You can still have fun in Queenstown, New Zealand, without throwing yourself off a cliff.
This stunning region might be famous for adventure tourism, but there’s plenty on offer for non-adventurous folk like me who prefer a relaxing holiday. Of course, if bungee jumping is your thing – or maybe white water rafting, parasailing, horse trekking, mountain biking, hiking, skiing, snowboarding or jetboating – then this is definitely the place for you too.
I had 3 main criteria in mind when choosing where to celebrate my recent big decade birthday. Firstly, I wanted a change of scene from my seaside city homeland. Secondly, since this was to be a special occasion, I wanted to go a little bit posh. Nice hotel, good food and wine. Thirdly, I wanted somewhere easy to get to, so that I could make the most of our short stay without too much time being spent travelling.
Queenstown is an easy flight away from Wellington, Auckland or Christchurch and can accommodate a whole range of budgets and tastes. This beautiful lakeside town turned out to be the perfect destination for our indulgent slow travel weekend. Here are my recommended activities in Queenstown for like-minded loafers.
1. Enjoy the spectacular scenery
Queenstown is located in the south-west corner of New Zealand’s south island. This is a wild region of jaw-dropping beauty, with jagged mountains, pristine lakes and tumbling rivers. The aptly-named Remarkables range gives the town a dramatic backdrop. Landing at the airport, which is located in a valley, is quite an experience as planes have to wind their way through the ranges.
There are various options for getting around the area, including tours by boat, coach and helicopter. Or just book a room with a view! We spent a lot of time on our lakefront balcony, sipping a coffee or wine and being awed by the ever-changing scene. Hour by hour, the shifting daylight revealed some new feature of the landscape. Occasional rain showers brought rainbows and low drifting clouds that wrapped themselves around the mountains.
The local tourist board warns that this is one region in which you will feel totally insignificant – in a good way. It’s true.
2. Take a boat trip on Lake Wakatipu
There’s no doubt that taking a boat trip on Lake Wakatipu is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable ways to see a little more of the local area. After checking out the various options, we chose a 90-minute trip on the TSS Earnslaw. First launched in 1912, it’s thought to be the oldest working coal-fired steamship in the southern hemisphere.
You can wander round the ship and see all the fascinating industrial-age workings in the engine room. We also had access to the wheelhouse and the museum, which occupies the lower deck of the vessel.
The operators of TSS Earnslaw offer a stopover at Walter Peak station, a working High Country farm, where visitors can enjoy a lunch or dinner or simply tour the farm. We didn’t take this option but may of our fellow travellers did. We contented ourselves with a coffee from the onboard cafe bar.
We really enjoyed our afternoon on TSS Earnslaw, but would offer a few tips for anyone else considering the trip. Firstly, window seats are inevitably very popular, so if you’d like one, you need to turn up early to be in with a chance. We bought our tickets about 40 minutes before departure and were first in the queue when boarding began 20 minutes later. Even then, we missed out on our target seat, which was at the front left of the boat!
We took the front right instead, but this turned out to be a mistake. It was right next to the door out to the front deck, which was constantly swinging open as people went in and out to take photographs of passing scenery, blasting us with chilly draughts each time! Our advice would be to definitely avoid the front right seats of the boat. That said, over half our fellow passengers disembarked at Walter Peak so the journey back to Queenstown was much more peaceful – and a lot warmer!
At $70 per person, the TSS Earnslaw is not one of the cheaper trips on Lake Wakatipu. Another one suggested to us was the Million Dollar Cruise, a bargain at $49, but the timings didn’t work out for us on that particular day. The most extraordinary and unique option was the $129 per person Hydro Attack. This was a small, shark-shaped submersible craft which could travel at high speed and even leap high into the air like a dolphin! Definitely one for the adventurous.
3. Relax in a spa
The day after our arrival in Queenstown, the heavens opened. We decided that this was the perfect time for a spa. As luck would have it, our hotel – the St Moritz – had a spa garden, with 2 hot pools. So we donned our togs and robes, picked up our large hotel umbrellas and headed down there. It was rather nice to be immersed in hot bubbles with rain falling all around us.
For those who prefer a more conventional spa experience, there are a number of suitable venues. One that I like the sound of, and will be keen to visit next time, is Onsen Hot Pools. Particularly since they offer a bookable free shuttle service from central Queenstown. The luxurious surroundings and spectacular views from the pools look fabulous.
4. Taste the wonderful wines of Central Otago
Queenstown is located in the Otago region, which has extreme weather conditions. Central Otago is the highest, driest, hottest and coldest place in the world where wine is produced. Pinot Noir is the most renowned tipple from the area, so we decided to take advantage of a tasting package offered by our hotel. What better way to spend a wet Sunday afternoon!
The first two Pinots were from Mount Edward winery. The first was simply called Mount Edward. It was a very smooth, easy-drinking wine. The next one, Ted, had more of a kick to it, but was just as enjoyable.
Finally we tried a Pinot from Mount Difficulty which had the most powerful kick of all, quite spicy. All of them were lovely in their different ways. Our package included a couple of choices from the hotel’s tapas menu, so we chose scallops and mini canneloni – absolutely delicious!
