What a difference 33 years makes, I think, as I gaze along Queenstown’s bright bustling streets lined with trendy boutiques and upscale restaurants and art galleries, watching well-heeled people stroll the sidewalks, talking in French and German, or with broad Australian and clipped British accents. On my previous trip through Queenstown—in 1978—as an unkempt student hitchhiker, I’d blended right in with the locals. They were mainly New Zealanders on holiday in their private, sleepy little holiday haven, plus a few bearded, rough-and-ready hitchhikers from Europe who couldn’t afford a razor.
But today, even the backpackers in Queenstown are well coiffed and well scrubbed, resplendent in stylish, form-fitting North Face and Patagonia Lycra jackets and tights. I doubt that today I’d even be let in past the city limits looking as I was back in the day.
But I shouldn’t have been so surprised at Queenstown’s conversion into a global “destination” hotspot. It’s always had the scenic currency for this transformation, and it was just a matter of time and of the town gaining the self-confidence to fully realize its own world-class destination status. And that time has arrived—in spades.
Certainly, Lake Como and Lake Geneva have gorgeous blue lakes with plush resorts sprinkled along their coastline, and Chamonix and Aspen offer world-class ski slopes on magnificent mountainsides, but it is rare for any place in the world to have it all.
In truth, few resort towns in the world can rival Queenstown’s outrageous natural setting—that perfect mix of a chic, glistening little town nestled in the crook of a lake, with sweeping panoramic water, valley, and mountain views that really do take your breath away.
It’s not surprising, then, that Conde Nast Traveller magazine has ranked Queenstown in the top 20 visitor destinations in the world, while Travel & Leisure magazine rated this pristine town the third best value destination in the world.
This scenic crown jewel, in a country packed with beautiful spots, has proven such a hit with the international jet set that 6 out of every 10 people you will meet in Queenstown are from outside New Zealand. They come from Asia, Australia, Britain, the United States and Western Europe—1.25 million of them each year—to savour the area’s year-round plethora of activities.
Adventure tourists find nerve-jangling, heart pounding activities aplenty in Queenstown as creative Kiwis conjure up new ways to thrill their tourists. Yet this former gold town offers its fair share of relaxing activities for those who don’t want to drown in their own adrenalin while bungee jumping, or suffer a heart attack mid-way through a white water jet boat excursion as they narrowly miss rocky canyon overhangs at 50 k.p.h.
Less adventurous visitors will find plenty of verdant golf courses, easy hiking and scenic walking promenades, museums, bird parks, excursions in luxury coaches (Milford Sound, anyone?), steamboat lake cruises, shopping, self-indulgent spas, all with sophisticated wining and dining to cap off a great day.
Charles Fraser is a personable and articulate 55-year old ex-farmer from Geraldine in Canterbury Province, and operates Rural Discovery Tours to show visitors the real New Zealand. “We love meeting visitors to New Zealand”, he tells me, “and being able to show the country life, character and incredible scenery we live with every day”.
And what better place to find quintessential New Zealand than the iconic Mount Earnslaw High Country Station, a 130-year old working farm?
Set in Glenorchy’s spectacular alpine terrain, the Mount Earnslaw Station is legendary even among Kiwis—as a city boy in Auckland I had heard about this massive sheep station, and how it was so large that the farmers had to drive half a day to cross it.
For 45 minutes our 4-Wheel Drive Land Rover follows the winding road that snakes along the northern shores of Lake Wakatipu to the lake head, stopping occasionally at high spots to appreciate and photograph the stunning lake and mountain views. It’s a picture perfect day, a dazzling bright blue sky with nary a cloud, and visibility over 50 miles through the fresh, clean South Island air.
Approaching the small town of Glenorchy, Charles points out various forest and hill locations where scenes from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy were filmed: the mystical Lothlorien, Orthanc, and Isengard. Later, I would count no less than four tour operators specializing in Lord of the Rings excursions—Tolkien would be pleased.
Crossing the bridge over the wide, rock strewn Rees River we enter the Mount Aspiring National Park, with views fanning out up deeply carved river valleys; the Dart, Routeburn, Greenstone and Rees Valleys—all reknown for their scenic and challenging hiking tracks. Then we cut across the station’s farmland, stirring skittish woolly sheep, braying indignantly, and russet colored cattle, from their grazing on the green pastures.
We stop at the woolshed, where the heart of every sheep station beats, and meet the owner of Mount Earnslaw Station. Geoffrey Thomson is an interesting farmer, with a sun touched face, pink golf shirt, long gray cargo pants, and a beat up oilskin hat that betrays its all-weather use. He’s converted his 16,465-acre farm to organic, so that when the demand for organic lamb and beef grows, he’ll have the supply ready.
