You can take highway 6 to pretty much anywhere through the south island of New Zealand- it bisects the lower half of the island – and is the quick and easy route from Wanaka to Queenstown. However, to venture off this beaten path for just a little bit by way of the Cardrona Valley Road and you will go through one of the jewels of the area: an old-as-fuck Cardrona Hotel placed in the dead center of just about nowhere.
And yes, this is a good thing. Worth seeing, go out of your way to get down here.
In the winter, the Cardrona region – centered by Mount Cardrona – is choice for downhill skiing. Large, bare tracks of hillside drawn up the middle by ski lifts. On the day of our visit, it is another area of dried, windswept grasses that are hibernating after a long summer season. The area is facilitated some by modern hotels and amenities. But the true core of the Cardrona region is the hotel in the middle of it all. It looks, feels, and is old and the fine people of the region have made sure it stays that way.
Within the region are an expeditionary couple who make their living giving horseback and 4X4 tours through the valley. Carly takes off on the horseback tour – a 2 hour affair that concludes at the tavern within the historic hotel for a much needed frosty Speight’s brew. I opt for the 4X4 ride which gives me a 1-on-1 experience with the tour guide, Sean, as we tear through the valley spooking sheep and taking in the vistas.
Sean stops at the top of a hill, ahead of a vista that goes almost infinitely into the horizon. He points to the south and east saying, “Those are mining operations, so they aren’t as pretty as the rest of it.” I hardly notice the difference. “Of course, industry is important, but so is keeping things nice and neat.” He goes on to explain the strict federal mandates that have been placed on industry like mining. The industry is important – it provides jobs and GDP to the country. But restoring the land after the minerals have been extracted is just as important.
“We took our queues from you Americans, figured we didn’t want to be looking at the scars of industry decades from now.”
At least American’s have done something right. Sean also says that there are minerals in the ground which may never see the light of day, on purpose. They’re too far under to safely remove without something drastic like mountain-top-removal or years of digging. There’s an honor to this.
The owners of the Cardrona business are 100% the kind of hospitality that is rumored to be in this country. After the owner and I park our 4X4s back in the garage I find myself left with an hour to kill, about 5km between myself and the tavern the horseback riders are set to meet at, and a total lack of car keys. Sean tosses me the keys to his car, a mid-80s Plymouth something or other, that I take to meet the Carly’s tour at the hotel. I’d known the guy for less than two hours. He also lets me in on where the keys to his garage are hidden to get into the building they host their tours out of. I will likely never experience trust like that again in my entire life.
The hotel is getting ready for guests, a lot of them. Tables and chairs are being rolled out, and enormous outdoor grill is firing up. The bartender says dozens of helicopters are flying over from Queenstown with guests for the evening because it is faster and more efficient than a bus.
In the tavern, hanging from the ceiling, are dozens of bras of various sizes, colors and styles. This place is visited by people from all over the world, and the brassiere is one thing that holds this town together. Driving into Cardrona there is no way you can miss the grand Bradrona fence. Hundreds of yards of cattle fencing from which hundreds and hundreds of bras hang. The start of the fence is unclear – no one knows which woman was in enough of a state to surrender her bra to a random fence. Today it is a landmark used to raise awareness for breast cancer and to be the subject of hundreds of necessary photographs by awestruck tourists.
Read On: Queenstown