Calling Queenstown the Belle of New Zealand’s South Island is scant praise to bestow upon this gorgeous lakefront town surrounded by snow-capped mountains and endless views. Instead, we compared it to our visits to other alpine adventure favorites, and found more spunk than Bend, Oregon; better scenery than Lake Tahoe; tastier restaurants than Vail; and better shopping than Banff, Alberta.
Queenstown is just one of those places you fall in love with as soon as you arrive.
There’s more than enough adventuring in Queenstown for weeks of bliss, especially if you’re into extreme sports. In a town that calls itself the “Adventure Capital of the World,” river rafting, watersports, paragliding, skydiving, bungy jumping, mountain biking and trekking are among an average day’s pursuits. That is, in spring, summer and fall (September to May). If you visit in winter, June to August in this part of the southern hemisphere, there’s local skiing and even better ice climbing on the Franz Josef Glacier.
Fun Pursuits, Less Extreme, in Queenstown
There’s no way to overhype the views from every street corner; little Queenstown is on the shores of Lake Wakatipu in a bowl surrounded by The Remarkables, a mountain range with the most appropriate name.
From horseback riding to canyoning, zip lining to great golf, Queenstown has thrills for all ages and interests. You can spend your entire vacation here because even far-off South Island adventures become half-day excursions (albeit expensive ones), thanks to the extensive local helicopter network. Our incredible flightseeing tour with Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters is just one of the many available aerial adventures.
Hiking, biking, touring wineries and savoring local seafood were more than enough to intrigue our family during a March visit, since we had booked several family adventures in Fiordland to follow our Queenstown stay.
We joined Chinese honeymooners on a mountain bike tour led by Fat Tyre Bike Rides, who outfit riders over age 15 with gear and helmets. We were exhausted after a half day ride in the gentle hills and around the lake of nearby Arrowtown — and the honeymooners were nearly crippled. Real riders will appreciate knowing that if Fat Tyre recognize participants capable of endurance riding, they whisk them off to a more challenging region.
Nearby, the Chinese Village at Bush Creek is a site that commemorates the thousands of Chinese who came as indentured servants to mine gold, discovered 150 years ago in the Arrow River. A few of their tiny storehouses remain here and, at the small Lakes District Museum on Buckingham Street, you can tour commercial buildings from the gold rush era. Victorian-era Arrowtown is known for its Arrowtown Autumn Festival, quaint architecture, array of stylish clothing shops and art galleries, micro-breweries, and the popular Saffron Restaurant.
Families with young children and elders in tow will enjoy a cruise on the old TSS Earnslaw, which we watched leave Steamer Wharf, the Queenstown dock, her smokestack billowing. TSS Earnslaw, fully restored in 2012, has traversed Lake Wakatipu for the past 100 years. In addition to the scenic cruise narrated with tall tales of the region’s colorful past, we heard many visitors talk about the Walter Peak Farm shore excursion where they learned more about raising sheep and even met a few.
On the Ground in Fiordland: The Routeburn Trail for the Unfit
New Zealand is famous for its Great Walks, the trails designated as Must-Dos by the world’s hikers. One such trail that typically takes three days is the Routeburn Track which leads over the mountains of Fiordland between Queenstown and Milford Sound. You can conquer the Routeburn on a guided excursion, do it on your own by camping, or even book nights at a luxury lodge along the route. For the schedule impaired, there is a one-day sampler of the full trek experience.
The one-day Routeburn Excursion led by Dean Fitzpatrick of Ultimate Hikes took us from our Heritage Queenstown Hotel to the little country town of Glenorchy, where we provisioned for lunch and paused for a long white (large size coffee with milk). From the base of Mount Aspiring National Park, another of New Zealand’s World Heritage Areas, we crossed a forest of Red Beech while our guide pointed out many birds and flowers. Possum and stoats are among the invasive species introduced to New Zealand by settlers, who found a unique eco-system with no natural predators, no mammals except bats, and the unusual flightless bird, the kiwi.
