Winter generally isn’t much fun, unless you’re properly equipped with some skis and a hip flask. It was only a short flight from Sydney to Queenstown, but while wintry Sydney was grey and dreary, Queenstown was all fresh deep snow, blue skies, and the streets teeming with attractive men in expensive winter wear.
This is the South Island of New Zealand, and Queenstown is the action adventure centre of it all. By design, my visit had coincided with the annual Gay Ski Week.
I’m not a great skier, by any stretch of the imagination, but I like it - it’s good fun, and it’s the kind of thing that you need to do on a fairly regular basis in order to maintain your confidence on the slopes and also to progressively add to your wardrobe of jackets, hats, scarves, trousers, boots, sunglasses, and all the other accoutrements required to look good in the snow.
My favourite skiing holidays have always been with big groups of friends, you head out on to the mountain to test yourself on various runs and then reconvene over dinner and drinks to swap stories about your near misses, close calls, and spectacular falls.
While it would be unusual these days to find a ski resort that isn’t LGBTQ friendly, generally the ski slopes aren’t awash with other queer people. Events such as a Gay Ski Week are a sensible way to try and coordinate the skiing holidays of the world’s LGBTQ skiiers – they’ve been a firm fixture on the calendar in Europe and North America for a number of years now. It’s a concept that works.
Queenstown is a stunning part of the world. It’s kind of obvious to talk about The Hobbit and how it showcases the breathtaking scenery of the South Island’s mountains, but New Zealand really is a little world of its own. Remote in every sense, the archipelago of islands that we now know as New Zealand broke away from the larger land masses very early in it’s development, so there’s an incredible array of fauna and flora that is unique to these islands.
The approach into Queenstown airport takes you through the rugged mountain ranges - our pilot proudly explained that it was one of the top ten airport approaches in the world. I’m not sure who compiles that list, but it’s hard to deny that Queenstown would be right up there, the final approach into Queenstown airport provides an exciting glimpse of the dramatic landscape that awaits down below.
Gay Ski Week is a big deal on the Queenstown calendar. The streets were festooned with rainbow banners, and the local shops were all involved in a competition as to who could create the best Gay Ski Week window display.
“The business association here in Queenstown has always been incredibly supportive…” explained Gay Ski Week organiser Sally Whitewoods. “It brings visitors in at the end of the winter season, so it’s a big boost for everyone.”
Queenstown’s Gay Ski Week attracts around 1,300 LGBTQ visitors each year, so it clearly is a significant shot in the arm for the local economy.
Originally from Bournemouth in the United Kingdom, Whitewoods has lived in New Zealand for over ten years now - following her wife to the land of the long white cloud.
The format of Gay Ski Week is that everyone is left to their own devices during the day to go skiing, or explore any of the other activities that Queenstown offers, and then there are ticketed events held each night which brings everyone together.
Whitewoods is a small woman packed with energy and with a raucous laugh. She is clearly a natural networker, greeting everyone like long lost friends even if she was just meeting them for the first time. Events like Gay Ski Week must be exhausting to try and organise, hosting a different event every night of the week is hard enough, but trying to promote the event and to get people to commit to come to something is never easy. But Gay Ski Week seems to be flying, tickets for all events were sold out and Queenstown was full of enthusiastic queer skiers excited about the perfect conditions for skiing and boarding as well as the social opportunities presented by the event.
From the opening event it was clear that this was an upbeat and friendly crowd all up for a good time – quite a few groups of friends had travelled in for the event, and a lot of people seemed to be regular attendees, catching up with each other over a few beers. In terms of where everyone came from, most people I spoke to were either from New Zealand or Australia, but I also spoke to a couple of guys from the UK who had deliberately planned their time in Queenstown to coincide with Gay Ski Week, plus there was a strong contingent of Americans. In terms of ages it seemed to be mainly mid-30s to mid-40s.
The events that were held offered plenty of variety, from Gay Bingo, to performances by local artists, and a massive dance party to close out the week. One of my favourite events was the Strip Night that was held at Vinyl Underground on Church Street. There is something about strippers that appeals to the straight guy in all gay men. The strippers in action were guys and the event was billed as a night for the boys, but there was a surprising amount of women there – given that there was a women’s party on that night also – but that just seems to be how Gay Ski Week in Queenstown rolls.
There is a lot more to Queenstown than just skiing or boarding - this would have to be the adventure sports capital of the world, with everything from white water rafting, to river jet boats, river surfing, and bungee jumping if you really want to get the adrenaline pumping.
From an accommodation perspective, there’s a mixture of everything from budget backpacker accommodation, through to self-contained apartments, and luxury hotels. I stayed at The Rees Hotel – it really was stunning, very stylish but at the same time relaxed and comfortable. Everything was incredibly modern and functional, with great service, and the views out across Lake Wakatipu and up to the mountains beyond was simply breathtaking.
I would happily visit Queenstown at any time of the year, but there is no better time to visit this beautiful part of the world than during Gay Ski Week.