We tour Geoffrey’s woolshed, admiring the handsome Perendale sheep—a cross between Romney Marsh and Cheviots—bred for their hardiness in winter weather, adaptability to hill country, long coarse wool, and good meat. Geoffrey has 5,500 sheep, 550 Angus breeding cows, 2 farm hands, and 3 dogs to run this mammoth farming enterprise. We examine the shearing stands and pens, an unimaginable hive of activity during the twice yearly shearing seasons, as hard-case shearers compete with each other, shearing 300 sheep a day—those boys have strong backs!
Now it’s time to view the station and the basin from up on high, as Charles drives us along farm tracks, across small rivers, and past marshes and the clear shallow lagoon of Diamond Lake, filled with squawking black swans and paradise, mallard, and gray ducks.
We begin our 4-wheel ascent up the switchback trail cut out of Mount Alfred’s rocky face. “You’ve gone quiet there, Roy”, says Charles, referring to the unnerving sheer drop off the side of the trail beside me. “I’m fine”, I say as confidently as I can, “There’s at least six inches between the wheel and the drop off”. My wife thinks I’m joking.
Stopping half way up the mountain at a wide dogleg, Charles pulls out a chili bin with cheese, salami, ANZAC biscuits and hot tea. The sweeping view across the Glenorchy basin is magnificent; Diamond Lake in the foreground, lush green farmland dotted with white specks of sheep across the valley, and rows of jagged tooth massifs in the far distance. A paraglider soars over us riding the thermals, loitering for a while, before moving on to land further along the mountain.
We stop in the small town of Glenorchy on our return trip, pay our respects at the solemn white marble memorial to the area’s soldiers who were killed in World War I and II; inscribed, “For the Empire”.
A Kiwi Discovery day trip by bus to Milford Sound is a must for Queenstown visitors. Our driver/guide, Dave, has been doing this trip for 7 years and describes the countryside as it unfolds, with some Kiwi wit and humour thrown in for good measure.
Leaving Queenstown the coach passes along the foot of a broad slab of mountains, The Remarkables, with uniform steep, symmetrical peaks, reaching 2234 metres. These were the backdrop for many scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies.
Further on, fields of pink and magenta lupins provide a curtain of bright colour against the green marshlands and grey mountains. After crossing through the 1270-metre Homer Tunnel, carved through the hard granite of the Main Divide between 1934 and 1953, we reach Milford Sound.
Excited tourists board the “Milford Monarch”, the three-story boat for the cruise up the famous sound. The view of Milford Sound from the top deck lives up to all of the tourist literature superlatives: “stunning”, “one of the scenic wonders of the world”, and “New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction”—all well deserved. To the delight of the passengers, a large pod of dolphins paces the boat for the first couple of miles, putting on quite a show as they leap gracefully from the water.
Then we look up around us and can almost hear everyone’s collective gasp at the vista of sheer mountain face rising up from the sound. Steep sides are blanketed with native forest greenery; waterfalls cascade down the large rocky outcrops gouged out of the mountainside; and Mitre Peak—all 1695 metres of her—dominates all like an ancient queen.
View from Above
Back in Queenstown, a trip up the Skyline Gondola to the top of the 500-metre hill to get a good perspective of the town’s perfect setting is a must. The terminus building at the summit offers a restaurant, café, souvenir shop, and a phenomenal 180-degree view encompassing Coronet Peak, Mt Nicholas Station, Lake Wakatipu, and The Remarkables.
Immediately below, the 1-square kilometer downtown shopping area is clearly visible, with neatly arranged suburbs radiating out around intriguing blue coves and fingerlike peninsulas. Squadrons of paragliders sail gently down from the hilltop to their landing field in the school grounds way below. Tourists of all stripes enjoy the hiking, mountain biking, bungee jumping, luging, and helicopter rides at the Skyline Gondola hill.
To further absorb the flavor of Queenstown, the dinner cruise across Lake Wakatipu aboard the vintage coal-fired steamship TSS Earnslaw is strongly recommended. The narrated cruise takes about an hour as she chugs past massive Cecil Peak, to drop you at the Walter Peak High Country Farm, for an excellent Kiwi meal of roast beef, lamb, and pork, at the Carvery Buffet in the gorgeous farm mansion.
The pianist, who has been pounding the keys on the Earnslaw, continues his repertoire at the buffet. Afterwards, the station owner gives an entertaining demonstration of sheep shearing, and has his trusty sheepdog work the sheep for a while. And the sunset return across the lake by the piano, singing honky-tonk songs like It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Roll Out The Barrel, and Waltzing Matilda, takes you back to 1912 when the ship first set sail across the lake.
To describe all of Queenstown’s activities simply can’t be done in anything short of a guidebook. I counted a staggering total of 150 activities and tours, from skydiving to canyoning, and ecotouring to glacier walking, plus all winter sports, so one simply doesn’t get bored here unless you so choose (or run out of money!).
As you might expect for a hot destination, the nightlife is formidable; restaurants, cafes and coffee shops, wine bars, pubs, and nightclubs provide suitable entertainment for the young at heart.
