Wedged between the sodden beech forests and plunging cliffs of Fiordland, the snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps, the fertile plains of south Canterbury and the sheep country of Southland lies Central Otago, a region of matchless beauty with cold, glacier-carved lakes, barren hills and clear skies. The hub of “Central”, as it is known to locals, is Queenstown, a flawed jewel with a legendary setting looking across Lake Wakatipu to the craggy heights of the Remarkables range. It has become New Zealand’s adventure capital, offering the chance to indulge in just about every adrenaline-fuelled activity imaginable. Near neighbour Wanaka is Queenstown’s more restrained cousin, draped around the placid waters of its eponymous lake. The whole region is riddled with the detritus of its nineteenth-century gold rushes, particularly around Cromwell and amid the big-sky landscapes of the Maniototo.
Central Otago is shaped by its rivers and lakes. Meltwater and heavy rains course out of the mountains into the 70km lightning bolt of Lake Wakatipu, draining east through the Kawarau River, which carves a rapid-strewn path through the Kawarau Gorge. Along the way it picks up the waters of the Shotover River from the goldfields of Skippers.
With a legendary setting looking across Lake Wakatipu to the craggy heights of The Remarkables range, Queenstown fills many roles. Bungy jumping, jetboating, rafting, skydiving, mountain biking, paragliding and many more activities have been honed into well-packaged, forcefully marketed products. But you don’t need to do any of that. Many are happy to relax along the waterfront and dine at the best cafés and restaurants around. The scenery is particularly wonderful, as acknowledged by film-makers who have flocked here over the years to shoot major feature films: several scenes from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the highest concentration of locations from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, more recently, large sections of The Hobbit.
Neighbouring Arrowtown wears its gold heritage well. There is something to delay most folk amid quaint streets, intimate restaurants, cool bars, indie cinema, historic Chinese gold settlements and day-long walks to the defunct gold mines around Macetown. All this provides a welcome break from Queenstown’s high-pitched ambience but perhaps the perfect antidote is the great outdoors. Some of the country’s most exalted multi-day tramps start from nearby Glenorchy, springboard for the magnificent Routeburn Track, the match of any in the country; the green and beautiful Caples and Greenstone tracks (combined to make a satisfying five-day circuit); and the rugged Rees–Dart Track, which opens the challenging Cascade Saddle Route.
Glacially scoured, the three-sided pinnacle of Mount Aspiring, “the Matterhorn of the South”, forms the centrepiece of the Mount Aspiring National Park. Permanently snowcapped, this alpine high country is linked by the alluring Matukituki Valley to the small resort town of Wanaka on the shores of Lake Wanaka. The town’s laidback atmosphere stands in marked contrast to frenetic Queenstown, though there’s no shortage of adventure operators vying to thrill you.
Lake Wanaka and Lake Wakatipu both ultimately feed the Clutha River which threads its way to the coast south of Dunedin passing through land transformed by New Zealand’s first gold rushes. Most of the gold has long since gone and the area is largely deserted, but there are numerous interesting relics around the modest centres of Cromwell, Alexandra and Roxburgh. Gold miners fanned out to found tiny towns in the Maniototo: St Bathans and Naseby are particularly enjoyable places to idle among the boom-time remains.
From June to October the region’s focus switches to skiing, with Queenstown acting as a base for the downhill resorts of Coronet Peak and the Remarkables, while Wanaka serves the Cardrona and Treble Cone fields, as well as the Snow Farm Nordic field.