Another wine we enjoyed was this gorgeous and very drinkable Quartz Reef brut sparkling wine from Bendigo Estate – a surprise gift from my stepdaughter along with some mouthwatering chocolates from local makers Patagonia.
5. Savour local regional foods in a fine dining restaurant
Otago produces some wonderful fine foods including fruit, vegetables, game, fish and seafood. On the day of my birthday we booked a meal at a highly-rated tiny restaurant called The Bunker. On the menu were local hare and lamb along with wild boar. Had we been a little more hungry we would have gone for the amazing Taste of the South degustation menu, which had about 10 courses and would have given us the chance to try everything!
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to The Bunker and the food was exquisite. Had we decided to splash out on another fine dining experience we would probably have tried Rata, which offered an equally enticing menu. Next time!
6. Take a stroll around Queenstown gardens
Although I had visited Queenstown before, I had never been to the gardens, which occupy a small peninsula reaching out into the lake from the town (the lower of the two you can see in the photo below). So we headed there on a showery Sunday morning, umbrellas in hand. It turned out to be a great day to go, because the wafts of low cloud made the landscape mysterious, moody and even more beautiful.
First of all we walked around the perimeter path, known as the lakeside loop, which offered some fantastic views for photographs. Then we headed into the central area, where there is an extensive rose garden and a pond. It’s a lovely tranquil spot to picnic or relax. If you feel like being more active, you can take part in disc golf, which we saw a few people enjoying. This involves throwing frisbees with the aim of dropping them into chain baskets strategically placed around the gardens.
7. Take a ride on the Gondola and be amazed by the views
As I discuss in my post on city towers, one of the best ways to get your bearings in a new place is to head upwards. Queenstown might not have a tower but it has a splendid alternative – the Skyline Gondola. This cable car ride takes you up to Bob’s Peak, 450 metres above Lake Wakatipu. The panoramic views are stunning. This is definitely one of the must-do activities in Queenstown if you’re lucky with the weather.
There’s a bar and restaurant at the top which is open for lunch and dinner. It’s very popular so reservations are recommended. You can buy combination tickets for dining and gondola rides, and if you choose the premium version you’re guaranteed a window seat.
8. Browse around the specialist shops and art galleries
At the time of our visit, New Zealand’s borders were closed to international visitors. This meant that Queenstown – which is usually full of tourists from all over the world – was unusually quiet. This was great for us as we were able to enjoy the shops and galleries without the usual crowds, although we felt sorry for some businesses which were clearly struggling.
Given the usual clientele, there’s a range of exclusive designer shops selling gorgeous top-end clothing and crafts, many of them New Zealand-made. There are also art galleries to browse around. Artbay Gallery on Marine Parade has a wide selection of contemporary New Zealand art, including abstract and landscape works. Prices range from $250 to well over $48,000. But you don’t have to buy – you can simply enjoy!
Some more affordable options can be found at Queenstown Art Centre on Stanley Street, where there’s a rolling programme of exhibitions featuring the work of artists from the local community.
Getting to Queenstown from the airport is easy. There’s a public bus every 15 minutes from outside the airport. The fare into town is $10. If you plan to take more than your 2 bus journeys to and from the airport, it’s worth buying a Bee Card, which gives you access to the local $2 standard fare. The Bee Card costs $5 to buy, then has to be topped up – minimum top up is $5. Further information can be found on the Orbus web site.
Accommodation options are wide and varied, depending on budget and whether you prefer a hotel or self-catering. Some accommodations are between Frankton (where the airport is located) and central Queenstown, while others are beyond the town and further along the lake towards the neighbourhoods of Fernhill and Sunshine Bay. The airport bus runs by most of these areas, but it’s worth researching to decide which area suits you best.
We decided that we wanted somewhere fairly central and walkable to town, so the alpine chalet-style St Moritz suited us well. I did appreciate its warm and cosy surroundings on those occasions when the rain poured down. As we relaxed in the lounge by the fire, sipping a hot fruity tea compliments of the receptionist, I thought sympathetically of the family group of 9 we’d met at the airport who were heading out for a 4-day hike.
The St Moritz’s lakeside views, especially in the restaurant and bar, were absolutely stunning, and the staff were really friendly. Our suite had the bonus of a microwave, Nespresso machine and small kitchen area with crockery and cutlery. We’d definitely stay there again.
As is often the way in mountainous areas, the weather can be unpredictable, so it’s good to be prepared. And if you’ve been in the north island of New Zealand before your visit, you’ll find Otago can be a few degrees cooler or hotter depending on the time of year. We found it quite chilly in March!
Note on links
All the links in this post which feature Queenstown businesses are direct links. There are no affiliate links. All bookings for activities in Queenstown made via my links go directly to the businesses who will receive the full benefit and will not have to pay any third party booking fees. This is my small gesture to Queenstown which has faced difficult times due to reduced tourism numbers during the pandemic.
If you are interested in New Zealand, you might enjoy my posts on Street art of Eastern Wellington, the Katherine Mansfield House, Russell, New Zealand English, best beaches in Wellington and Whanganui.
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