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DESTINATION: NEW ZEALAND

Well chilled, Kiwis cut loose

A raucous Queenstown festival ushers in the snow season. Also dropping into town to enjoy the packed powder: heli-skiers.

June 20, 2004|Amanda Jones | Special to The Times

Queenstown, New Zealand — I had just been introduced to a conservatively dressed businessman and couldn't help noticing he was wearing eye makeup. In many of the world's major cities we expect such things, but on a bloke on the South Island of New Zealand, such a sighting is distracting -- so much so that I felt compelled to inquire.

"Blimey," he said, "I tried to rub it off last night with vodka. Is it still there?"

I laughed. Only in New Zealand.

I was at the 29th annual Queenstown Winter Festival last year. Queenstown, in the Lakes District of New Zealand's South Island, is the country's main sporting hub, and many of those sports involve snow. Hence, 30 years ago Queenstowners decided to ring in the snow season in the Southern Hemisphere with a week of competitions and festivities.

One is the Drag Race. The race, with entry by invitation only, requires that the town's leading businessmen tear through the streets in full-blown drag -- dresses, wigs, fishnets, makeup and boas -- in a steeplechase. The "draggers" jump hurdles, heels and all.

"It was snowing hard," the 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 fun."

I saw pictures later. He had worn a spangled Lycra spaghetti-strap dress with leopard-print scarf, lurid blue eye shadow, black stockings, white high heels and a red wig.

New Zealanders have a wonderful sense of humor. They revere all things absurd. They love to make fun of themselves, and they never, ever miss a chance to don a costume.

The Winter Festival, a 10-day fiesta, is one of the finest times to witness these cultural peculiarities in action. This year, the festival is scheduled to happen from Friday until July 4th. It's also a chance for a North American like me to get in some midsummer skiing.

An icy June

Winter arrives in June in New Zealand. Just as we Americans are pumping up the paddle pool, they're praying for snow in the Southern Alps, the spine of mountains that runs down the west coast of the South Island, as tall as 12,000 feet.

Every year during this time, Queenstown, the happening hub of mountain hubris, turns up the volume and challenges all comers -- ski bums, tourists, celebrities, farmers, businessfolk and athletes -- to try their hand at a variety of stupid human tricks.

As a native New Zealander, I'm aware of how seriously they take those stupid human tricks. I left the country 20 years ago but return to visit family and for some fun.

I'd heard about this legendary festival for years and was intrigued. So when a friend invited me to New Zealand to heli-ski, we decided to time our visit to coincide with the festival.

Americans often worry about the 12-hour flight to New Zealand, but it beats flying to Europe. From Los Angeles you board the plane in the evening, have dinner and a drink, strap on eyeshades. When you wake, you're there. It's easier than getting to some parts of Mexico.

On my trip last year, I spent a few days in Auckland and then took a two-hour flight to Queenstown, where I met a group of old school friends. It was snowing hard when I landed, and I'd just missed the Drag Race.

We settled into the lakefront Eichardt's Private Hotel, a place so gobsmackingly expensive that one should not look at the bottom line when signing the bill. It's also my favorite boutique hotel, and I stand by the rationalization I made to my husband: The $793 a night (breakfast included) is worth every hundred-dollar bill. For the sake of economy, a friend and I shared a room.

Festival high jinks

The festival is serious business. About 30,000 people attend the events, which are held all over the Wakatipu Basin, including two ski areas. Coronet Peak and the Remarkables are each a 20- to 30-minute drive from Queenstown, and 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 outrageous winged costumes and jump from a pier into the 50-degree glacial waters of Lake Wakatipu. Prizes go to the longest flight, best costume and splash factor.

In the Undy 500, participants strip to their underwear and run along Queenstown Bay. The official rulebook mandates, "Long thermals do not constitute underwear." They mean briefs.

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