As a kid, I visited New Zealand’s South Island and thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. My parents drove me and my brothers off the ferry from the North Island down to Queenstown, stopping to touch glaciers along the way. I ate meat pies for days and was thrilled to discover that motels in New Zealand had trampolines.
When we arrived in Queenstown, a lakeside ski town by the Southern Alps, my normally frugal parents bought tickets for us to go on a high-speed jet boat ride. We wore ponchos and life jackets and held on for dear life. It was a thrilling adventure.
Queenstown made such an impression on me, I took my own kids to experience it some 30 years later. We went on the jet boat ride, of course, and it was just as incredible as I remembered. But we could have also tried bungee jumping, river surfing and canyon swinging. Queenstown now bills itself as the adventure capital of the world and extreme sports are its main selling point.
What to do in Queenstown
Walking the streets of Queenstown, you’ll pass shop after shop advertising whitewater rafting, paragliding, parasailing and heli-skiing. It’s hard not to want to try it all. But hair-raising activities come with a hefty price tag, so your budget may prevail.
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Choose a handful of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and plan to spend the rest of your time hiking and biking around the area. Exploring New Zealand’s stunning South Island is an adventure in and of itself.
Start your day at Fergbaker for a Ferg (meat) Pie, or its sister store, Fergburger, for a prime New Zealand beef burger. Both have long lines and for good reason. To save time, check out the menu online and order ahead by phone.
From Fergburger, it’s an easy walk to the base of Queenstown Skyline. You can spot the gondolas from the town center, so follow them to find the depot on Brecon Street. Buy a ticket to ride the gondola for panoramic views of The Remarkables mountain range or take the steep walk up to Bob’s Peak instead.
At the top, you can pay and grab a helmet for a luge thrill ride down one of two mountainside racetracks. Hop on the ski lift, which will transport you and your luge cart higher up the mountain. Then you can ride single or tandem to speed down the course of your choice. You’ll zip around banked corners and through tunnels.
Where to ski near Queenstown
If you’re visiting in New Zealand’s winter, during the U.S. summer months, Queenstown has four commercial ski resorts to enjoy. Rent ski gear in town—everything from goggles to snow pants—and head to The Remarkables ski area for spectacular views while skiing.
This resort is located high in the mountains, and the hairpin turns required to get there are harrowing. Take the shuttle from town, or from the Coronet Peak ski resort, for a much less nerve-wracking trip up the mountain. It’s seriously scary driving up there in the snow, on the left side of the road with no guard rails.
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New skiers might prefer Coronet Peak, which is located 20 minutes out of the city center and is easy to reach by car. There, in addition to skis and snowboards, you can rent a Yooner, which is a sit-ski contraption. Older kids and teens love the Yooner, which serves as a high-flying, steerable ski-sled. Young children might prefer riding toboggans, which can be rented for use in the Snow Play Area. This area is free and open to the public.
On the drive back from Coronet Peak, don’t miss your chance to take one of those exhilarating jet boat rides through narrow canyons along the Shotover River. You’ll be shaking from skimming across the river at breakneck speed. But the experience of doing 360 turns at full throttle while careening toward a canyon wall is something you won’t soon forget.
Low-key fun in Queenstown
Downtime in Queenstown is wonderful too. Not every activity has to be exhilarating. Explore the town at your own pace. We loved seeing the ancient trees in the free Queenstown Gardens, where there’s also a bike path, skate park, disc golf course and playground.
If you have a rental car, get out of town and away from the crowds. Hike up Queenstown Hill and rent bikes to ride along the Arrow River Bridges Trail. Or take a nature hike by the lake.
My kids loved playing on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, building driftwood forts and skipping stones. Our favorite spot along the lake was Wilson’s Bay, which “Lord of the Rings” fans will appreciate as the filming location for scenes set in the ancient forest of Lothlórien.
Lake Wakatipu fills a deep valley that was carved into the mountains by glaciers. Because of its unusual shape, the water rises and falls, a phenomenon that Maori legend says is caused by the heartbeat of a monster named Matau who sleeps at the bottom of the lake. It’s mesmerizing to sit and watch the lake’s “heartbeat” from a quiet spot on the shore.
Day trip to Milford Sound
If you have time, take a day trip to Milford Sound, New Zealand’s most acclaimed natural attraction. This remote fiord, which Rudyard Kipling called the eighth wonder of the world, is celebrated for its pristine environment and rugged beauty.
Located in Fiordland National Park on the west coast of the South Island, Milford Sound is a large ocean inlet with sheer cliff faces, cascading waterfalls and dense rainforest. You can hike, kayak or take a boat tour to see fur seals, penguins and dolphins. My mom tells me we saw whales when we visited in the ‘80s, but sadly they didn’t make as big of an impression as the jet boat.
The drive to Milford Sound takes four and a half to five hours, depending on the weather, and keep in mind that the sun sets early in winter. Rather than navigating potentially icy roads in the dark, you might prefer booking a coach or helicopter tour from Queenstown. Some local outfitters even offer a coach-cruise-fly option, to make the most of your day.
If You Go
Flying in and out of the small Queenstown Airport is easy. It’s also no hassle to rent a car there if you don’t mind driving on the left side of the road. You can land, grab your bag and be in your rental car in less than 45 minutes. It will only take another 15 minutes to drive to a centrally-located hotel.
Staying downtown, in accommodations like Novotel Queenstown Lakeside, is convenient because you can walk to restaurants, shops, the lake and the botanical gardens. Novotel also serves breakfast, so you can start your day with Kiwi staples like Vegemite and Sultana Bran. Or, for the truly adventurous, try the unique New Zealand breakfast of canned spaghetti on toast.
Hike, ride a luge, ski, take a jet boat ride, learn to Yooner, visit Milford Sound, or visit the gardens.