The jetboat shot through Lake Wakatipu at 55 miles an hour, the pilot stoically hot-dogging around trees and rocks. Every few minutes, he’d rotate an index finger — a signal that we were about to whirl around at whiplash speed. My stomach lurched with every spin as I clutched the safety bar and clenched my teeth.
I was in Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand. Visitors schlep to this South Island town to zipline, kayak, skydive, bungee and bike through scenery as otherworldly as it looks in such movies as “The Hobbit,” which was filmed here.
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 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.”
Wilson’s intricate, painstaking work reflects those characteristics. With an Old Masters-inspired technique that he developed himself, he applies as many as 30 layers of glazes so that canvases seem to glow with the ambient light of their surroundings. The effect is entrancing. And although Wilson’s no Hirst, his Web site depicts him hanging out with Jeff Koons and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at a New York gallery; the latter enlisted him to donate work for a charity auction that also included Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns.
Back on Earl Street in Queenstown’s tourist-clogged downtown core, Blackley led me to the airy, bi-level Milford Galleries, where we were the only visitors at a just-opened exhibit by one of New Zealand’s great living artists. Dick Frizzell is a onetime commercial illustrator who mashes pop art, comics and traditional painting into uncategorizable work that bridges tradition and sedition. The exhibit I saw, titled “Grand Central,” included deceptively stark landscapes, portraits of rural shops and views of abandoned storefronts. Considering the weight of the show, I was surprised to see almost no publicity for it during my five nights in Queenstown.
Same with a dazzling show around the corner. Blackley took me to Kapa, a quirky gallery above a souvenir shop where Frizzell’s son Otis, an emerging star himself, was having his own opening. The space had just premiered “Recent History,” an exhibit of prints by Weston Frizzell, the “high-performance art partnership” Frizzell runs with Auckland scenester Mike Weston. Their work consisted of a series of metaphorical middle fingers. One print mocked a classic logo that Frizzell’s father had created for a New Zealand grocery chain; another savagely satirized an Auckland civic-pride campaign. It wasn’t what I expected to see in a city whose year-round population tops out at around 9,000.
And until recently, it wasn’t what you’d find here, according to gallerist Nadene Milne, whose roster includes such stars as photographer Fiona Pardington and abstractionist Stephen Bambury. “Over the past decade, the Queenstown demographic has changed considerably, with many internationals and New Zealanders who have lived internationally now living here. So there’s an increasing audience for a more sophisticated cultural conversation,” Milne told me. It’s what enables her to maintain a “serious dealer gallery” in what she calls “a provincial setting.”
Blackley, an artist herself who last month complemented Art Adventures with a small gallery to showcase local talent, was even more emphatic. Queenstown “was empty culturally a decade ago,” she said.
The next stop on our tour took us to a tin-roofed hut a few miles outside downtown Queenstown, where Spike Wademan was adding the final touches to one of his photorealistic marine paintings. A former commercial illustrator based in London and Sydney, Wademan settled in Queenstown 13 years ago for “a lifestyle change.” His fanatically detailed oil portraits of battleships and warplanes have earned him fans such as “The Hobbit” director Peter Jackson, an obsessive collector of World War I memorabilia. Wademan receives visitors by appointment only; it’s worth booking Blackley’s tour just to gain access to his memento-packed rabbit hole of a studio.
A workshop belonging to Wademan’s wife was just as fascinating. Sue Wademan is New Zealand’s leading textile artist; in a converted schoolhouse near downtown Queenstown, she maintains a fabric-strewn studio and art academy. The day of our visit, she interrupted a class of rapt students to share new work with us. I watched, mesmerized, as she arranged a seemingly random handful of ribbons into a graceful, painterly landscape.
“The landscape is why Spike and I chose Queenstown,” said Sue, whose work can command as much as $20,000. “And it’s very much become the art hub of the area. We have a lot of part-time residents who appreciate the kind of work that Spike and I do. That kind of population gave us an audience and helped us grow.”
Visitors, she told me, discover her work “by accident.” Then “they fall in love and say, ‘I’d like one of those.’ ”
I wasn’t able to take home one of Sue Wademan’s beautiful pieces. But thanks to Blackley, I did leave Queenstown with a new perspective on a destination I’d pretty much written off.
And for me, that’s the best kind of travel adventure you can have.
Kaminer is a writer based in New York.