Queenstown New Zealand Destination Guide

Downtown Queenstown, New Zealand. photo by Max Hartshorne.

By Marie Javins

Why Go There?

Queenstown, New Zealand, is synonymous with adventure sports — jet boating began here in the 60’s, and commercial bungy jumping was invented here. But Queenstown attracted tourists long before AJ Hackett first bungied from the Eiffel Tower.

People have been coming to relax in this idyllic natural setting by Lake Wakatipu, nestled at the foot of the Remarkables and Eyres mountain ranges, since Queenstown’s first ski-field opened in 1947.

This “adventure capital of the world” has every imaginable outdoor activity, including at least four variations on the bungy jump and nine variations on the original jet boat trip, but has been making a concerted effort to reach out to the non-thrill-seeker, and there is plenty for others to do.

The natural scenery around Queenstown is stunning, easily making it the number one destination in the South Island. Some of the finest views in the world may be seen from your hotel window. And the region is the gateway to Fiordland National Pak and Milford Sound. Summers are pleasant and winters feature perfect ski conditions.

Queenstown is consistently mentioned among the top destinations in the world by glossy travel magazines. It’s a travel Mecca for backpackers and luxury travelers alike, but in spite of all this attention and commercial development, Queenstown has kept its friendly appeal and small-town soul.

When To Go?

“Four seasons, more reasons” claims Queenstown’s promotional literature. Summer and winter are the stars — summer for its adrenaline activities and winter for skiing. But autumn (March – May) features dramatic changing leaves, fruit harvests, and ripening grapes in world-class vineyards. Spring (September – November) is ideal for garden tours, the jazz festival and a notable lack of crowds.

If you are planning on hiking the nearby Milford Track, consider going in autumn or spring as permits are hard to come by in the summer.

Deer at High Peak Farm, across the lake from Queenstown reached by steamship TSS Earnslaw. photo by Max Hartshorne
Deer at High Peak Farm, across the lake from Queenstown reached by steamship TSS Earnslaw. photo by Max Hartshorne

But unless you’re bargain-hunting or planning a ski trip, chances are you’ll be in Queenstown in the northern hemisphere’s winter — from December to February. It’s summer in New Zealand then and the sun stays up until eleven at night. All non-snow activities operate in summer and with so many options around, the only things that book up solidly are hotel rooms. Plan ahead!

Getting There and Around

Air New Zealand flies directly to Queenstown from Australia. All other international flights involve connections, usually through Christchurch. Qantas has direct flights during ski season.

Budget airline Freedom Air flies at a heavy discount from Australia to Dunedin, a few hours from Queenstown. Planes that fly in from the west to Christchurch pass over New Zealand’s Southern Alps so consider asking for a window seat to get a spectacular view and save the cost of “flight-seeing” later.

Domestic airlines fly to Queenstown from many points in New Zealand, and InterCity buses run daily services to points all over the South Island. Queenstown is a featured stop on the various backpacker bus routes and many private shuttles operate to and from Wanaka, Christchurch, Dunedin, Te Anau, and Invercargill. Shuttles and InterCity buses are booked through the visitor’s center (www.queenstown-vacation.com).

A taxi from the airport costs around NZ$25. A shuttle is cheaper at NZ$12, but the most economical option is to board the airport bus to O’Connells Shopping Mall. It runs every half-hour and costs NZ$3.50. A public bus service called Connect-a-bus can take you to town for about $7.

Lonestar Bar, downtown Queenstown, New Zealand.
Lonestar Bar, downtown Queenstown, New Zealand.

Parking is Tough

Parking is severely limited in the center of town and at 1.5 square kilometers, Queenstown’s center is easily covered by foot. Consider NOT renting a car and instead, walking or taking advantage of courtesy coaches when you must go further afield.

Most operators offer free transport when you book an activity. Dozens of buses make daily runs to Milford Sound, and the nearby attractions of Glenorchy and Arrowtown are easily reached by bus. In the winter, frequent shuttles connect the ski resorts with the town center.

Best Attractions and Activities

The three must-dos for any non-ski trip to Queenstown are the Skyline Gondola/Luge, jet boating, and an excursion to Milford Sound. You can also drive a little further south and visit Doubtful Sound, for a more intimate excursion (there are far fewer boats than Milford).

