Lay of the Land
The self-dubbed adventure capital of New Zealand occupies a choice location in the southwestern part of South Island. It lies on the banks of scenic Lake Wakatipu, a Z-shaped lake that is the country’s third largest. What makes Queenstown one of the most scenic spots in all of New Zealand is the mountain drama that frames it. The Southern Alps rise in the distance – their snow-peaked, jagged fingers pointing toward the sky – while closer by, the aptly named Remarkables mountain range and Cecil’s Peak frame Lake Wakatipu.
Queenstown itself feels a bit like a US Western town like Moab has merged with a college campus: it’s a touristy, busy little place right on the shore of the lake. You can easily walk through the entire town in under a half an hour. There are some good restaurants, like Rata and Botswana Butchery, some excellent hiking that originates at the top of Bob’s Peak and a terrific botanic garden, but staying in town is not the point here. Queenstown is all about outdoorsy activities. Don’t be too shocked by the backpacker crowds and the busloads of people lining up in front of Fergburger or for the package tour to Paradise Valley. Queenstown is the jumping-off point for the southwest’s best activities – and even if the crowds are off-putting, you can assume that you’re all in it for the same thing: to enjoy this region’s spectacular landscapes in such nearby wild places as Glenorchy and Wanaka. Also, with the proper planning and a great guide, it’s easy to get away from the mass tours and into the wilderness for which New Zealand is famous.
There are no international flights into Queenstown. Most travelers will arrive via Auckland or another domestic airport. The flight from Auckland takes two hours, and the drive from the airport to Queenstown is short (about 15 minutes).
The area’s best hotels are located along Lake Wakatipu, slightly outside of town. Matakauri, for example, is a 15-minute drive away, while Azur takes under ten minutes. Sleepy Glenorchy, home of the award-wining Blanket Bay Lodge, is a 45-minute drive along the lake – this is one of the most scenic drives in all of New Zealand. Hairpin turns rise high above the lake before dropping towards the valley and into the region that Peter Jackson used heavily during the filming of The Lord of the Rings. The hiking, fishing and nature there is breathtaking.
For many travelers, a visit to Queenstown would not be complete without a helicopter tour or a flight/boating combination over the incredibly scenic Milford Sound, which is located within Fjordland National Park. It takes about 20 minutes to fly there from the airport, while the drive takes five-plus hours. However, the weather across the Milford Sound is famously iffy and is closely monitored by all of the plane and helicopter companies. (Generally, you will receive a call an hour before your scheduled flight to let you know whether it has been cancelled.)
Travelers who have their heart set on seeing Milford should book the fly-over for their first day there, understanding that if it gets cancelled, it will get rescheduled for the next day and then the following. Scheduling it on your first day therefore maximizes your chances of getting to participate in this bucket-list activity.