Consider beautiful Queenstown as a convenient entry point to New Zealand, says David Whitley
Introductions to a country rarely get more beautiful, even in a country as picturesque as New Zealand. Queenstown sits in a thoroughly enviable position on the edge of lightning bolt-shaped Lake Wakatipu, and is surrounded by highly photogenic mountains.
Once a ski hub, it has broadened its appeal to become a year-round lake resort town. This initially involved a push into providing every conceivable adrenaline activity under the sun – commercial bungee jumping was born here and everything else followed – but in recent years, the food and wine scene has notably kicked into gear.
Queenstown has also begun to take on Christchurch as the major gateway to New Zealand’s South Island – particularly for travellers combining Australia and New Zealand in the same trip.
The codeshare partnerships between Emirates and Qantas, plus Etihad and either Virgin Australia or Air New Zealand, mean Queenstown is well connected to the major Australian cities.
What to do
If you want to be utterly terrified, then you’ve come to the right place. The world’s first commercial bungee jumping site is at the Kawarau bridge, 20 minutes out of the town centre.
Operator AJ Hackett lets willing victims plunge 43 metres down to the river for £98. The real test of nerve, however, is the £138 Nevis jump, which requires adventurers to plummet 134 metres from a cable car above the Nevis River.
Only slightly less scary is white-water rafting – and the Shotover River throws up some fierce rapids, waterfalls and rock tunnels. Surviving without taking a dunking is quite an achievement. Travel 2 sells half-day tours from £131.
Handily, all manner of high-thrill options can be packaged together. Austravel, for example, sells a Shotover High Five package, which involves a jetboat trip with 360-degree spins and other daring stunts, followed by a short helicopter flight to the hilltop Queenstown Gondola station.
From there, there’s the opportunity to try out the luge (in effect, a downhill karting track) before taking the Gondola cable car back down into town. This costs from £172.
It’s also possible to combine the jetboating with a 4×4 tour into the precipitous Skipper’s Canyon. It’s a road that requires nerves of steel, and there are fascinating remnants of the area’s gold-mining past on the way. 1st Class Holidays bundles it up as an Essential Queenstown experience for £140.
For a less hair-raising trip out on the water, a chug on the TSS Earnslaw is just the ticket.
The old steamship once serviced the settlements around the lake, but now takes visitors out to Walter Peak farm, where sheep-shearing displays take place, and horse-riding, barbecue lunches or evening dinners can be tagged on to Anzcro’s £35 cruise-only deal.
More scenery can be discovered heading up the lake towards Glenorchy and the Dart River with Nomad Safaris’ Safari of the Scenes tour.
This takes in numerous filming locations from The Lord of the Rings trilogy (plus the odd good anecdote about Sean Bean hiking up a mountain in full costume because he was scared to get in a helicopter).
Prices start at £106 with Anzcro.A more indulgent option is to head into the Central Otago wine region for a tour around some of the area’s best cellar doors.
It’s the most southerly wine region in the world, and it has a justifiably stellar reputation for producing some of the best pinot noirs on the planet. 1st Class Holidays sells five-hour tours, which visit four carefully selected wineries, for £88.
Where to stay
Queenstown’s accommodation tends to be on the pricey side by New Zealand standards, although deals are available in the shoulder seasons between the summer peak and winter ski-rush.
The town has a strong hostel scene for those on a budget, however. The YHA Queenstown Central is less rowdy than most, and sells three nights in a dorm room for £50, or £173 in a private double with en suite.
Of the three-star options, the large Rydges Lakeland Resort is popular with tour groups, but has the key advantage of a heated outdoor pool to offset the rather functional interiors.
There’s also free car parking – handy for self-drivers who don’t want to be whacked with hefty fees for a few nights. Prices start at £104 a night with Travel 2.
The Novotel Queenstown Lakeside, meanwhile, is a slick, family-friendly option that feels younger than you might expect from the chain. It’s in a tremendous position, just a few metres from the lake and town centre. Prices start at £60 a night with Austravel.
The Rees is right by the lake – it even has its own private jetty – and most of the accommodation is apartment-style. The lake and mountain views are stunning, but the trade-off is a half-hour walk into the town centre. Rooms start at £100 a night with Cox & Kings.
The most lavish option is Matakauri Lodge. The infinity pool stares out at the Remarkables mountain range, while there’s a full-service spa, open fires and that sense of personalised exclusivity that make New Zealand’s lodges so memorable for well-heeled guests.
The hotel is far enough out of the town centre to require a car, though. Suites, which include walk-in wardrobes and private porches, start at £595 a night.
Queenstown is often used as the hub for ventures into Fjordland – although day trips to Milford Sound involve eight hours of sitting on a bus. It’s much better to go on an overnight cruise, waking up to the wildlife and steep mountain walls without having to contend with day-trippers.
1st Class Holidays sells an overnight Milford Sound trip with transfers from Queenstown for £344. The operator also sells overnighters to Doubtful Sound – arguably more beautiful, and with a kayaking excursion thrown in – for £437.
Three of New Zealand’s multi-day ‘Great Walks’ – the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler Tracks – also have their trailheads in Fjordland.
A fair bit of stamina and self-sufficiency are required, but the department of conservation provides strategically placed huts to sleep in, and the alpine and rainforest views are admirable reward for the expended energy.
New Zealand’s tallest peak, Mount Cook, is a three-hour drive from Queenstown, although it will take longer, as there are amazing photo opportunities on the way. As well as some splendid hikes, visitors can enjoy scenic flights or boat trips on the eerily blue lake created by the retreat of the Tasman Glacier (from £88 with Anzcro).
On the other side of the mountains, the west coast is a place of wild coastal scenery – particularly the blowholes around the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks – and glaciers. Scenic Pacific sells a four-day tour that starts in Queenstown and finishes with the TranzAlpine train journey to Christchurch, including a walk to the face of the Franz Josef glacier and a short rainforest trek, from £575.
Wildlife-lovers, however, should head to the east coast. The Otago Peninsula near Dunedin is home to the world’s only mainland colony of southern royal albatrosses, while extremely rare yellow-eyed penguins nest at Penguin Place.
A six-hour wildlife-watching package, including a cruise around Otago harbour, costs from £58 with Kuoni.
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