For a traveler like me, whose idea of thrill-seeking involves a new book and a double espresso, this is not an asset. So it was painfully ironic that a planning mix-up dropped me here for five days in November, at the expense of time in bigger cities that I’d wanted to explore.
I tried a few “when-in-Rome” activities that challenged gravity; vertigo from the twirling jetboat finally made me swear to keep both feet on the ground. That’s a challenging prospect in a place whose entire economy seems engineered to serve adrenaline junkies. But then the manager at my hotel, who listened patiently as I vented about my lack of options, made an intriguing suggestion.
An hour later, Alice Blackley pulled up in a black Volkswagen passenger van. “Art Adventures,” the name of her year-old business, was splashed on the side; the company logo was emblazoned on her crisp blue blazer. And we embarked on a day-long tour of local galleries and studios, the first stop of which couldn’t have surprised me more if it had been an audience with an actual hobbit.
A happening scene
A short drive took us to a small, bright gallery just outside downtown Queenstown, where pop-goth canvases by Damien Hirst — yes, he of megawatt art-world fame — shared the walls with clover-shaped abstractions by Max Gimblett, a legendary Kiwi artist now based in New York.
Nadene Milne Gallery, as I learned, is one of Hirst’s global representatives. And the exhibit, tantalizingly titled “The Beauty and Brutality of Fact,” provided my first glimpse of a Queenstown that rarely makes the radar of adventure-craving tourists — a happening, heterogeneous art scene that’s uniquely New Zealand in its blend of hip and homey.
“There’s a misconception that Queenstown is all about the adrenaline-seeking thrill,” Blackley told me as we bounced along to our next destination, the tidy gallery of Tim Wilson, whose hyper-realistic fantasy landscapes got snapped up by “The Hobbit” cast members during their long shoot here. “People are surprised how art is evolving here. There’s a lot of wealth in the region and a lot of generous patronage. And there are some very big private art collections here of a reputable international standard.”
Wilson, whose paintings can fetch six figures, agreed. “Art and culture does seem sometimes to take a back seat while the outdoor-thrill-seeker scenario is pushed, sometimes to the extreme,” he told me by e-mail after my visit. “But I’ve lived in big cities around the world, and Queenstown’s incredibly nurturing. The landscape’s unlike anywhere on earth, the light’s unique and the atmosphere translucent.”