Golfing amidst scenic splendour
Golfers know that particular feeling of standing on a rise, a yawning drop below your feet, the vista spread before you, your driver waggling about to launch one of those little white balls high into the air to gracefully arc, sail, finally drop, kick and roll towards the green.
Unfortunately, it's easier to write than it is to do and, as a terrible golfer, I need all the elevation I can get for my tee shots.
Fortunately, in Queenstown, an outfit called Over the Top helicopters will fly you to the top of a mountain where you can launch biodegradable, eco-golf balls off a cliff and watch them spin to the valley floor below. From that height even a hacker like me can entertain delusions of grandeur.
Queenstown's that kind of place - dream it and there will be someone there to make it happen. For a price, of course.
I'm in Queenstown for a golf holiday in advance of the New Zealand PGA Championship, to be held at Sir Michael Hill's private course The Hills. Unless you're one of the best golfers in the country, chances are you won't be playing at The Hills on the weekend of February 28 to March 3. Luckily, they let one of the country's worst golfers have a go to see just how difficult that course is. And not surprisingly the answer is: very.
The Hills is laid out on a spectacular piece of land just south of Arrowtown. Electric gates require you to buzz in and explain yourself before they will open - perhaps because there's several hundred thousand dollars worth of contemporary sculpture sprinkled across the fields.
The course has been designed to showcase the best of its Central Otago homeland: soft browns, deep greens and the slate greys of the rocky outcrops that occasionally emerge from the terrain. The grass-roofed clubhouse is barely visible until you're on top of it and then you see what a feat of architecture it is. The final four or five holes have to be considered one of the best closing stretches to a course in New Zealand.
The signature hole 17th, for example, skirts a lake to the right, then a giant bunker, then threads through a canyon-like formation of rocks on both sides of the fairway that have small waterfalls trickling down them. Some of the holes will be driveable par-4s for the pros and present risk-and-reward opportunities (ie, good spectating holes). I run all those risks and receive little reward - four balls lost, well over 100 shots taken. (Note to non-golfers: this is a rubbish score.) I blame the distractions of the scenery.
The Hills has the usual assortment of hazards but it also has the novel feature of sculpture possibly playing havoc with your shots.
My playing partner, Ryan, hits a drive on the 18th that goes over a hill to the right and ends up an impossibly long way away down the right-hand side. The only explanation is it bounced off one of the 110 snarling cast-iron wolves that descend on a three-tonne cast-iron warrior on the right side of the fairway. This is not something you get to say about most golf courses.
Golf nuts will enjoy seeing the professionals do battle at the PGA, but The Hills has something for everyone. The sculpture park, the architectural clubhouse, and the events planned for the weekend including the 19th hole - a party area with local food and wine stalls, demonstrations and a party on the Saturday night with a band - will broaden the appeal to those not foolish enough to be golf-tragics.
A GOLFING DESTINATION
Long known as a skiing mecca, Queenstown in summer has become a golfing destination, and with its hot, dry summer climate it's a more reliable destination than some of the fancy courses further north. Near Arrowtown are Millbrook Resort and The Hills.
Millbrook is an extensive property with a park-like setting that comes across like a charming alpine village, or what it actually used to be, a high country farm. Small paths wend through ponds and mature trees and the clubhouse complex in stone. The trees lining the main road in date back to the 1860s.
The golf course is unusual in that it is 27 holes divided into three nines: the Arrow, Coronet and Remarkables. I play the Arrow and Remarkables nines as the other one is under renovation.
The fairways are wider and the rough less despairing than at The Hills, and it seems like a more average-golfer-friendly course.
The low stone walls and lakes on the Arrow nine have a Cotswolds kind of feel, and the ninth particularly - a par three to a peninsula green in the middle of the large lake next to the club house, is particularly picturesque. The backdrop of the Remarkables nine is, well, remarkable. It has more of the high-country feel with tussocks and that view of the mountains dominating every hole.
Art attack: The Hills' sculpture collection can play havoc with your shots
While The Hills will be off limits for tournament play, Jack's Point on the side of Lake Wakatipu caters for all those who want a similar experience. Sharing a designer - Darby Partners - Jack's Point and The Hills share many common features, including how tough they are.
The professional at The Hills tells me The Hills is characterised as the lady-soft lines and colours - while Jack's Point is the man - the same palette but a stronger contrast and a more raw, vigorous course. I stay at the Hilton Hotel, in Queenstown, which is an excellent springboard for golfers. It's on the Kelvin Heights side of the lake, just minutes from Jacks Point.
Because it is not in Queenstown proper, you can make a quick run out to Arrowtown and Millbrook and The Hills without having to fight your way through the Queenstown tourists.
At Jack's Point the massive property spins out towards the lake, leading up through tussock wetlands that will snaffle any ball that tends in its direction.
The course accentuates the rugged history of the area with driftwood-handled bunker rakes and railway sleepers incorporated into the makeup.
The course is spectacular and I think I prefer it for its amazingly tough challenge and the sheer virtuosity of its construction. The holes are widely spaced and you often can't see anyone else on the course.
The rocky outcrops add flair to an already dramatic landscape and holes like the par three that drop straight down to the icy lake beneath are breathtaking.
Play it on a warm day if you can because the morning I play a southerly is whipping off the lake that freezes the bones and affects the swing (at least, that's what I'm blaming). The clubhouse has a fantastic restaurant with plenty of sunny spots. A stunning end to a stunning course.
Ian Steward travelled courtesy of Destination Queenstown, the PGA Championship, Hilton Queenstown, The Hills, Jack's Point Golf Course and Millbrook Resort.
Sunday Star Times