Think New Zealand, and it evokes image of The Lord of the Rings, endless sheep on rolling hills and a population intent on testing every single humanly possible activity to wring out as much adrenaline as the human body could possibly handle. Hard to argue when on approach, you see rugged coastlines, jagged snow-capped peaks and a wilderness so tempting to explore, you can see what encourages so many thrill seekers to this natural playground.
Jagged Little Town
Located roughly in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island, Queenstown at first glance may seem like an unassuming little town. However, on approach, as you catch glimpses of the majestic Lake Wakatipu or the unreal blue of the Kawarau River or the peaks of The Remarkables range from the tarmac of Queenstown International Airport, you would rather it that way: let the natural surrounding do the talking.
The centre of Queenstown, focused on Rees St/Shotover Street, houses endless gear shops, tour operators specializing in every adrenaline sport imaginable, interesting bars and a host of accommodation. A walk around town and this little spot seems more cosmopolitan than you can imagine, with people from all over the world congregating in search of the next thrill.
Hemmed in by rolling hills, mountain ranges and a stunning lake, it is hard to not always want to stay outside in Queenstown, even in winter: the collegial atmosphere and natural beauty captures you, and all you can think of is enjoying a nice little drink on a floating bar. Yes, I spent a lot of time on Perky’s Floating Bar: it marries my love of wine, boats, water and natural landscapes wonderfully.
Pack a good, sturdy pair of hiking boots, a day-bag, extra camera batteries and a big SD card: there are a lot of good hikes within 15 minutes walk of the town centre, from simple walks up hills to more technical, steep ascents, but all are rewarded with amazing views of Queenstown, the mountains and Lake Wakatipu.
Queenstown Hill is a fun, easy hike, roughly 30 minutes from start to summit. Hike in the morning, as the cool air provides makes the summit magical with low clouds and mist. Stay a bit longer as the sun warms up the clouds, meditating on the lake views and artwork that dots the first peak.
Skyline Queenstown is a bit of a ‘cheat’ if you want to hike: there is the option of a very rewarding 1 hour hike up Bob’s Peak or a 15 minute gondola ride. Or of course, there is the option of a hike up and gondola down, or gondola up and mountain bike down. Waiting for the gondola and watching as mountain bikes are attached to the gondola up may give you even more suggestions.
Up at Skyline, there is a bar, a few restaurants, a Maori cultural exhibition, luge and of course more hiking trails. From the easy Skyline Loop that loops around the summit of Bob’s Peak or onwards towards Ben Lomond, pack lunch, stay hydrated and explore. You may even bump in to fellow ‘hikers’: of all things, I bumped in to a small herd of wild mountain goats on my way up Ben Lomond.
Apart from beautiful hiking territory, stunning cycling routes and adrenaline-pumping mountain bike trails, Queenstown has a range of activities on hand, from skiing in winter to, of course, the ‘Shotover Jet,’ the home of the very fast jet boat that whizzes up and down the Shotover River and Gorge.
While I did not opt for the Shotover Jet (or paragliding/bungee jumping/zorbing/base jumping), there are the tamer options of a day out at Walter Peak. A 30 minute cruise on the steamship TSS Earnslaw brings you to Walter Peak High Country Farm, a working farm and base for more genteel options. From an agricultural show of farm dogs herding sheep to cycling trips around the country, to just enjoying the view of Lake Wakatipu, Walter Peak is a quaint escape from the contagious adrenaline in Queenstown.
Walter Peak also has a very good horse riding trek around the lake and surrounds, and what better way to fan your Lord of the Rings dream than riding a horse in Middle Earth, as the jagged mountains recall Rohan and Gondor. Horses are well-mannered, the views rivalled by few and the peace serene.
Further beyond, the iconic image of New Zealand’s natural treasures beckon: Piopiotahi, or Milford Sound. While it was a bit sad I knew of Piopiotahi through Civilization VI, the trip from Queenstown was worth the entire day. From bus excursions, to bus-and-fly options to a full on multi-day trek on the Milford Sound, the scenery and experience of this journey to one of the natural wonders of the world is best experienced instead of described.
Yet after a day of adventures, Queenstown delivers on gastronomic and vino-related adventures. From the Perky’s Floating Bar to the world famous Fergburger which deserves its ranking as one of the top burgers in the world, to the genteel surrounds of The Lodge Bar, this adventure capital will serve you well.
One thing is for sure though: keep options open in Queenstown: this beautiful, unassuming town in the middle of rural New Zealand may capture you with her wonders. Sure, Queenstown is basically a tourist town, with tourism a major backbone of the economy, but it certainly does not feel like your standard issue tourist centre, what with the adrenaline adventurers, expedition explorers and bravado bikers around.
Taxis are a bit hard to come by: rent a car or get a ‘GoCard’ for easy bus rides. The ‘GoCard’ can be purchased at Queenstown Airport, at a travel counter on the left before the exit. Your purchase of the GoCard from the airport can easily cover the return fare from the airport to town.
Queenstown is an easy, walkable city. Sites further afield may require a private car. Most excursions come with transport provided from your accommodation.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.