" is the best possible frame of mind. Before I know it, my legs tied together with rope, I'm standing on the edge of the bridge. Sensing my fear, the bungee masters of AJ Hackett (bungy.co.nz) are kind and very slowly count back from three before I stretch my arms out like Jesus on the cross and fall forward. The blood rushes to my head and I hold my breath, frozen in position, not even able to scream. Until--bounce--I reach the length of the rope's tether and realise I have survived. It's now time to scream, and I do so for several minutes.
The best feeling about bungee jumping is knowing that it's over--and you've accomplished something that most people would never even attempt. If it weren't for my benign crush on Xelia, my warrior princess, I'm not sure I ever would have either. I wouldn't say that it's better than sex, but it's up there with foreplay. (newzealand.com/us/)
HOW TO GET THERE
Air New Zealand flies from L.A. to Auckland direct (airnewzealand.com)
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|Title Annotation:||EXOTIC ESCAPES; Queenstown, New Zealand|
|Article Type:||Travel narrative|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2013|
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