Dubbed the “Adventure capital of the world,” Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island blew us away with its breathtaking landscapes and extreme adventures. Everyone who heard I was going to New Zealand said I had to go to Queenstown. And while it was roughly more than 1,500 km away from our original entry point in Auckland in the North Island, the long journey going to the South Island was so worth it.
After spending a few days in Auckland, getting a taste of Middle-Earth Magic at Hobbiton in Matamata, mountain biking in Rotorua, taking an LOTR movie and Weta Workshop tour in Wellington, crossing by ferry from Wellington to Picton on the South Island, sleeping in a jailhouse hostel in Christchurch, and an 8-hour long bus ride through the most scenic countryside imaginable, we finally made it to Queenstown.
This picturesque resort town and surrounding areas situated along the shore line of Lake Wakatipu, the third largest lake by surface area in New Zealand, contains many of the real locations used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. While the Hobbiton set and the LOTR movie tour gave us just a taste of Hollywood magic with their sets and props, in terms of raw landscape, everything we visited here was the real deal. We couldn’t help but fall in love with the place where the surroundings just look straight out of Middle-Earth. The town’s crystal clear alpine lakes, golden hill country, historic townships and snow-capped mountains just breath magic.
WHERE EXACTLY IS QUEENSTOWN:
Queenstown is a resort town in Otago in the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island. The town is built around an inlet called Queenstown Bay on Lake Wakatipu, a long thin Z-shaped lake formed by glacial processes. From town, you can amazing views of nearby mountains such as The Remarkables, Cecil Peak, Walter Peak and just above town; Ben Lomond and Queenstown Hill.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO TO GO TO QUEENSTOWN, NEW ZEALAND:
Queenstown is known as a skiing paradise in winter and a hiker’s heaven in summer. Therefore, winter and summer are the peak seasons here. However, Queenstown is really a great year-round travel destination, depending on your preferences.
We visited in October 2016 (Spring) which actually offers a taste of all four seasons because of the unpredictable weather. There were days when it was very sunny and we could see the flowers in full bloom, but some days were overcast, drizzly and cold. We actually weren’t that prepared for how cold it was and ended up layering in all our cold wear.
- Winter: June, July, and August (-6 and 15 degrees Celsius)
- Spring: September, October, and November (-2 and 24 degrees Celsius )
- Summer: December, January, and February (2 and 29 degreesCelsius)
- Autumn: March, April, and May (-3 and 26 degrees Celsius)
HOW TO GET THERE AND GETTING AROUND:
Queenstown is accessible by air and land travel from other points in New Zealand. There are multiple daily direct flights from all of New Zealand’s main centers as well as direct scheduled services from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Coolangatta in Australia. The Queenstown international airport is located just 15 minutes from downtown Queenstown and links to the city center with shuttles, taxi services, buses and rental cars.
We had come from the North Island and took an Intercity Bus from Christchurch. For visitors that choose to drive or travel by land, experiencing the beautiful Southern Scenic Route through Otago and Southland is a stunning way to arrive in Queenstown.
National bus operator InterCity and Newmans Coach Lines provide daily services in and out of Queenstown with connections throughout the South Island. Tickets can be purchased online or via numerous local ticketing agents including the i-SITE information network. Services arrive and depart from the Athol Street car park located in the main retail shopping area. Travel time:
- Bus Christchurch to Queenstown: 8 hours.
- Bus Fox Glacier to Queenstown: 7 hours 30 minutes.
- Bus Tekapo to Queenstown: 4 hours.
- Bus Dunedin to Queenstown: 4 hours 20 minutes.
- Bus Wanaka to Queenstown: 1 hour 40 minutes.
- Bus Mt Cook to Queenstown: 4 hours.
Once you get to Queenstown, walking around is easy enough but if you’re into biking, I highly recommend you rent bicycles to explore the nearby destinations. Hardtail bike rental cost NZ $55/whole day from Torpedo Bike Shop on Shotover Street.
There are various options for car rentals, motorcycle rentals, coach tours, taxi services and shuttles around Queenstown which you can choose from depending on your preference and budget. The most affordable and practical option is to just walk or make use of the InterCity Buses and shuttles. The Connectabus costs $33 for a one-day pass or $47 for a 7-day pass.
