Travel Story Nine things not to miss in New Zealand's adventure capital

Photo of Natalie Richards

A frequent visitor shares her hard-won advice for "must do" activities in Queenstown. 

So you’ve seen Kate and Wills tearing up the glacial lake in a speedboat, watched with envy as your mates hammed it up on social media at the ski slopes and quite fancy a bit of it for yourself.

You book your trip to Queenstown, go on a shopping spree at Kathmandu, and you and your spanking new ski jacket plan to join one of the 1.5 million Aussies at the place dubbed the adventure capital of New Zealand.

Small problem: the fortnight you’ve booked doesn’t seem to be enough time to fit in the gazillion travel brochure activities you’ve got your eye on and you realise splurging on that Gore-Tex jacket might have been a bad idea once you tally up the cost.

Having visited Queenstown six times in the past five years, I’ve been through that sudden rush of excitement on seeing the words “booking confirmed” to the soon-to-follow thud of wanting to make the most of it in what’s never enough time.

I’ve fallen into all the traps, including being taken in by the hip, commission-hungry tour operators with beards and beanies who hit you with a host of “must-do” trips quicker than an avalanche in ski season.

While some trips were undoubtedly worth it, I’ve found my most enjoyable experiences were not those advertised on blackboards on the main strip.

So, in the absence of a beard, beanie and commission, here are my “must dos” to make the most of Queenstown and still have a few pennies to spare when you return.

1. Walking tall

If there’s one thing you’ll remember once that ski jacket is mothballed at the back of your wardrobe, it’s the gobsmackingly unbelievable South Island views.

Vivid blues at the glacial lakes (no, it’s not an Instagram filter, it really is that blue) and sugar-coated mountain tops.

Of course you can see them from town and go home happy, but if you really want to blow yourself away, you have to earn it — which involves moving your legs a little.

Ride the gondola to the Skyline terminal ($NZ35, or about $32) and hike uphill to the Ben Lomond Summit or Saddle.

It’ll take you a good 90 minutes to reach the top, your legs will ache like never before and you’ll consider giving up. But once you take those final few steps, you’ll be granted a Queenstown rarity — peace and quiet.

What’s more, you’ll most certainly have those moments all to yourself — unlike at the Skyline terminal, where you’ll have to push past dozens of tourists for the best vantage point.

If you’re lucky, you may even see mountain goats on the way.

2. Eat a Fergburger

Yes, everyone will tell you to do this, but they really are all they’re cracked up to be. 

The burger joint on the main strip has become something of a Queenstown institution — and, unfortunately, everyone knows it. The proof is in the receipt you’re given at the counter that reminds you you’re in for a 45-minute wait. 

To avoid the queues, get in there before 12pm hits (you may not be eating until after 12 anyway) or take advantage of your jet lag hunger pangs and go towards 3pm instead. And don’t waste your time with the onion rings: the burgers are so big you’ll never fit them in.

3. Dress up

There’s something about putting your glad rags on and making an effort when you’re on holiday. Yet most Queenstown restaurants realise they’d lose the bulk of their business if they banned backpackers wearing ski gear. Hence, the chilled-out, wear-what-you-came-in vibe. 

On at least one evening, it’s nice to make the most of those frocks you packed and go on a night out. Rata and Eichardt’s Private Hotel are some of the fancier venues, where you can leave your beanie at the hotel and wine and dine without getting burger juice on your fingers.

4. Hire a car

After three or four car-less visits, it had never occurred to me I might need my own transport in Queenstown. After all, most trips include a hotel pick-up, there’s a water taxi and buses, and for the rest you can use a taxi. 

Yet, without one, I’d have never discovered Glenorchy. This little town, a 45-minute drive away, has little in the way of cafes but it’s not short on some of the best scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on. 

It’s worth negotiating the winding roads for the views alone, most notably Bennett’s Bluff, which will have you feeling you’re in the thick of Lord of the Rings country. It’s notoriously difficult to photograph, so the only way to soak it in is to see it for yourself. 

Wanaka and Arrowtown are also pretty areas nearby and are decidedly quieter than bustling Queenstown.

5. Rooftop drinks

We’re more than used to rooftop bars in sunny Perth, but in colder climates they can be a novelty. Attiqa is a good choice for a place to rug up, sit around the fire pit and admire the stars on a clear night.

6. See Hobbit country

If you do have a few bucks budgeted, the Milford Sound boat trips are well worth splashing out on, if you can pardon the pun. Weave your way through a fiord, seeing waterfalls and the eerie landscape that has made its way into Hollywood movies The Hobbit and, more recently, Alien Resurgence. 

The drive takes in rainforests (yes, even in winter) and snakes through the mountains. Just make sure you sit at the front of the coach if you get travel sick.

7. Late-night eats

Take a moment away from the energy of Queenstown’s nightlife with a warm cookie, a hot drink and a seat next to the lake. Cookie Time has the best fresh-from-the-oven treats to enjoy while you see the lights of the town reflected on that glassy water.

8. Get muddy

Quad biking tours are not cheap. But, if you’re going to do it, do it here. You’ll bound through deep puddles while framed by the mountains and wonder how on Earth you’ll get all the mud out of your hair — all with a smile on your face. 

Off Road Adventures has tours from $NZ199, which includes action shots to flaunt on social media afterwards.

9. Embrace Kiwi culture

In tourist central it can be tough to find the “real” New Zealand. Go and see a haka being performed or get down to a pub when the rugby league’s on. 

You might even catch an amateur game on the playing fields.

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