The Best of Queenstown
Queenstown is bustling with life in summer. There are any number of bars and restaurants to cater for every taste and wallet. The section of the town on the shore of Lake Wakatipu , known as the Wharf, is a beautiful place to eat, drink, or just chill out watching the jet boats or the TSS Earnslaw steamer come and go, and with the incredible backdrop of the crystal clear water and the jagged edges of the Remarkables mountain range, it is no wonder Queenstown draws in the crowds.
In addition to boasting a very European, modern culture, Queenstown badges itself The Outdoor Capital of the World. Well, we arrived with the firm intention of finding out whether or not it deserves this reputation. We decided to pack in as many of the area’s adventure activities as we could, and give you our top 5. So, in the order we did them, here they are:
1) Milford Cruise – We had heard that Fiordland National Park was supposed to be one of the most stunning parts of New Zealand, with the Milford Sound being the most impressive of all the Fiords. We considered doing a day trip, but the romance of an overnight cruise drew us in. Real Journeys are the only company offering overnight cruises on Milford Sound, and so we booked on the Milford Wanderer.
Even though it is a 700 km round trip by road, we chose to drive to Milford ourselves, taking our time to enjoy the sights along the way. We stopped near Te Anau overnight, which is a quaint little town on Lake Te Anau, and the last town for 130 km to Milford. The drive up the Milford road was nothing short of incredible, despite a spell of poor weather. The rain had brought hundreds of waterfalls teeming down the sheer walls of the valleys either side of the Homer tunnel, and the mists swirled around the peaks high above the twisting road. The Homer Tunnel is an impressive feat of engineering, bored through the mountain for 1.3 km to finally connect Milford to the world by road. It is narrow and unlit, but traffic lights ensure vehicles only go one way at once, and driving it is not to be missed.
Just before we got to Milford, we stopped in at The Chasm, a waterfall like no other, where the floodwaters have picked up rocks and ground out great holes and scoops in the canyon. It was only a 20 minute round trip walk, and well worth it.
Finally at the end of the road, we parked up and went to get checked in. In no time at all we were invited to board the Milford Wanderer, and shown to our cabins. Our Double was luxury, but we couldn’t lie around for long; we were due upstairs for a welcome and briefing, and then served a delicious vegetable soup as we began our journey out into the Sound.
The crew included a nature guide, who provided lively commentary on what we could see, as well as a bit of historical background to the area. After a while we anchored in a bay, and grabbed our swimming stuff for a couple of hours kayaking. We didn’t need the swimming stuff in the end; no-one fell in. We spent the time getting a closer look at some of the interesting and historical bits of the coast, and saw a gigantic crayfish up close in the hands of a local fisherman tending his pots.
Dinner was something else! A large slow-roasted lamb shank, with perfectly cooked squash, steamed vegetables, creamed mash and two types of salad. The crew were also especially good at attending to the dietary needs of the passengers. Chrisie’s dairy intolerance was no issue, and excellent alternatives were on offer. Dessert was served as we sailed a loop out into the Tasman sea, watching the sun go down as we ate our Sticky Date Cheesecake with cookie ice cream. Seconds were had!
We anchored up for the night in a calm bay back in the safety of the Sound, and had a great night’s sleep after relaxing in the saloon for a bit with new found friends from America and Holland.
Most people, including us, chose to get up super early to watch the sun rise over the still waters of the bay, then everyone met for breakfast, cooked and continental, of which seconds were had too! We spent the morning cruising round the Sound, getting in close to waterfalls and the sheer rock walls. We were lucky enough to see New Zealand Fur Seals, and the cloud cleared enough for a view of the iconic Mitre Peak.
Back on dry land we left the Milford Wanderer behind, and began the road back to Te Anau. Since the weather was better we got to see the valleys in a new light, and they didn’t disappoint. The waterfalls from yesterday had gone, and the peaks towered above, with wisps of cloud just hanging round the tops like a scarf.
We definitely recommend the Milford Sound, the Overnight Cruise, and Real Journeys. Check them out at www.realjourneys.co.nz.
2) Shotover Jet – Everyone we spoke to about Queenstown said that the Shotover Jet was one adventurous activity not be missed. We managed to pick a nice warm evening, and set off from The Station in town. The Station is like a central hub for some of the area’s biggest names in the outdoor scene, and all their courtesy shuttles leave from there.
As we drove over the bridge the driver paused and we got our first glimpse of the narrow canyon we would shortly be rocketing down at upwards of 50 miles per hour (80kph). The staff wasted no time and gave us lifejackets (just in case, eh), and got us in to the boats. Each jet boat takes 14 passengers, and has two 3.8 Litre engines, giving 520 Horse Power to thrill people with.
Our driver, Quinn, threw in the odd joke in between slinging the boat and us sideways round corners and gunning the powerful engines through the narrow sections, bringing the boat to within millimetres (no kidding) of big rocks and the canyon walls. The skill that the drivers demonstrate is incredible. Further down the river Quinn began showing us the full 360° spins for which the Shotover Jet is famous. It was at that point we realised that a seat at the side is the wettest place to be!