WHERE TO GO IN QUEENSTOWN:
There are a lot of scenic spots in Queenstown. The main landmarks you can visit and activities you can do there include:
- Lake Wakatipu (lakes, glaciers, rivers, mountains, watersports)
- Milford Sound (waterfalls, walking, glaciers, penguins, hiking)
- Coronet Peak (skiing, snowboarding, ski resorts)
- Skippers Canyon (canyon)
- The Remarkables (skiing, mountain, winter sport)
- Routeburn Track (walking, hiking, running, cycling)
- Lake Wanaka (lakes, parachuting, cycling)
- Hollyford Track (walking, river, hiking)
- Lake Hayes (lake, winery)
- Skyline (hiking, downhill biking, luge)
There’s lots to see just in Queenstown alone, but if you have more time to spare, you can also visit other areas in South Island like Frankton, Arrowtown, Glenorchy, Te Anau or head further south to Dunedin or Invercargill.
WHAT TO DO IN QUEENSTOWN:
Queenstown is known mainly for its adventure tourism activities like skiing and snowboarding during winter months (June to August). They offer all sorts of thrilling extreme activities all-year around from canyon swings, bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, heli-biking and much more. Trying everything will quickly burn a hole through your pockets, so choose your activities wisely.
For many travelers, Queenstown is the place to splurge on extreme activities like skydiving. The chance to jump out of an aircraft from 15,000 feet into thin air and freefall towards the ground at 200kph is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
NZONE Skydive offers tandem skydives where you get to see some of the most dramatic scenery in New Zealand as you plummet down at terminal velocity. This was the one extreme adventure I decided to splurge on. And while it was very expensive, it was worth every dollar.
Bungy jump off Kawarau Bridge
The world’s original bungy company AJ Hackett Bungy traces its roots from Queenstown, so many visitors make sure to take the plunge at the historic Kawarau Bridge. Aside from the original bungy, there are 8 other high-flying activities to choose from including a unique bridge climb or zipride and New Zealand’s highest swing. I really wanted to do this too, but since I’ve tried Bungy Jumping in Macau, I decided to just focus my funds on skydiving instead.
If skydiving or bungy jumping are too extreme for you, you can take a more relaxing ride by air by availing of a tandem paragliding flight. GForce operates from the Skyline Gondola taking visitors for a joyride by air over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.
Cycle the trails
Queenstown is a cyclists’s paradise, offering everything from easy tracks, scenic lakeside and back-country trails to a thrilling jump park, heli-biking and a gondola-assisted downhill mountain biking course with over 27 trails!
Long southern daylight hours means more time to explore the epic mountain bike trails, which are well-marked and easily connected to neighboring towns. Trails can be ridden in sections to suit your ability or linked together for a longer ride. Pack a bag of food and drinks for the day and expect to stop a lot to admire the scenery.
READ MORE: Biking in New Zealand: Queenstown by Outside Slacker
Go jetboating on the Shotover River
One of the most iconic Queenstown experiences is the Shotover jet, where you get to take a ride through dramatic and narrow canyons. This hour-long ride aboard a jetboat transports you across Lake Wakatipu. the willow-lined Kawarau River and fast moving braids of the Shotover River, complete with 360 degree spins.
Parasail over Lake Wakatipu
Parasailing takes you soaring above Lake Wakatipu with breath-taking views of the surrounding mountains and Queenstown. Guests are attached to boats speeding up to 25 km p/h the chute lifts you up and away from the boat to enjoy the exhilaration of free flight. Paraflights can take up to 12 passengers on the boat so you can sit back and enjoy the cruise on Lake Wakatipu while another flight takes place.
Ride the Skyline Gondola
The Skyline Gondola carries visitors above Queenstown to the Skyline complex located on Bob’s Peak, offering the best views of the region spread out in a spectacular 220º panorama. You can find numerous observation decks here that offer breathtaking views of Coronet Peak, The Remarkables mountain range and across Lake Wakatipu to Cecil and Walter Peaks.
For a fun and thrilling family-friendly activity, you can try the Skyline Luge set high above Lake Wakatipu. The Skyline Luge has two tracks which offer stunning views across Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables.
Take a hike
For hikers and mountaineers, Queenstown and the surrounding areas offers stunning walking trails ranging from relaxing 30-minute walks to multi-day hikes across alpine mountains. The world-renowned Milford Track, which passes through valleys carved by glaciers, ancient rainforests and cascading waterfalls takes three days to complete.