At Routeburn Flats, the trail opened out into golden grasslands and we paused for lunch and tea, leaving the hike up to the waterfalls for another adventure. This trek is offered daily from October to April; meals, rainjackets and backpacks are provided as needed.
Shopping and Fine Dining in Queenstown
Queenstown is very compact, easy to walk around and safe enough to send tweens off on their own. There’s great shopping if you like outdoor gear, with well priced, state-of-the-art goods at MacPac, and everything from underwear to evening dresses made of silky merino wool at the Icebreaker shop. Tip: The high exchange rate for US visitors makes New Zealand surprisingly expensive, so it’s only worthwhile buying locally made goods.
You can skip the many burrito places for a lunch at Fergburger, considered the best burger in Queenstown by locals. This Kiwi legend serves beef, lamb, venison and pork belly burgers as well as a variety of sandwiches stuffed with chicken, tofu, falafel (yes, it’s called the Bun Laden!) and more. If the lines are too long, drop into the small Vudu Coffee Shop instead.
Our most memorable lunch was spent at the Amisfield Winery, the picturesque producer of excellent whites and an award-winning Central Otago Pinot Noir. Very Napa Valley in style, we sat around the small tables out back as young children played on the rolling lawns and in the fountains. The score here is the “Trust the Chef” menu which changes daily; ours was local monkfish, country lamb and, as everywhere in New Zealand, locally sourced produce. It’s just 10 minutes from town.
Another favorite Queenstown eating experience was Botswana Butchery. Set in a graceful Victorian house with quilted red velvet chairs and a covered deck overlooking the waterfront park, it’s the place to enjoy a fine meal of wild rabbit, white bait in serrano peppers and local vegetables, gracefully presented.
Downtown rocks at night, with many clubs, jazz performances, seasonal festivals and a SkyCity Casino for financial risk-takers.
Trek Planning Details for a Queenstown Adventure
The very helpful and knowledgable Destination Queenstown has information and recommendations for trusted local outfitters who can fix you up for almost any adventure imaginable.
Despite the expense (about US$150 per day), we preferred to hire local guides. New Zealand is all about the land so interaction with knowledgeable guides — repositories of Maori legend, environmental news, and birding advice — made scenic walks into fascinating and fun day hikes.
Those planning to check out these areas or explore more of New Zealand should consult 100% Pure New Zealand, the tourism department, for its very helpful maps and itineraries. As wonderful a base as Queenstown is to explore Milford Sound by air, after three days of lots of fun, we drove south to get up close and personal with Fjordland National Park.
Staying the Night in Queenstown
We found the tranquil Heritage Hotel Queenstown, located lakeside on Beach Street at the edge of town, to be a very comfortable base. Public spaces buzzed with the comings and goings of Kiwis on business and some small tour groups. The small pool came in handy at day’s end, and waking up to the fog rising over Lake Wakatipu was spectacular. Our large comfortable room in the main building had every convenience. Across the road, there are handy studio to three-bedroom size Holiday Apartments ideal for larger families, or those happy to cook a meal and relax at a “home from home” condo style unit. From the Heritage, the Queenstown Connectabus shuttle runs the mile-long jaunt to Steamer Wharf and the central cluster of restaurants and shops.
The contemporary Novotel Lakeside Hotel next to Steamer Wharf door is popular with those who like to stay in the heart of town, and their Family Spirit plan allows two kids up to age 16 to stay and have breakfast free with adults.
Many families prefer the more rural resort area of Wanaka, where you’ll find many furnished condos. Touristy Wanaka also boasts the surprisingly large National Transport & Toy Museum, a private museum whose collection ranges from jets to tanks, plus Ferraris, Barbies, Matchbox cars and more. The quiet Arrowtown B&Bs are another option for a rural getaway.
Our only regret about heading on was leaving Queenstown behind, but we will be back.
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