We continued downstream about 7 km, which at 80 kph doesn’t take too long! Along the way the jet boat would appear to be heading straight for a tree or a rock, and then just at the last moment Quinn would flick the tail round and we’d clear the obstacle by a hair’s width. He also demonstrated to us just how clever the boat design is, that it can run safely over just 10 cm of water. We were doing 80 kph on water that was no more than ankle deep at times. Crazy!
If you are up for a thrill, and don’t mind getting thrown around and slightly drenched, then it is definitely worth doing. Find the Shotover Jet online at www.shotoverjet.com.
3) Skyline Luge – We had both wanted to race down the Luge tracks in Rotorua, but missed out on the opportunity, so now we were in Queenstown it had to be done.
The Gondola ride to get up to the Skyline complex takes a few minutes, and the views over Queenstown just open up as you get higher and higher. At the top we had to take a chairlift even higher to the start of the luge runs, smiling for a photo on the way up with the dramatic Remarkables range as the backdrop.
We had 3 runs on the luge, and the first is always on the slightly easier “scenic” course. I wouldn’t say there was too much scenic about it, as we both gave it everything we had, focused just on the track and on beating the other one to the bottom. The luge karts look like plastic sledges, but with Harley handlebars, which do steering and braking. Acceleration is between your guts and gravity!
Our second run down was on the Advanced track. It was much faster, with steeply banked corners, sudden drops and awesome hairpins. I beat Chrisie on our first run on the advanced track, but I couldn’t get past her on the second run, no matter how hard I tried.
It was amazing fun. Skyline’s tagline is “Once is never enough” and they’re right. We could have done that all day. If you’re nearby, don’t miss it. Check them out at www.skyline.co.nz
4) Nevis Swing – Queenstown is the home of bungy jumping and we couldn’t visit the adventure capital of the world without doing something at least related to bungy. Bad backs ruled out jumping head-first off a bridge with your feet tied to some knicker elastic (at least, that’s our excuse), so we opted for one of the other crazy inventions of AJ Hackett: The Nevis Swing. They badge it as the World’s Highest Swing.
The coach took us from The Station in Queenstown to a valley high in the mountains, and we swapped busses to a 4 wheel drive one for the final haul up a steep hill to the Nevis Bungy Centre. We got checked in and watched a few crazy brave people lob themselves off the 134 metre high Nevis Bungy, then we were called for the swing.
Even getting to the launchpad is an adventure, as you have to walk out on a thin gantry, with the valley dropping away beneath you. At the Launchpad we met P-lab and Pepps, the two staff who were going to throw us over the edge. They were great, teasing us with jokes like “I think that’s done up right!”.
We chose to go upside down, and nothing beats the sick feeling you get as the machinery moves you out over the drop, and you know you’re committed to the insane depth below. P-lab said to keep eye contact with him, making us think we had moment’s breathing room, but then shouted “whoops” as he released us to the mercy of gravity and 120m of steel cable!
The rush was incredible. Nothing to hold on to but each other, we hurtled towards to valley floor, head first, before the cables took and swung us 300m across the valley. We spent a few minutes admiring the scenery as we swung back and forth, and the guys winched us back up.
We survived to tell the tale, so I guess they did do the harnesses up right… In fact they made us feel really safe the whole time. The swing was epic! We would have loved to have done it again and again, and tried every position possible out of 10 plus combinations. Of all of the adventurous activities in Queenstown, this got the adrenaline going the most. Check out AJ Hackett at www.bungy.co.nz. They have 3 bungy sites in and around Queenstown, and one in Auckland.
5) FergBurger – Not strictly an adventurous activity, but certainly an adventure, FergBurger is definitely on the list of Queenstown’s Must-do’s. They have a mouth-watering selection of burgers, each filled with quantities of beef or chicken that range from generous to insane. A Big Al nearly killed us… www.fergburger.com
If paying for things isn’t your style, or your wallet feels a little light then here are a few of the free things Queenstown has on offer:
1) Routeburn Great Walk – This 50-something kilometre walk goes through and over some New Zealand’s most stunning scenery. It’s normally done over 3 or 4 days, and connects Glenorchy with the The Divide, some 300km away by road on the way to the Milford Sound. We walked a day of it from the Glenorchy end, and even in the pouring rain it was spectacular, with clear blue water pools, foaming waterfalls, wide valleys and towering cliffs.
2) Frisbee Golf – If you have a Frisbee, or can blag one from a friend, head down to the park in Queenstown where they have a permanent 18-hole Frisbee Golf course. Some are easy, some not so, and each one gives you a course map and Par score at its start. Bring some mates and check it out. If it’s a sunny day, you won’t be alone. Some shops in town and the Ice Rink also hire Frisbees for a few dollars.
3) Barbecue on the beach – Along the waterfront just West of the Wharf is a small park with a number of barbecue pits. Bring some burgers, a beer or 5 and chill out on the shore of Lake Wakatipu.