Queenstown is New Zealand’s premier commercialized resort town, superbly set by deep-blue Lake Wakatipu and hemmed in by craggy mountains. Kiwis and visitors complain that the town is too loud, crowded, expensive, big for its boots and the victim of devil-may-care development. There’s some truth in this, with the faint screams of adrenaline activity junkies piercing the tranquillity and the base thump of music and shrill whistle of the TSS Earnslaw providing the backdrop, but somehow Queenstown retains the air of a small-town idyll. Furthermore, it offers a great selection of restaurants, some of the flashiest accommodation in the country, and nightlife that will either suck you in or drive you away.
Best taken in small doses, Queenstown is well worth using either as a base from which to plan lengthy forays into the surrounding countryside, or as a venue for sampling all manner of adventure activities. The most prominent of these is undoubtedly bungy jumping at three of the world’s most gloriously scenic bungy sites, visited either in isolation or as part of a package, perhaps including whitewater rafting and jetboating on the Shotover River.
Visitors after a more sedate time plump for easy walks around lakeshore gardens and to hillside viewpoints; lake cruises on the elegant TSS Earnslaw, the last of the lake steamers; a gondola ride to Bob’s Peak, which commands magnificent vistas from a cable car over Queenstown and the Remarkables range; and wine tours around some of the world’s most southerly vineyards. Milford Sound can be visited from Queenstown.
Frantic summers are nothing in comparison to winter, when Kiwi and international skiers descend on Coronet Peak and the Remarkables, two fine ski-fields within half an hour of Queenstown, particularly during the annual Queenstown Winter Festival, late June and early July.Read More
Even visitors who had no intention of parting with a large wad of cash to dangle on the end of a thick strand of latex find themselves bungy jumping in Queenstown. A combination of peer pressure, magnificent scenery and zealous promotion gets to most people and, let’s face it, historic bridges high above remote rivers beat a crane over a supermarket car park any day. The sport’s commercial originator AJ Hackett, at the corner of Camp and Shotover streets (t 0800 286 495, w bungy.co.nz), runs all three Queenstown-area bungy jumps: the original 43m Kawarau; the 47m Ledge and the mighty Nevis. There are several bungy and swing combos. If you want a record of your fifteen minutes of hair-raising fame you can pay to download photos or a film from the company’s website.
Nevis Highwire (134m)
Some say that with bungy jumping it is only the first metre that counts, but size does matter and the Nevis is New Zealand’s highest, with eight seconds of freefall. Jumpers launch from a partly glass-bottomed gondola strung way out over the Nevis River, a tributary of the Kawarau 32km east of Queenstown. Access is by 4WD through private property so spectators have to fork out $50, though this does give you a ride out to the launch gondola and a wonderful view. Free T-shirt but jump photos are extra.
Watersports in and around Queenstown
Watersports in and around Queenstown
Some of the most thrilling activities around Queenstown take place on or in the water – sometimes a bit of both. You’ll almost certainly get splashed during 360-degree spins when jetboating and punching through big waves whitewater rafting. You’re almost always in the water when river surfing, sledging and canyoning, and only family rafting gives you much chance of a dry run.
There are strong arguments for spending your jetboating dollar on better-value wilderness trips elsewhere – the wilkin River Jet, waiatoto River safaris and trips down the wairaurahiri River spring to mind – but Queenstown does offer the scintillating shotover Jet and the thrilling, scenic and historic skippers Canyon Jet.
Shotover Jet Corner of Camp and shotover sts 0800 746 868, shotoverjet.com. Slick, touristy and pricey but the thrills come thick and fast. Courtesy buses take you out to arthur’s point, 5km north of Queenstown, where super-powerful jetboats thrust downstream along the shotover Canyon. Perilously close shaves with rocks and canyon walls plus several 360-degree turns and periodic dousings guarantee that a twenty-minute trip is enough for most.
Skippers Canyon Jet 0800 226 966, skippers canyonjet.com. A great way to combine exploring the skippers road with jetboating among the ancient gold workings of the upper Shotover River. There are various combos, perhaps the most logical being with a rafting trip down the shotover river, which doesn’t save you much money but helps pack in the thrills.
Queenstown’s adventure stalwart is whitewater rafting, which takes place locally on the Kawerau River and the Shotover River, and infrequently in the remote Landsborough River. Although there appear to be three whitewater rafting companies in town, each with assorted packages and combo deals, all rafts are in fact operated by Queenstown Rafting, 35 shotover st (0800 723 8464, rafting.co.nz).
Kawarau River (Grade II–III; 4hr with around 1hr on the water). With its large volume, this is the more reliable of the two rivers. The 7km “Dog Leg” section negotiates four rapids (exciting but not truly frightening), ending with the potentially nasty Chinese Dog Leg, said to be the longest commercially rafted rapid in New Zealand. Being lake-fed, its flow is relatively steady, though it peaks in spring and drops substantially towards the end of summer.
Shotover River (Grade III–IV; 5hr with almost 2hr on the water). More demanding than the Kawarau, with rapids revelling in names such as The squeeze, The Anvil and The Toilet. They reach their apotheosis in the Mother-in-Law rapid, usually bypassed at low water by diverting through the 170m Oxenbridge Tunne. The 14km rafted section flows straight out of the mountains and its level fluctuates considerably. In October and November, snowmelt ensures good flows and a bumpy ride; by late summer low flows can make it a bit tame for hardened rafters, though it is still scenic and fun for first-timers. In winter the lack of sunlight reaching the depths of the canyon makes it too cold for most people, though you can elect to do a much shorter trip by accessing the rapids by helicopter.
Landsborough River (Grade III; mid-Nov to April Friday departures; 3 days). Fly-in wilderness trip with camping beside the river – it’s more about the whole experience than the whitewater.
Queenstown is fast becoming a major cycling destination. there have always been great rides here, but with the opening up of gondola access to downhilling in the Queenstown Bike park, the sterling track-building efforts of the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club (queenstownmtb.co.nz), and the imminent completion of the Queenstown trail, part of the new Zealand Cycle trail (wakatiputrails.co.nz) everything is coming together. Whether you’re after a gentle lakeside ride, steep downhill or a multi-night adventure, there’s something for you, and the whole Queenstown region is heli-biking heaven. All the bike shops rent suitable machines and are staffed by keen riders who will point to the best Queenstown has to offer. There’s lots more great information at ridequeenstown.co.nz.