to See and Do in Queenstown
Key information for the intending
Surrounded by water and
mountains, the small town of Queenstown is in the heart of
some of New Zealand's most beautiful scenery.
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Queenstown is a year round
wonderland for the visitor. In summer, you have long warm
days and lots of outdoors activities to enjoy; in winter there
is excellent skiing on the mountains around the town.
Whenever you visit, you'll
quickly understand why Queenstown is perhaps New Zealand's most
popular tourist destination.
Getting to and from Queenstown
Queenstown is one of New Zealand's more remote towns. But
the good news is that New Zealand is small, so even a remote
location like Queenstown is not far from other places.
If you're driving to/from Queenstown, the chances are your next
(or previous stop) would be perhaps Dunedin, Te Anau, Greymouth or
Christchurch. The furtherest of these places - Greymouth
and Christchurch - are a one day drive away, and somewhere as
close as Te Anau is a mere half day away by car.
If you're flying, you'll probably be flying from Christchurch,
Wellington, Rotorua or Auckland. Nonstop service is
offered from Christchurch and sometimes from other cities too,
otherwise your travels will probably fly you first to
Christchurch and then on to Queenstown (airport code ZQN).
It is about a one hour flight between Christchurch and
Queenstown (Qantas flies 737s that take 50 minutes; Air New
Zealand fly small turboprops taking 65 minutes).
We generally prefer to fly on the jets - the smaller turbo-props
are noisier and slower, and don't fly as high. When the
air is turbulent (which it sometimes is, due to some of NZ's
unique weather patterns) the jets can fly above the rough air,
while the turbo-props have to slowly fly right through the worst of
For travelers with a limited amount of time in New Zealand, it
makes good sense to fly at least one way (typically between
somewhere in the North Island and Queenstown). Not only
does this save probably two days of solid driving, but it can
also give you marvelous views from the plane, across the country from one coast
to the other.
If you're driving between Queenstown and Christchurch, we
recommend you include a side trip to Mount Cook, New
Zealand's highest mountain. A spur road takes you part of
the way up the mountain, ending at a small settlement with a
nice hotel (the
a choice of places to eat and drink.
At the nearby airfield there are flight-seeing
opportunities, where small planes will fly you up, around the
Southern Alps, and even land on a nearby glacier.
These flights are very weather-dependent, so there's little
point in booking one prior to your travels, for fear of it being
Intercity bus service is also available to/from Queenstown and
other places. Queenstown is not on any rail lines.
Where to Stay in Queenstown
Queenstown exists almost solely for tourists. There is
really no other reason for the town's existence. However,
and unlike many other tourist spots around the world, the
necessary focus on tourism has not destroyed the town's charm
and attraction - perhaps because in addition to international
visitors, local New Zealanders also visit
Queenstown in large numbers and seek 'ordinary NZ style'
accommodation and shopping and lifestyle choices.
Existing almost solely for tourists means that Queenstown has a
good selection of places to stay, and ranging from backpacker
hostels up to luxury resorts.
When we're considering places to stay, our choice is based on
two prime factors :
We're a sucker for a room with a view. Nothing can compare
to opening the curtains in the morning and being treated to a
stunning view of the destination you're visiting, or perhaps of
sitting on a balcony in the late afternoon/evening and relaxing
while taking in the surroundings.
In the case of Queenstown you should choose a place with a view
of the lake (Wakatipu) and/or of the Remarkables (the nearby mountain
range). Happily some places allow you to enjoy views of
We generally prefer to be located close in to the center of the
town, so it is an easy short walk to the shops, restaurants and
Sure, you could stay further out and drive in and out of the
town as you needed to, and parking is not too difficult to find
close to the center of Queenstown,
but we vastly prefer the more relaxing ability to just stroll to
and from town when we wish without having any
driving/traffic/parking hassles, and being free to have an extra
drink if we so choose without worrying about needing to be
sufficiently sober to drive
back to our accommodation afterwards (NZ has strict
drink/driving laws and actively enforces them).
Note that Queenstown quickly becomes hilly, and so places that
seem like they're only a few blocks from the center of the town
can involve quite steep walks uphill on the way back.
