Luxury Escapes Guide to Queenstown
Dazzling in winter and equally spectacular in summer, action-packed Queenstown is New Zealand’s premier tourist town for a very good reason.
Things to see and do
Hit the slopes at The Remarkables and Coronet Peak
Skiing and snowboarding are the big winter pursuits here, and Queenstown has two ski fields in its immediate surrounds, both operated by NZ Ski Ltd. In season (roughly June to early October), buses depart regularly for the slopes from outside their Snow Centre in central Queenstown, where you can also hire all the gear that you need. If you feel like a change of scenery, it takes around an hour to drive through the Crown Range to Cardrona, where you’ll find another downhill field, a cross-country skiing centre and a famously photogenic historic pub.
Take a stroll through Queenstown Gardens
There’s no better way to immerse yourself in Queenstown’s lakeside scenery than to take a leisurely stroll through these Victorian-era formal gardens. Laid out in 1876, the many exotic plantings have had plenty of time to reach maturity and include some huge sequoias. Amid the genteel rose gardens, ponds and band rotunda, one much more modern attraction is the 18-basket frisbee ‘golf’ course – a fun, free pursuit in an often-expensive town. There’s also an ice rink, skate park, tennis courts and a lawn-bowling club.
Chase views and thrills to the top of the Skyline Gondola
Jump in one of the fully enclosed gondola capsules and ride the cable car to its lofty terminus, 400m above the town centre. After taking time to be suitably awed by the extraordinary views, there’s plenty to keep you occupied at the top. The most popular pursuit is the hugely entertaining luge, where you can hurtle around 800m of tracks on a three-wheeled cart. You’ll also find a restaurant and cafe, walking tracks, ziplines, bungee jumping, paragliding and the exceptional Queenstown Bike Park, with dozens of tracks for mountain bikers of all abilities.
Soar through the air with AJ Hackett
The commercial bungy originators have been propelling people off the 43m-high Kawarau Bridge since 1988, but this is now only one of seven stomach-churning thrills that they offer. You can also hurtle along the river at 60km/on the Kawarau Zipline, or soar above Queenstown from the top of the Skyline Gondola on the Ledge Bungy or swing. However, the biggest thrills are saved for their 134m-high Nevis River site, where you can take New Zealand’s highest bungy leap, brave a 300m swing, or be shot across the canyon on the world’s biggest human catapult.
Delve into the goldrush in Arrowtown
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Arrowtown’s main street was a Wild West movie set, but most of the buildings are genuine survivors of the late-19th-Century goldrush that first brought European and Chinese settlers to the area. There are now more day trippers than dusty prospectors, drawn to the historic sites and the town’s excellent dining scene. You can even hire equipment from the Lakes District Museum and have a go at panning for gold on the Arrow River. Arrowtown is only 20km from Queenstown, and easily reached by car, bus or on a guided tour.
Enjoy a tipple in the Gibbston Valley
The Central Otago wine region is well known for its high-quality, cool-climate wine – particularly pinot noir and riesling. The Gibbston Valley, 20km from central Queenstown, is home to some acclaimed vineyards including Rockburn, Peregrine and Chard Farm, all of which have tasting rooms. The Gibbston Valley winery offers tastings and tours, and has a restaurant and a cheesery onsite. Gibbston is a great destination for a day trip, particularly if you cycle here along the Queenstown Trail; some bike-hire companies will collect you from the other end to save you a tipsy ride back.
Make feathered friends at Kiwi Birdlife Park
Aside from some tiny bats, Aotearoa/New Zealand had no land-based mammals before the arrival of humans around 740 years ago – allowing its many unique bird species to evolve in an environment largely devoid of predators. The Kiwi Birdlife Park is a great place to make the acquaintance of some of New Zealand’s most beloved birds, including the endangered whio (blue duck), cheeky kea (alpine parrot) and iconic kiwi. They’re joined by endemic reptiles such as the tuatara, a miniature throwback to the dinosaurs, thought to have existed unchanged for 220 million years.
Shoot along the Shotover River with Skippers Canyon Jet
Not only does Skippers Canyon Jet offer you all the high-speed thrills and 360-degree spins of a Kiwi-style jetboat ride, it also gives you access to a beautiful and remote stretch of country, steeped in gold-mining history. Most hire-car insurance contracts exclude the Skippers Road, so a tour is your best bet for accessing it. The three-hour trips depart from Queenstown and include 30 minutes on the water. Combine it with a Scenic Tour to try your hand panning for gold and to visit the Winky’s Museum within the historic Sainsbury Gold Claim.
Top places to eat and drink
Amisfield Bistro & Cellar
Our top pick for the Queenstown Lakes region is this inventive winery restaurant, positioned near Lake Hayes, 14km from central Queenstown. View it as the culinary equivalent of bungy jumping as you place your palate completely in the hands of the chef over a multi-course degustation. At lunchtime you do get a little more control, being able to pick your own small-plate menu from the trio of dishes offered for each of the three courses. Wine tastings at the cellar door are free if you’re dining or $10 for five wines otherwise.
The chef hails from South Africa rather than Botswana and the menu’s meaty but not exclusively so. Rather, Botswana Butchery makes the most of its prime lakeside setting by delivering an upmarket vibe and an international menu (French onion soup, Peking duck, Korean-style squid) – along with big slabs of meat from its ‘butcher’s block’. If you’re not in the mood for a Flintstone-proportioned slow-cooked lamb shoulder, come at lunchtime for options that are lighter on the waistline and the wallet.
Helmed by one of New Zealand’s best-known chefs – Michelin-star-winning and Masterchef-hosting Josh Emett – Rātā is Queenstown’s slickest restaurant. The standards and service are consistently high but don’t expect too many bells and whistles. Rather than tricksy culinary wizardry, the focus is on top-notch New Zealand produce, responsive to the seasons, deftly prepared and elegantly presented. The back-lane location is equally unassuming, with a backdrop of native flora – both photographic and real – setting the scene for a showcase of the best the country has to offer.
An eclectic menu awaits at this excellent cafe that caters well to the needs of travellers, with USB ports and powerpoints by most of the tables. Daytime dishes range from corn-and-jalapeno fritters to poached pear and pretzel French toast, along with tasty burgers and some vegan options. At night it gets even more globetrotting, with poutine, Japanese fried chicken, Szechuan squid, tacos and bao buns. The coffee’s excellent too. Check the website for details of their regular live performances and DJ-fuelled parties.
The queues at its big brother Fergburger, next door, are nearly as legendary as the burgers themselves – but we usually prefer to skip them and head to this wonderful little bakery instead. Inside you’ll find a good selection of savoury and sweet pastries, including innovative exemplars of that Kiwi staple: the meat pie. Like Fergburger, Fergbaker is open until the wee hours of the morning – perfect for a late-night snack on the way home from a few bars. The Ferg family has also expanded to the next shop in the row, where you’ll find the Mrs Ferg gelato bar.
Atlas Beer Cafe
This place is truly tiny but still manages to carry a hefty selection of craft beer on tap, including a good selection from Queenstown’s very own Altitude Brewing. If you can’t choose between the nearly two dozen brews on offer, opt for a tasting paddle. The food is also surprisingly good, particularly the hefty Breakfast of Champions. Later in the day there are tacos, burgers, share plates and a good-value ‘Pie and Pint’ deal. On a sunny day, grab a seat at an outdoor table and gaze out over the lake.