Louise Richardson’s kids are so charmed by scenery and Queenstown history they managed to put down their devices for a while
The 17-year-old son in the back seat thinks it way beneath his dignity to holiday with us, and the 13-year-old daughter constantly switches between devices, her faraway face seemingly unmoved by the magnificent scenery that dazzles from every angle as we cruise out of Queenstown Airport carpark.
This family road trip was a hard sell but I’m ready for it. The point is simply being together, away from the bustle and big smoke of Auckland. Anything else, I figure, is a bonus.
When we reach Arrowtown there’s a little more animation, even some chatter, as they try to spot a food establishment. Apparently, it’s way past morning tea time.
The little town I remember so well as a childhood holiday destination is no longer little but still exudes an air of nostalgia. The main street features original wooden shop facades mixed with impressive modern reproductions. Tourists mill around in slow-moving groups, enormous icecreams in hand. Their eyes are fixed on shops selling merino jumpers and local art and craftwork – when they’re not busy taking selfies.
Down by the river stands part of the original Chinese village, established during the famous 19th-century goldrush, which brought prospectors from all over the world to this sometimes bleak, often arid, region. It includes an impressive long-drop privy.
Dogs frolic on the green lawn of the little cottage cafe and we feast on cheese rolls.
With my “history mum” hat on, I urge the offspring to try to imagine the harsh winters and generally grim conditions those men must have endured. There’s a bit of eye rolling.
“Well, I guess they got cold,” someone says.
The local museum is an absolute delight featuring displays depicting Victorian shops, homes, bars, bakeries and other typical establishments as well as a moving tribute to the district’s World War I soldiers.
The description and diagrams of a ghastly condition known as trench foot prove especially fascinating to our two, who have been studying the conflict, but apparently without quite such gory detail. Nevertheless, they are also clearly intrigued by other little, yet poignant things, such as medals, postcards and letters home.
A basement area, which was only discovered in 2006 during work on the former bank building now houses carefully collated local memorabilia. It was sealed up for so many decades it still has a genuine, somewhat spooky, odour of long-ago.
Outside in the sunshine again, Miss 13 and I have our photos taken in themed costumes and it’s a lovely surprise to find that our photographer is an old friend from my university days.
“Don’t smile,” she warns us as we clutch our heavy rifles. “The Victorians all looked grim because the process took such a long time!”
Nobody seems keen on undertaking a bungy jump at AJ Hackett’s world-famous establishment on Kawarau Bridge but we’re all happy watching other people hurl themselves towards the water far below, their screams of terror echoing in the mountainous valley.
Gibbston Valley Winery seems a good spot for lunch and one enormous ploughman’s platter is more than enough for us all. The laidback, holiday atmosphere is relaxing and the city kids are starting to thaw. Soon, they’re chatting with our waitress and making funny faces at the baby at a table nearby.
A sense of history overwhelms us again at Cromwell – the local fruit bowl – where a quaint village with painstakingly restored, resited stone and weatherboard buildings sits on the shores of the new Lake Dunstan – paying tribute to the original goldrush town, which now lies many metres beneath the water.
It’s incredibly peaceful here and we dangle our toes in the lake for a bit before hitting the bustling, resited, real-life, recently built town centre, where at least 40 deeply tanned European backpackers with sun-bleached blonde hair and sensible sandals sit in a tight row on the ground outside the supermarket window.
At first I think it must be some kind of protest, until the kids point out that they’re all taking advantage of free WiFi. We’re in thrifty mode, so we join in for a while, enjoying the buzz of many different languages whirling around us.
It’s a quiet night at the Lake Resort in Cromwell. Nothing much to look at except ducks. We make friends with a local dog that has accompanied its owners to The Moorings restaurant. The food’s good. It’s nice here.
At Wanaka next day, I’m blown away again. Neither my husband nor I can quite remember when we were last here, but 35 years ago seems to be about the consensus.
What I recall as a sleepy little camping ground, surrounded by a few houses on the shores of a big lake is now a big, flash, semi-metropolis with loads of shops and restaurants.
The kids, who are visiting for the first time, take it in their stride, quickly finding the best icecream shop, and the young lady even manages some op-shopping at the Sallies’ store.
“They’ve got pretty good stuff here,” she concludes.
We spend a happy couple of hours at Wanaka’s Puzzling World. Neither child was especially enthusiastic to start with but the maze soon has them hooked.
Our son thinks he has it licked when he reaches all four corners within 15 minutes and gives us a superior wave from aloft. But can he find the exit? Well no, as it turns out. Not easily.
Quite some time later, we all arrive there at about the same time, then head inside to enjoy the Roman toilet and explore the recently opened illusion rooms.
En route back to Cromwell, we stop at Luggate and reflect a little, in the shadow of the mighty mountains. Across the road, a couple of old characters nurse jugs of beer outside a sleepy little historic pub.
This is the real Central Otago, and everything is as it should be.
Herald on Sunday