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Adventures in New Zealand: A Guide to Creating the Perfect Queenstown Itinerary

Photo Credit: Dan Avila Photography

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 8,000-foot 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.

I 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 I packed as many in as I could in nine days. Here is list of must-do experiences:

helicopter ride
Photo Credit: Dan Avila Photography

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 (number 203) 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 (in full view of Mitre Peak), 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, we took off pushing over the deep waters of Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea on New Zealand’s west coast to land a few feet 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
Photo Credit: Dan Avila Photography

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 inches 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.

Jet boating is something I have always wanted to do. I had built up this experience in my mind for years, so I was worried that it may end up a little more pedestrian in reality. Well, it wasn’t. Our driver was in his mid-twenties and had already amassed over 1,000 hours on this river. His ability to deftly slide this slippery rocket along a white water river within three inches of a rockface has to be experienced to be believed. The canyon that lines the freezing river was draped in icicles up to three feet long looking like menacing spear heads. Standing on the banks of the river after the experience, our driver told us about the work they did with the Lord of the Rings movie on this river. Three days to film one river scene in this exact location. Just about everywhere I went, someone had a story about their connection to the movie trilogy.

TSS Earnslaw
Photo Credit: Dan Avila Photography

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.

winery
Photo Credit: Amisfield Winery

Eating & Drinking

Some of the best produce in the world is sourced in New Zealand, and regional gastronomy has become an integral part of the NZ brand. It’s worth the trip just to experience the food. Bon vivants find amazing opportunities for superlative cuisine around the world. It just so happens that much of the best comes from New Zealand. Certainly worthy of note are the dairy and lamb selections. Queenstown is surrounded by spectacular farming country. My particular favorite local speciality is the wild sourced venison. The climate, fertile soils and steep, difficult terrain come together to produce the perfect environment for the most succulent game. Although venison is not a particularly exotic meat, in Queenstown it’s everywhere. Every burger joint offers venison burgers, and I couldn’t find a bad one.

In the same vein, the region of Otago produces outstanding premium wines. A perfect example of brilliant new-world producers with cool climate and fertile soils famed for their sophisticated Pinot Noirs which account for about 70 percent of regional plantings. But don’t discount their modern Chardonnays, succulent Sauvignon Blancs, crisp Rieslings, delicious Pinot Gris, and aromatic Gewürztraminers. Amisfield winery has a beautiful restaurant showcasing the best of local produce which is skilfully paired with sumptuous wines by the owners. In a castle-like restaurant overlooking a lake at sunset, this is a perfect example of wineries done right.

snow
Photo Credit: Dan Avila Photography

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 4x4 is preferable and chains for icy roads are essential. Gearing up to get on the fields is easy with some great outfitters in town. The crew at Alta Ski Hire are fantastic with the latest equipment for all experience levels and conditions. 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.

skiing
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

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.

gondola
Photo Credit: Dan Avila Photography

Gondola

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.

matakauri
Photo Credit: Dan Avila Photography

Matakauri Lodge

One of the best places to stay in Queenstown is Matakauri Lodge, just eight minutes from the town center, yet in a world of its own. Beyond its location and the warm professionalism of its staff, the team pays incredible attention to detail. The smallest of things are continually addressed by the staff, most of which are without the guests' awareness.

Feeling a little like the Hamptons came to New Zealand, the grounds are spread out in the forested property set on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. Getting to and from Matakauri can be done by car, boat or helicopter. The property has its own jetty which, aside from the obvious boating advantages, is a great destination to quietly see out the day. 

matakauri
Photo Credit: Dan Avila Photography

The hotel offers a fabulous dining experience under the supervision of head chef Jonathan Rogers. Chef Rogers crafts a new menu daily, showcasing the very best in local produce carefully tailored after consulting with the guests. It is arguably the finest in Queenstown, boasting an intimate dinner in the library next to the open fire. For accommodations, Matakauri includes suites within the lodge, outlying cottages or the owner’s residence. The beautifully-appointed cottages are carefully designed to take full advantage of the stunning views of the lake across to Walter Peak Mountain.

In the end, out of the 160 experiences on offer, I 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.

Dan Avila

Dan lives in the coastal city of Fremantle, Western Australia. Dan is a press credentialed photo-journalist with International Federation of Journalists and is a full writer member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers. Dan is a frequent traveler across the globe, camera in hand - shooting unique people and places. Dan is frequently contracted to shoot images for high-end resorts as well as ...(Read More)

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