QUEENSTOWN, N.Z. – Some of the best moments of vacations arrive serendipitously.
Only after the jetlag falls away, after the most obsessive, adrenalin-driven, pre-planned highlights are checked off, and after the pace of daily activity slows does travel begin to find its own rhythm and offer up more of the unexpected.
Wednesday was such a day. It dawned gray and wet. After a late night listening to two enthusiastic young folk singers at a lively Irish pub, we slept in, puttered, did a load of laundry and, finally, headed to town on foot sometime after noon with no particular plan in mind.
“Let’s go there,” I said to Kathy, pointing to a sign for the Queenstown Gardens. These barely earned a half-sentence in our rather disdainful Rough Guide, which describes Queenstown as “Screamtown,” because of its extreme sports and hard-drinking younger crowd (it’s actually quite charming in its rough-and-tumble way).
The Queenstown gardens is certainly are smaller than the sprawling botanical gardens of both Christchurch and Dunedin. But what a gem. We walked past towering sequoia and twisted “corkscrew willow” and crossed the bridge over a pond covered with lily pads and pink and white flowers. Among them paddled an extended family of ducklings, including a mother and her chick, who would periodically climb unsteadily over the pads themselves.
The rose garden smelled divine in the mid-day mist, though a pink rose named Sexy Rexy didn’t compare to the fragrant yellow Nelson Girls.
This is a land of bold adventurers and big, strong men and women, and no New Zealand park, it seems, can be built without its memorial. Behind the roses, a stark metal sculpture depicts a gloved hand holding an ice pick, a memorial to Bruce Grant, “son of Queenstown,” who died on K2 in the Himalayas at age 31 in 1995. A plaque on a rock slab remembers another young mountaineer, Andy Harris, who died on Everest a year later, last seen trying to assist others in an approaching storm.
Their memories couldn’t be held in a more idyllic place. We ate a picnic under a covered table, waiting until the rain stopped, and then paused to watch laughing couples and families try their hand at Frisbee golf, an 18 “hole” course through the trees and flowers over which participants toss Frisbees from 40 to 125 meters at metal nets.
We asked a young couple, she with pink Frisbee, he with yellow, whether it was possible to make headway at this game. “Yes,” he said. “But we haven’t hit par yet.”
I’d say we have hit par, or at least our rhythm on this journey, one that is slower, less studied, a bit more serendipitous. Today, in Wanaka, over Crown Range Road from Queenstown, we ate blue cod not at a tourist place but at McGregor’s, a local establishment around since 1913. Or, as its sign reads: “Baking at Sparrow’s Fart Since Adam Was A Cowboy.”
I’m afraid I have no idea what that means. But the local fish was delicious, and a lot less expensive than at the tourist places in the official guides. Chalk up one more victory for less planning.