Keeping the twin issues of view and location in mind, we
generally choose to stay at the Parkroyal Hotel (which was in
the middle of being refurbished when I last visited in Nov 05,
and which will be renamed the
Crowne Plaza when it reopens in Jan 06) or at
Lakeland Resort (just recently completed a refurbishment in
Nov 05). The
Novotel Gardens is even closer into the town, with some
rooms looking directly out onto the lake front.
There are deluxe lodges not far out of the town.
Millbrook Resort has an excellent golf course, and
Point offers excellent views of the Shotover River.
Both are close to each other, Nugget Point being about ten
minutes drive from Queenstown, and Millbrook being a bit further
A smaller more intimate alternative is
Stoneridge Estate, located not far from Arrowtown, and 15 -
20 minutes drive from downtown Queenstown.
Consider motel choices
If you're staying a bit longer, consider staying in a
motel, the same way most New Zealanders do.
New Zealand are not the cheap and sleazy places with rooms rented by
the hour that Americans often associate with the word 'motel'. Instead they are usually of a high standard, and
offer some cooking facilities and possibly separate bedroom(s)
as well as a living area. A motel typically doesn't have
an on-site restaurant, although some motels will bring you
breakfast in the morning to your room.
And while not 'cheap' in the sleazy sense of the word, motels
are usually good value and less expensive than hotels.
Motels are great if you want to spread out in a more spacious
unit, and if you would like to be able to store and serve some
Queenstown has close on 100 different motels to choose from.
Look for a motel with a Qualmark rating of four stars or better
to be sure it is of a reasonably good quality. Most of the
motels will be located less centrally than the hotels mentioned
How Long to Stay in Queenstown
We recommend three nights as the absolute minimum time to stay
in Queenstown, and we'd urge you to increase this to four or
five nights if at all possible, and/or to add a night (or two)
in Te Anau too.
Typically, you'll find you arrive sometime in the afternoon of
your first day (and night), and so with a three night stay you
have only two full days. One of these days will most
likely be taken up with a full day tour to Milford Sound, unless
you're planning to spend time in Te Anau too, and that leaves
you with only one day to see and do everything in the Queenstown
area. This is absolutely not enough time.
What to See and Do in Queenstown
Queenstown offers a tremendous range of different activities,
from very active and physically challenging to relaxing and
sedentary. No matter what you want to see or do, you'll
find plenty to enjoy in the Queenstown area.
The following list represents activities that we have on our own
personal 'must do' list, and which other people have generally
found to be high quality experiences, too. Use this as a
suggested starting point for planning your own time.
Day Tour to Milford Sound
This is high on everyone's list of 'must do' activities.
You travel, via Te Anau, and along an incredibly beautiful road
to Milford Sound where you then go on a cruise out to the Tasman
Sea and back in again before returning back to Queenstown.
But, as wonderful as it is, the day tour from Queenstown, when
traveling by coach, makes for a long day - as much as 14 hours
from when you start the tour to when you finish the tour.
For that reason, some people choose to fly by small plane one
way or both ways between Queenstown and Milford Sound.
We'd recommend you travel by coach to Milford Sound and then fly
back by plane after your cruise on Milford Sound. The
coach drive to Milford Sound tends to be well narrated and with
several stops along the way; the coach drive back tends to be
Although the extra cost of the return flight is startlingly
high, no-one we know who has chosen to do this has been
Several different companies offer tours to Milford Sound.
We believe the best operator to be
Jetboats were designed by a New Zealander in 1954. They
suck water in from the front of the boat and blow it out the
back, enabling them to travel very rapidly, maneuver very
nimbly, and needing very little depth of water (just a few
inches) to be able to proceed.
There are many chances to enjoy a jetboat ride around
Queenstown. In my opinion, one of the jetboat rides is
clearly very much superior to the many others. The best is
Shotover Jet. It goes through the most exciting and
beautiful scenery, has a very high standard of operation, and
gives a great experience. Their boats do high speed 360°
spins, and race through narrow rocky canyons, inches from the
sides, at speeds of 50 mph. An exhilarating and memorable
experience, for sure.
If you want to get even more intimately acquainted with the
rivers around Queenstown, then a rafting experience - either
might be of interest.