The Skyline Gondola is a comfortable cable car that goes up to a viewpoint above Queenstown. Once at the top, there is a luge ride available for an extra fee. It’s quite safe and there’s a beginner’s track for those on their first thrill-ride.

Jet boating is the most accessible of the water-oriented thrill rides in Queenstown. Nine different companies follow different routes, but the most famous is the Shotover Jet, which has exclusive rights to zoom around the Shotover River canyon.

Looking out the window of the TSS Earnslaw steamer, in Queenstown. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Looking out the window of the TSS Earnslaw steamer, in Queenstown

Milford Sound isn’t really a sound at all. It’s a scenic fiord, and visitors can see it by ship, kayak, airplane or helicopter. Short day cruises cover the sound and most tourists book bus/cruise options out of Queenstown. A nicer approach is to overnight in Te Anau, where there is a glowworm cave. The truly intrepid hike the Milford Track to Milford Sound.

Other activities in Queenstown include wine tasting, garden tours, horse trekking, walking, hiking, biking, and scenic flights. Glenorchy, with its serene atmosphere, is a popular day trip, and nearby Arrowtown has a gold-mining history worth exploring. Dart River Jet takes you up the river leaving from the town’s central pier, to see gloriously beautiful scenes along the Kawarau River.

Queenstown’s other activities are geared towards the brave, adventurous, and insane. Some of them are done nowhere else in the world. You can bungy from a bridge, a cable car, or from the top of the Skyline

Gondola. You can be slung around on a wire, a rocket, or go on a sky swing. You can jump out of a plane, hang glide, or paraglide. You can mountain bike, quad bike, heli-mountain bike, whitewater raft, whitewater sledge, heli-raft, riverboard, or purchase a combination package of any of the above.

Almost any adrenaline activity you can think of, and many you never imagined, can be done in Queenstown.

Crown Range Road. photo by Esther Pearson.
Crown Range Road – photo by Esther Pearson.

Best Unusual Attractions

One of the most gorgeous roads you can drive is also the highest in New Zealand zig-zags its way along a mountainous path near Queenstown. You need chains in the winter, but between November and March, no worries.

The Crown Range Road — from Queenstown to Wanaka via Cardrona — features some breathtaking panoramas, an authentic 1845 gold rush pub (the Cardrona Hotel).

Other unique activities include “Lord of the Rings” film location tours, rugby trips to Dunedin, and various sheepshearing, sheep station, and sheepdog tours. New Zealand is famous for its ratio of sheep-to-people and the farmyard tours offered are generally far more engaging than they may sound.

You can take the old-fashioned steamer TSS Earnslaw across the lake for a fun half day watching sheepdogs in action and sheepshearing done before your eyes.

Best Lodging

There’s no shortage of accommodation in Queenstown, but in high season the rooms fill up quickly. Book ahead! Prices are slightly higher than in other parts of New Zealand, and some cheaper places have such high turnover that wear and tear has taken its toll.

On the budget end of the scale, there are nearly twenty hostels and backpackers’ lodges. Dorm beds average around NZ$20 a night. Doubles and twins will set you back around NZ$50 a night, with some pricier options including en-suite bathrooms.

Most centrally located are Downtown Backpackers Lodge, McFees, and the budget rooms at lakeside Thomas’s Hotel, but many others are only a block or two from the center. The Queenstown YHA is another good choice.

Nomads Flashpackers on Church St. with 27 en-suite rooms and nine en-suite family rooms. This place has been recommended by locals, also they vouch for Discovery Lodge and the
St Moritz, a moderately priced hotel. Base Queenstown is another inexpensive hostel.

The steamer TSS Earnslaw makes regular trips to High Peak Farm at the end of the lake in Queenstown, NZ. photo by Max Hartshorne.
The steamer TSS Earnslaw makes regular trips to High Peak Farm at the end of the lake in Queenstown, NZ.

There are two centrally located campsites that feature inexpensive cabins and flats in addition to tent and power sites.

Queenstown Lakeview Motor Park is located almost at the base of the Skyline Gondola, and Creeksyde Top 10 Holiday Park is a 10-minute walk away.