If you’re looking for a moderately easy hike in Queenstown, skip the gondola ride up to Skyline and traverse the Tiki Trail to get a breathtaking view of Queenstown. Since hiking is free, you can save your cash on the Gondola ride and get the same view once you get up!
Take a walk through the Queenstown Gardens
For those looking for something less extreme to do, just walking around Queenstown is very rewarding. There are a variety of trails in the garden with views of the surrounding mountains and of Lake Wakatipu and the Frankton Arm. The Queenstown Garden has numerous facilities including Tennis, Lawn Bowls, Skate Boarding, BMX Biking, Skating, Disc Golf and Ice Skating/Ice Hockey.
The most visible large tree species in the garden is that of the Douglas fir of which there are many large specimens. This tree also forms a protective forest that surrounds much of the gardens.
Cruise around Milford Sound*
Deep within Fiordland National Park lies New Zealand’s most stunning natural attraction: Milford Sound, a fiord carved by glaciers.
From Queenstown, you can take a day tour to Milford Sound aboard a glass-roof bus, enjoying spectacular scenery along the way on the 5-hour ride before your 2 hour scenic cruise. If you have cash to burn, you can opt to fly back to Queenstown by helicopter instead of taking the coach or bus back.
WHAT / WHERE TO EAT IN QUEENSTOWN:
There are over 150 restaurants, cafes and bars to choose from in Queenstown, ranging from cafes and takeaways to fine dining establishments. Some hostels like Nomads Queenstown throw in meal stubs for local restaurants with your room stay (so take advantage of these).
Food courts inside shopping centers offer more diverse and flavorful options with Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Indiain, Italian cafes alongside Kiwi restaurants.
Fish & Chips
New Zealand’s most common street food is Fish & Chips, which is always good as a takeaway meal that you can enjoy as a picnic by the lake.
No trip to Queenstown would be complete without eating at Ferburger, the world-famous burger joint known for their inventive gourmet burgers using prime New Zealand beef.
Exotic and quirky named variations include Little Lamby (lamb burger), The Codfather (cod burger), and Sweet Bambi (venison burger). Lines are long during peak lunch and dinner hours, but you can get your burger fix other times of the day. Ferburger is open from 8:30 am to 5:00 am 7 days a week. Burgers for breakfast will leave you full way past lunch.
If you’re a hophead, be prepared to go bar crawling. There are more breweries in New Zealand per head of population than anywhere other than the U.S. and U.K. We tasted only the tip of the iceberg, sampling craft beers from Monteith’s, Panhead Custom Ales, Epic Brewing Company, Black Dog Brewing and Mac’s Brewing.
Grocery store food finds
Most backpacker hostels have communal kitchens where you can prepare meals to save money. If you’re on a budget, head to the grocery stores to buy pre-cooked meals or supplies for cooking. Beers from the supermarket are usually cheaper than those sold in liquor stores.
Craving for Filipino food while you’re in Queenstown? There’s a Filipino store there (located right beside the NZone Skydive center)! Tindahan ng Pinoy sa Queenstown carries a lot of Pinoy favorites including Ligo Sardines, Skyflakes, Chiz Curls, Datu Puti, Mama Sita’s and Knorr seasonings and a lot more. They’re open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm Monday to Friday. Contact Maria Fe Hotton at #(021442287)
WHERE TO STAY:
For a small town, Queenstown has a lot of accommodations from luxury hotels, Airbnb rooms or homes to straightforward inns and backpacker hostels to choose from.
Nomads Queenstown which also has branches in major hubs like Auckland and Wellington, offers private double rooms and dorm rooms, a cinema, sauna, free light dinner, free breakfast and 24-hour luggage storage. It cost us NZD$110 for a double room with private bathroom (good for 2) per night.
Nomads World. 5-11 Church St, Queenstown 9300, New Zealand. http://nomadsworld.com/
The lakeside Bumbles Backpackers, which is roughly a 300 meter walk from the town center, offers free unlimited WiFi and free use of cruiser bicycles for city biking. They have private and dorm rooms available. It cost us NZD$35 per adult in a 6-bed dorm share room per night.
Bumbles Backpackers Queenstown. Cnr Lake Esplanade & Brunswick Street, Queenstown, New Zealand.