QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand — Look out over Lake Wakatipu toward the mountains and you half expect to see a squadron of angels right out of a baroque painting fly by in celestial formation, harps at the ready, ethereal music wafting over the waters.
Take Scotland's lochs, Norway's fiords and the mountain greenery from the alps of your choice, stir their colors on a palette and you're ready to put Queenstown on canvas, a vista so heavenly that you hope to gaze at one like it on the day of reckoning.
New Zealand's South Island is noted for its natural beauty, and the Queenstown-Milford Sound area in its southwest corner draws visitors from around the world with a combination of seductive scenery, year-round sports and a lively social calendar.
In winter, the apres-ski scene has hotel lounges and taverns jumping until all hours. In summer they're filled with white-water rafters spinning hair-raising yarns of exploits on the cascading Shotover River.
Queenstown was founded little more than a century ago. Gold was discovered nearby, and diggers replaced sheep farmers as the population zoomed with the nation's biggest gold rush. The precious metal business is back to normal now, but the town still has the look of a small frontier village in a God-given setting.
Here to there: Take Air New Zealand to Auckland, Mount Cook Airlines or Newmans Airways on to Queenstown. An airport bus meets all flights and swings through town past most hotels; $2.25.
How long/how much? Most skiers stay at least a week to hit all the slopes, while summer visitors can spend almost as long shooting every rapid, fishing, hiking and making the requisite trip over to the fiords of Milford Sound. We found the exchange rate kept food and lodging quite affordable, even the best hotels within a high-moderate range.
A few fast facts: New Zealand's dollar was recently worth U.S. 56 cents. Summer begins around October, skiing from early July.
Getting settled in: The Mountaineer Establishment (28 Rees St.; $51 double) has been receiving guests at the heart of the village just a step from the lake since 1863. The building has an 1863 look about it, rooms rather small but neat. The pub and restaurant is run by Cobb & Co., a fixture on the New Zealand family dining scene.
Colonial Village (100 Frankton Road; $32 double with full kitchen facilities) is a series of small chalets cantilevered against a cliff just outside town. An excellent value for families or a longer stay, views over the lake spectacular. Black Forest Inn for dining one of town's best.
Hyatt Kingsgate (Frankton Road and Adelaide; $70 standard double) is a large and handsome chalet with all the big-hotel amenities: spa, pool, two dining rooms, mini-bar and fridge in each guest room, the Shotover Lounge for a relaxing evening.
Hulbert House (68 Ballarat St.; $45-$62 B&B), built in 1889 and one of Queenstown's finest old homes, is the sort of place where you'd expect to find Queen Victoria taking tea on the lawn beneath one of the huge lime trees. Restoring the house to its former glory and furnishing it with colonial antiques has been a labor of love for Ted Sturt and his banker since 1980, the latter suggesting that Ted take in guests to help repay his restoration loans. Rooms have that 19th-Century gentry feeling, breakfast served at an enormous, solid-kauri dining table, a place to savor New Zealand's past.
Regional food and drink: Outside of Auckland's galaxy of fine restaurants, don't look for adventurous dining on a daily basis elsewhere in New Zealand. Seafood and game are the exceptions, often prepared with imagination and flair, but beef, pork and lamb are usually given the straightforward treatment. Good produce is fresh, abundant and varied, but frequently overcooked in the English fashion.
Some of the seafood that will get you off the beaten path are New Zealand whitebait, paua or abalone, small rock lobster or crayfish, the last often grilled for a real delicacy. Roasted quail, saddle of venison, hare and wild boar are game dishes you can count on for a memorable meal.
We've chanted the praises of New Zealand's wines before, few of which won't add a shaft of sunlight to your table.
Moderate-cost dining: Black Forest Inn (Colonial Village) has a formidable Teutonic menu prepared by a chef from Munich. Try the salmon cured in lemon and peppercorns; schwarzwalder teller , a generous platter of German specialties; venison in burgundy sauce; hirschfeffer mit semmel knodel , a rich venison stew, or best-end-of-lamb glazed with mustard and honey.
Roaring Meg's (57 Shotover St.) is an old miner's cottage named for one of the lusty ladies from the town's past. On the day we were there the menu held such fare as lamb and apricot pie with almond sauce under a pastry topping, grilled venison and roast pheasant with Cumberland sauce.