Some people really hate Queenstown, New Zealand.
I mean, there’s no place everyone loves, is there? The lines are too long at Disneyworld; people pickpocket you in Barcelona; everything is trying to kill you in Australia. But Queenstown is, in my experience, a particularly polarizing little location.
It’s not the “real” New Zealand, they say. It’s so overhyped and touristy, they whinge. It’s full of drunk backpackers who just want to get drunker and trash everything, they proclaim!
Look: I love Queenstown, but I’m not here to convince you of its virtue. (Though if you’re in search of some advice, I give plenty over here.) Regardless of your opinion towards New Zealand’s “adventure capital,” we can probably agree on one thing: its surroundings are downright magical.
QT sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, flanked by the Remarkables mountain range and surrounded on all sides by a region known as the Southern Lakes. There’s a host of nearby spots worth checking out (nearby in New Zealand terms, of course — