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 email 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 website 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.