Dozens of mid-range hotels, motels, and guesthouses charging NZ$89-$120, are within a few blocks of the town center. The Queenstown Visitors Center arranges accommodation and can also book luxury hotels and international chain hotels. Hotels, motels, and backpackers are listed on “Destination Queenstown’s website.

Another option is to book a holiday home or apartment through the Queenstown Accommodation Center. Families or groups can split the cost of an apartment, which varies from NZ$100 to NZ$650.

If you opt for a first class hotel, be sure to insist on a room with a view of the mountains and lake.

Best Entertainment

Signs in Queenstown.
Signs in Queenstown.

There are a few casinos in Queenstown. Others, seeking a quiet night out or a way to entertain the kids, might prefer a visit to the Reading Cinema. Another way to keep the kids happy is to take them for some evening mini-golf — Queenstown features an elaborate indoor course at “Caddyshack City” and an outdoor course behind the cinema.

There’s also a Maori Hangi feast and concert that plays every night, in spite of most Maori culture being located on the North Island. Find this at 1 Memorial St. City Centre.

The Buffalo Club and the Revolver have live music and comedy. On the wharf, there’s the Pub, Monty’s and the Pig and Whistle.

But for skiers on a night out or for summer travelers wanting to take advantage of the late dusk to celebrate their victory over a bungy cord or some virulent rapids, there are dozens of bars to choose from. Some have themes: Pog Mahones is an Irish pub that was shipped over from Ireland.

has a huge roaring fireplace, dancing, and a retractable roof. All of a sudden all of the heat just pours up through it, clearing the air and providing a refreshing breeze. McNeill’s Brewery brews beer on premises. The World offers great dancing, and cater almost exclusively to young backpackers.

Inside the Bunker, downtown Queenstown. photo:The Worlds Best bars.com
Inside the Bunker, downtown Queenstown. photo: The Worlds Best bars.com

There are literally too many to list. One of our favorites is a little hole in the wall on Cow Lane called The Bunker, a small sign on a non-descript wooden door. But inside there is an eclectic menu, wonderful jazz, and ambient music and a huge fireplace with couches. Worth finding!

There’s cheap Thai in the center of town, and the younger set is devoted to Fergie’s where a $10 fergburger really hits the spot.

For a more sedate but still entertaining evening, try one of Queenstown’s many Japanese restaurants or cruise the lake on the “T.S.S. Earnslaw” vintage steamships to the Colonel’s Homestead Restaurant.

And finally, those on a budget can simply spend their evenings strolling along the waterfront, watching the sunset or perhaps a traveling busker.

Money and Communications

The value of the Kiwi dollar has increased recently but good deals are still plentiful for carriers of yen, euros, and US dollars. International ATM’s are plentiful and credit cards are readily accepted in Queenstown.

Unfortunately, the influx of international tourists has driven prices up in Queenstown so while it is still a bargain, it is one of the more expensive New Zealand destinations. Kiwis and Australians generally do not expect tips, but the international clientele in Queenstown has altered this as well. Leave ten percent in restaurants or round up when in doubt.

Queenstown is riddled with cheap internet centers. These are also good places to send a fax or purchase a discount telephone calling card.

Health and Safety

Like all of New Zealand, Queenstown has a high standard of living. Tap water is safe to drink and medical facilities are modern and accessible. It can get chilly even in summer so take layered clothing. Be careful about going out in the sun and slap on the sunscreen, as that infamous

hole-in-the-ozone-layer is reputedly near New Zealand for part of the year. Raingear is also essential. Dress warmly in the winter. Serious crime is rare, but car theft and campsite theft DO happen so take precautions.

Travel insurance is a must when traveling anywhere, but visitors to Queenstown should seriously consider paying extra for hazardous sports coverage. Bungy jumping, paragliding and other adrenaline sports may not be covered by a standard policy. Safety standards are high and accidents are rare, but the occasional sprained ankle or broken limb does occur.

Marie Javins.

Marie Javins, GoNOMAD’s former Transports Editor, works in Los Angeles as a comic book illustrator. 

This story was updated by Max Hartshorne in January 2010.

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