DOWN UNDER New Zealand resort area offers beauty, adventure and summer in winter


It may not matter much if, in New Zealand, water swirls clockwise down the drain or even that the shady side of the street is always on the south. But for anyone planning a warm-weather winter vacation, the important fact is that the seasons are also reversed near the bottom of the world.

In what travel writer James Michener has called "probably the most beautiful place on earth," spring turns into summer by December. In New Zealand's top resort area, the South Island's Queenstown, typical January temperatures hover in the 70s, and leaf season doesn't begin until March.

There are two equally spectacular ways to get to Queenstown from Christchurch, the South Island's garden-filled gateway city where the ambience is as English as a cup of tea.

(New Zealand's Florida-sized South Island and the smaller but more populous North Island together comprise an independent nation within the British Commonwealth.)

Those in a hurry hop aboard a low-flying Mount Cook Line flight that yields, out the right-hand windows, the clearest view possible of what is, literally, the high point of the entire country -- the perma-white, 12,349-foot-high cone of Mount Cook soaring above the Southern Alps.

But the quintessential New Zealand experience, a stay on a sheep station, can be included in a 300-mile drive to Queenstown. The three-hour scenic leg from Christchurch south Fox's Peak Station in Fairlie is an astonishing experience for Americans used to thronged thruways.

The only traffic jams are caused by sheep, who outnumber people 24 to 1. The fuzzy golden hills and wooded vales are free of litter, billboards or, it seems, most other signs of human life. Lakes and the air itself retain a primordial purity.

One sheep station is operated by Jennifer and Peter Rayne. A 50-ish couple with grown children, the Raynes, who run the 13,000-acre farm with only part-time help, decided to open their big ranch home to paying guests.

During a visit, guests hop aboard Mr. Rayne's all-terrain vehicle for a tour of the land developed by his grandfather, a sheep station that today supports a flock of 9,000 and encompasses an entire range of 7,000-foot high mountains. Tweedle, the collie, trots alongside and is all business as he focuses his eyes and ears on a meadow where a stray lamb frolics in the clover.

Mr. Rayne commands her to "get away up and pick her," and thdog springs into action, scolding the small woolly creature with many stern yaps as he nudges her uphill to rejoin her dam.

Before serving a home-cooked dinner, Mrs. Rayne leads visitors outside while she feeds the horses and her favored pets, six orphaned lambs who cavort in her flower garden. It's hard to leave this perfect scene the next day, but Queenstown still beckons.

Gorgeously positioned on a bend of 53-mile-long Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is circled by 7,000-foot high peaks of the Remarkables. With typical New Zealand egalitarianism, the town offers accommodations for everyone -- from youth hostels to top-flight hotels.

One of the most heavily booked outings from town combines three activities, each a whopper in itself. At the Shotover Gorge, a dozen people are packed like sardines into a jet boat for a type of horizontal roller-coaster ride at 42 mph. It feels more like 90 as the open craft skirts the canyon walls with only inches to spare and executes dizzying 360-degree turns that induce shrieks of glee and terror.

Next on the "Shotover Triple Challenge" comes a helicopter flight to an upriver pad where everyone boards a rubber raft to shoot the boiling Grade 4 and 5 rapids. Participants plunge through an old gold-mining tunnel and negotiate whirlpools the guides call by name. "Pinball" and "The Toilet" are two of the more printable sobriquets.

Anyone who still craves excitement can hop aboard A. J. Hackett's Bungee Bus for the 14-mile drive to the Kawarau Suspension Bridge. Those who dare can bungee-jump 143 feet to the surface of the river. Boatmen wait to pull jumpers aboard, undo the bungee rope, and assure them that, yes, they really did do that crazy thing.

An oarsman winks at a couple of spectators and informs them that the jump is free for anyone over 65.

Most senior citizens pass up the $49 value in favor of more manageable pursuits such as mountain climbing or a horse trek. But for most people, the best activity in town is a lake cruise to Mount Nicholas High Country Sheep & Cattle Station aboard the coal-fired steamship, the Earnslaw. The ship is as spiffy today as it must have been when it was launched 80 years ago. Plush upholstery and brass fixtures grace a salon, where a pianist was leading a Japanese tour group through a hearty, if curiously pronounced, chorus of "She'll Be Comin' 'round the Mountain When She Comes."

After the boat docks at Mount Nicholas, there is a demonstration of how a well-trained dog can control a thousand sheep. After the collies are put through their paces, everyone watches as a not-too-willing 190-pound merino sheep is wrestled to the barn floor by a 210-pound sheep shearer and parted from nine pounds of wool.

Milford Sound, considered "the eighth wonder of the world" by Rudyard Kipling, is located less than five hours from Queenstown by rental car. The drive to get there -- except for six miles inside Homer Tunnel -- is almost as scenic as the destination. Thousands of spurting, roaring, free-falling waterfalls veil cliffs above the forest road.

An excursion boat takes passengers on a scenic cruise of the 10-mile-long fiord past such glorious sites as Mitre Peak, a

5,560-foot mountain that is one of the highest in the world to rise directly from the ocean floor, and the phenomenon of Stirling Falls, where water is blown uphill, like a lace curtain caught in the wind.

After these brushes with nature, Queenstown offers more sedate activities. It's possible to observe New Zealand's flightless, unique mascot, the kiwi, at the Kiwi & Birdlife Park. Or, for car buffs, there's the Queenstown Motor Museum, where the huge collection includes a 1903 De Dion Bouter and a 1922 Silver Ghost Rolls Royce convertible.

But for a stunning overview of the region, go to dinner. Or rather, make a reservation at the restaurant atop the Skyline Gondola Lift. Sunset has never been more beautiful.

If you go . . .

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Los Angeles to Christchurch beginning at $742 round trip.

Getting around: Hertz sub-compact car rentals begin at $376 a week with unlimited mileage. Mount Cook Line flies one way from Christchurch to Queenstown for $121. InterCity, Beach Street, Queenstown, offers a daylong excursion to Milford Sound by coach. The $62 cost includes a THC Red Boat cruise.

Settling in: Parkroyal, Christchurch's elegant new hotel, typifies friendly New Zealand service. Doubles begin at $170.

Jennifer and Peter Rayne's Fox's Peak Station in Fairlie is among the many inexpensive home-stay accommodations on a list available from the New Zealand Tourism Office.

Balconies of the spiffy Parkroyal on Queenstown's Beach Street overlook the steamboat dock. Doubles begin at $146.

Two hours from Milford Sound, the Te Anau Travel Lodge is a good place to break the trip from Queenstown. Doubles start at $112.

For more information: Contact the New Zealand Tourism Office, 501 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, Calif. 90401. Phone (800) 388-5494.

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