The special vibe of Queenstown
In the far region of New Zealand’s south island is magical Queenstown. Equal parts adrenaline-charged action and jaw-dropping beauty, the city also offers pure luxury and an epicurean experience to rival the world’s best. Flying into Queenstown for the first time sets the scene. On final approach the aircraft dips into a valley between snow-covered mountains before the lake-front town comes into view. Queenstown is simply gorgeous. If the weather is right, arriving in town is a sensory overload due to the pureness of the bracing winter and deep blue sky cradled by the snow-capped cliffs of The Remarkables, an high mountain range. Queenstown feels like the perfect blend of Vail, Colorado and Switzerland. It is a mecca for all types of holiday-makers and the sheer number of visitors any time of the year dramatically outweighs the region’s local population.
We think this is one of the reasons Queenstown has this special vibe. It feels like everyone is relaxed and happy. What is also unique about this place is that it is not just seasonally popular, it is always popular. It is famous for snow skiing and winter sports, but it is even busier in the warmer months (warmer, not hotter, it is just too close to the Antarctic to get hot). In fact, at last count there were over 160 activities and adventures to sample in and around Q-town and we packed as many in as we could in nine days. Here is list of must-do experiences:
Helicopter flight to Milford Sound And Beyond
The way to truly take this place in and explore its surrounds in a reasonable period of time is from the air. The extended adventure flight with Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters is nothing short of spectacular. An early morning departure from the base of The Remarkables had us flying west across the ski-fields of Cardrona to Milford Sound. The flight goes past sheer cliffs and gushing waterfalls before landing at Milford Sound because of this, it is one of the most photographed sites in the region. The area around Milford Sound creates its own weather and is one of highest rainfall locations in the world. As a result, its verdant green valleys are dotted with rivers and waterfalls and unique vegetation. After a few pictures, you can took off pushing over the deep waters of Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea on New Zealand’s west coast to land a few distance from the lapping waves on the wild West Coast Beach. Instead of sand, the beach is made up of polished igneous boulders. You’ll then fly over a protected nursery of seal pups, past blue-green ice falls and onto Mt Tutoko glacier. Flying past the glacier, the natural, milky-blue ice structures look like giant ruins from an ancient civilization. The flight home passed over ever-changing landscapes that felt like a private tour of the Lord of the Rings film sets. This heli-trip is a must-do.
Jet Boat With Skippers Canyon Jet
The shallow rocky rivers of New Zealand gave birth to the jet boat. Instead of a propeller, these boats are run by a water jet, giving them ability to travel at breakneck speeds in barely a few cm of water. The Skippers Canyon Jet experience is part of the fabric of Queenstown’s adventure excursions. Even the all-terrain bus ride to the lake along the infamous Skippers Road can take your breath away. Halfway along this road into the canyon it dawned on me why no car hire company permits their vehicles on this road. It takes a skilled driver with nerves of steel to navigate the off-piste conditions with sheer cliffs and hairpin bends. Three days were spent to film one river scene in this exact location for the Lord of the Rings movie. Just about everywhere you go, someone had a story about their connection to the movie trilogy.
TSS Earnslaw – Real Journeys
Dropping the pace but maintaining the appeal, the steam ship TSS Earnslaw is a beautifully-restored steamer with a long service history. Setting off from Queenstown under the power of coal, shoveled continually by an extremely fit operator, the Earnslaw pushes with stately elegance across the gorgeous Lake Wakatipu. The trip reveals new jewels in this beautiful region until docking at a farm stay for a generous lunch by a roaring fire.
Skiing & Snow Boarding
The ski fields of Queenstown remain an international draw. They are accessible, beautiful and diverse. When renting a vehicle in Queenstown, a 4×4 is preferable and chains for icy roads are essential. Gearing up to get on the fields is easy with some great outfitters in town. Get fit out for the trip when you arrive, carve up the slopes for as many days as you’d like trying different equipment any time, and then just drop your gear off before departure. When it comes to hitting the slopes, the most accessible ski fields from Queenstown are Cardrona, The Remarkables and Coronet Peak. Cardrona is the perfect place for beginners and intermediate skiers and boarders with the most reliable snow conditions in the region spread over three basins. Its high elevation and southerly aspect mean dry, natural snow is plentiful. However it still has its challenges with secret powder stashes, chutes and cliff drops. If you’re looking to mix it up with the younger set, Cardrona has the most extensive terrain park facilities in the Southern Hemisphere with four parks, two halfpipes and a gravity-cross course. Coronet Peak is easily accessible and caters for every level of skier and rider. Consistent snow conditions with a state-of-the-art, fully-automated snowmaking system, means reliable coverage from the beginning of June to early October. This is a beautiful place to ski with surreal views extending from the white fields then dropping off in the postcard-worthy, green landscapes below. The Remarkables appear to stand like a fortress protecting Queenstown and the drive up to the ski field is spectacular. They have excellent facilities and offer a diverse and engaging ski and boarding experience catering to all levels. Skiing in any of these fields around Queenstown is convenient and exciting. Remember to dress for the conditions as this place can get seriously cold.
The Gondola from Queenstown to the top of Bob’s Peak is best done before sunset. The panoramas across the picturesque town, the emerald water of Lake Wakatipu and mountains in all directions are gorgeous. From Bob’s Peak the view extends to Coronet Peak in the north and the iconic Remarkables mountain range to the east. It then goes across to the deep blue waters of Lake Wakatipu with Cecil and Walter Peaks to the southwest. It’s truly awe-inspiring.
In the end, out of the 160 experiences on offer, we only managed to scratch the surface on this all too brief trip. There is so much to see and do and the entire experience changes with the seasons. Its definitely a vacation worth taking over and over again.