TSS Earnslaw Lake Cruise to Walter Peak Station
Earnslaw is a lovely old coal fired vertical triple
expansion steam powered boat that takes passengers on regular
and leisurely cruises across Lake Wakatipu (the lake Queenstown
is on the shores of).
There are several different cruise options available. We
recommend you don't just do the simple cruise, but choose
instead to combine it with a meal or farm tour at Walter Peak
Station on the far side of the lake.
The return journey back to Queenstown typically has a singalong
where you're given a songbook crammed full of 'good, old
fashioned songs' and you can gather around a piano and join in
An Earnslaw cruise is a lovely relaxing experience.
Gondola Ride to Bob's Peak (and Luge)
A longtime landmark on the hill behind Queenstown is the Skyline
Restaurant and the gondola ride that takes people up the side of
The gondola ride is possibly the steepest in the Southern
Hemisphere, and takes you up a 1500 ft rise. The views as
the gondola takes you up the side of the hill are fabulous, as
of course they are from the observation decks at the top.
While you're up there, you might want to go for a luge ride.
The luge carts are a bit like trolleys, and you can ride them
down a twisty windy route, with your choice of either a scenic
or an advanced track. Happily, a short chairlift returns
you back up to the top.
There are several different places to eat in the Skyline
complex, plus a bar to enjoy a drink in. There is also a
Maori show called the 'Kiwi Haka' - we've never seen this, and
suggest you too avoid it. If you want to enjoy some Maori
culture and entertainment, you're much better advised to do this
The Kingston Flyer Vintage Steam Train
If - like me - you enjoy traveling on steam powered trains,
you'll enjoy the
Kingston Flyer, a train that travels on a 9 mile length of
track between Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu
(about 40 minutes by car from Queenstown) and Fairlight, further
south. The train is powered by a mid 1920s era steam
locomotive, and has several wooden carriages, some dating as far
back as 1898.
Other Sights and Attractions
Queenstown is where modern bungy jumping was developed.
While bungy jumping is now becoming commonplace in many parts of
the world, if you want to experience it where it was first
commercialized, then the AJ Hackett operation in Queenstown is
the place to go.
Several of the activities can be combined by various of the
tourist operators, for example, a jet boat ride, a raft ride,
and some other thing or things as well. Often these
combination experiences include a helicopter flight, and when
there is snow on the nearby mountains (remember that NZ's winter
is the northern hemisphere's summer) these flights may include a
stop somewhere on a snow covered slope where you get to briefly
play in pure fresh snow, untouched by any other living thing.
The Shotover is considered by some to be the richest
gold-bearing river in the world, and for sure, it isn't all yet
taken. Some people pan for gold semi-professionally, and
you can do it as a brief recreational experience at one of the
former goldworking sites. Typically you'll be given some
silt and quick instructions on how to use the pan, and then
whatever gold you find is yours to keep. Chances are
you'll find a fleck or two - enough to pay for a cup of coffee,
but don't plan on finding enough gold to pay for your entire
vacation in New Zealand.
A visit to the lovely historic town of Arrowtown is a nice way
to spend half a day. Another relaxing experience can be to
go on a winery tour; there are now some excellent wineries in
the Queenstown area.
Another way to sample wine is to go to the
store on Beach St in the heart of Queenstown. This is a
fascinating store; very well laid out and very well presented.
They use special technology to allow you to sample from over 100
different wines, all open and ready for you to sip.
In theory there's absolutely no better or more convenient way to
experience such a wealth of different wines in a single
location. But we found the experience disappointing.
Maybe our palate quickly became jaded, but many of the wines
tasted the same, or lacked any sparkle. We suspect
something is lost as a result of the storage technology used.
But try it for yourself.
For a very different type of drinking experience, visit the
Minus 5 Ice Bar on Steamer Wharf. No matter what the
temperature outside, the temperature in the Minus 5 Ice Bar is,
well, -5°C (23°F) and sometimes a little colder. You're
given warm clothes and boots to wear, and the drinks generally
have a vodka theme to them. The entire bar is made from
ice, as are the glasses you drink from. Few people stay
for a second drink, but most enjoy the novelty of a first drink.
For more information
See this website - the official
Queenstown Tourism website - for
lots more information about Queenstown.
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6 Jan 2006, last update
28 May 2011