Double celebration: Luce Wilsens celebrating her 90th birthday, and the 30th anniversary of her first Queenstown visit, last October

Though from the other side of the world, Queenstown — for both its natural beauty and its people — became Luce Wilsens’ holiday retreat for 30 years. Following her recent death, friends tell PHILIP CHANDLER what was so special about her, while shaking their heads at her treatment by Immigration New Zealand

Over winter, Queenstown lost its most prolific and probably most appreciative visitor.

Belgian Luce Wilsens, who was 90, died at the resort’s Lakes District Hospital, surrounded by loving friends.

Snow had fallen overnight, doubtless reminding her of her mountain home in Switzerland.

After retiring, Wilsens first visited Queenstown 31 years ago, having initially heard of NZ when she was four.

Remarkably, she then returned every single year, bar one.

She first stayed at Fernhill’s Country Lodge — ‘‘I liked that name because I like to be out of
town’’, she once said — then continued staying in the same room of the same hotel, now
Kamana Lakehouse, every time she visited.

After she went hot air ballooning the first year, the operators told a friend, Micha Lenk, she’d love to meet Luce, which she duly did when she returned next time.

Lenk says Luce, who became a very dear friend, came from a prominent medical family and worked her way up the hospital system under the patronage of her uncle, a research professor.

Coming from a country estate, she’d contracted TB when moving to the city, and to get well had gone to Switzerland.

Lenk later visited her several times in Switzerland, and also in Belgium after her sister died.

‘‘She was a special lady.

‘‘She was a person really who had had a lot of letdown and sadness in her life in Europe,  and she came to NZ to find a completely different type of person.

‘‘She actually had the support for the very first time in her life of people who cared about her for who she was, not what she had.’’

Besties: Luce Wilsens with friends Josef Kobele and Micha Lenk at her 90th birthday party last year

For 19 summers, she employed a driver, Rob Livingstone, who sometimes even took her  4WDing, and as a result she knew this area intimately.

More recently that role was taken by Josef Kobele, whom she met when he cheffed at Kamana.

He’d drive her around about three times a week, including trips to Arrowtown Library — ‘‘she was reading like 10 books a week’’.

Despite winning over people with her friendliness — she was ‘‘a little vulnerable bird’’, Lenk says — she had huge visa battles with Immigration NZ (INZ), two of which made Mountain Scene cover stories.

In 2010, Scene reported she’d had to spend almost $2000 on medical screenings, including tests for AIDS and syphilis, when she applied to extend her visa.

She was also asked if she was pregnant.

A few years later, Kobele organised a petition when INZ wouldn’t give her a visitor’s visa —
‘‘in the end they gave her a four-year visa’’.

Luce then had to skip her 2018/’19 Queenstown summer while she embarked on a 22-month battle to get a temporary retirement visitor’s visa.

INZ even demanded $500,000 medical cover for two years, which was impossible to get.

After arriving in September ’19, she faced having to return to her Swiss chalet in the thick of winter, three months later, which would have devastated her, Kobele said, as she’d have been on her own.

When, after sustained lobbying, she got a two-year visa, she told Scene: ‘‘I am overjoyed beyond measure.’’

Her battles with INZ ‘‘caused huge anxiety and stress’’, Kobele says.

In March last year her flight back to Switzerland was cancelled the day before as planes were grounded due to Covid — thankfully, as she wouldn’t have got back had she left.

Instead, Kamana let her stay for free during lockdown, even though it had no other guests.

Then in October she celebrated her 90th birthday and the 30th anniversary of her first Queenstown holiday — appropriately, with two cakes.

This May, she fell and required surgery in Invercargill.

‘‘She never stopped smiling but an additional short illness proved too much,’’ Lenk says,  and she died on July 7.

‘‘Death fulfilled her dearest wish — to remain in NZ.’

“Even though she had a distant relative in Belgium, her heart was in NZ.”

In time, her ashes will be scattered in a valley near Cardrona.