As I fly out of the airport, looking out over Queenstown’s backdrop of towering, rocky mountains, I see the desolate mountain ridges and trails give way to the long azure ribbon of glittering water that is Lake Wakatipu. Indeed, I am impressed at how far Queenstown has come since 1978—it’s a world-class resort now, and can rightfully be mentioned in the same breath as resort mega stars Lake Como and Chamonix.
Queenstown Airport is the gateway to the town, a 10-minute drive from downtown.
Most international services fly from the UK to Auckland, Wellington, or Christchurch. From there, several domestic services fly to Queenstown daily, including 58 weekly return trips by Air New Zealand. Other domestic airlines flying in to Queenstown are Pacific Blue and Jetstar. There are also flights from Sydney.
Downtown Queenstown is eminently walkable. The Connectabus transfer system will get you to almost any place within 20 miles of the downtown area, including historic Arrowtown. www.connectabus.com
Summer temperatures are warm during the long days, reaching 30 degrees C, while winters are cold with temperatures often plummeting into the low single digits. There’s plenty of snow in winter, especially in the surrounding mountain ranges, where ski runs are located.
The Queenstown New Zealand website is a gold mine of information for all tourist needs from accommodations to activities, attractions, bars and restaurants and shopping and services. www.queenstownnz.co.nz
SLEEP Absoloot Value Accom is designed for backpackers, flashpackers and value-seeking travelers (from $35). Spectacularly located on the lakefront in Queenstown’s centre, it doesn’t get much better value than this. Every room has LCD TV, fridge, and heat pump.
EAT All backpackers will recommend the Fergburger experience. As one backpacker puts it, “The burgers here are simply amazing. These burgers are not to be missed”. Be sure to phone in your order to avoid a long wait. www.fergburger.com
DO Queenstown is an expensive resort town. There is no way you can dress this fact up. However, that said, there are a multitude of nearby day and overnight hikes that cost nothing. The Climbing Wall in Queenstown Events Centre ($10 for 2 climbs), Frankton Golf Course ($15 for 9 or 18 holes), Lakes District Museum ($8 admission), Skyline Gondola & Luge ($25), and Wine Tasting, all offer lower cost entertainment.
SLEEP Centrally located Abba Garden Hotel, only 5 minutes from the town centre, offers mountain views, a garden setting, BBQ area, playground, and studio and family units, all with kitchens (from $130). www.abba.co.nz
EAT Fishbone bar & grill offers excellent and delicious value for family dining, and is considered one of the best seafood restaurants in the country. Try the Green-lipped mussels, flash fried calamari with chili salt & lime mayo. www.fishbonequeenstown.co.nz
Also not to be missed is the understated Pier 19 Restaurant on Steamer Wharf, billing itself as “the working man’s fine dining”. Indoor and outdoor bistro style dining is available. The dishes are a blend of contemporary flavours and classic dishes like flash fried White Coast Whitebait (a unique Kiwi delicacy), Stewart Island salmon, and Fiordland venison.
DO The Arts & Crafts Market, Caddy Shack City indoor mini golf ($50 family pass), Skyline Gondola and Luge ($64 family), Underwater Observatory ($10 family), all offer excellent value family outings. And if the kids loved Lord of the Rings, it would be criminal to miss any of the various tours to the set locations of this trilogy. Try Lord of the Rings: Trails of Middle Earth (www.lordoftheringstours.co.nz) or Glenorchy Lord of the Rings Tour (www.pureglenorchy.com)
SLEEP It would be hard to find a more luxurious or better appointed home away from home in Queenstown than Azur (www.azur.co.nz) These nine secluded hilltop villas offer uninterrupted views of Lake Wakatipu and surrounds, all drinks included, gourmet breakfast dining in the lodge, round the clock concierge service, chauffer service to and from the airport and in to Queenstown at your whim. They’ll also make all your tour arrangements and wake you in the morning to get you on the road.
And did I mention 75 square metres of palatial luxury with plasma TV, DVD/stereo systems, private balcony, super king beds, wet bar, mini bar, safe, in an open plan layout. Heaven!
EAT Eating at VKNOW is an experience as much as a slice of culinary bliss. Exuberant, bald headed, Hawaiian shirted Danny Carson is the front room man, who will greet you, seat you, and chat with you as if you were in his home. As a former wine rep, he will help you select the perfect wine for your meal, and he’s no slouch with the local microbrew beers either. Meanwhile, his other, prettier half, chef Lizzie Carson is behind the tall counter preparing some superb meals that you will remember for a long time. Movie stars frequently dine here. I can’t really recommend any one of Lizzie’s dishes over the others, as they were all divine. Better yet, ask Danny to recommend some dishes for you. www.vknow.co.nz
DO With deep pockets you can live the life of Reilly in Queenstown. Your choices are never ending, from wine tasting to white water rafting, horse riding to jet boating on the Shotover River, four-wheel drive trips into the back country, spa pampering, chartering a boat, and boutique shopping. Not to mention fine dining at the 120 restaurants in the town.
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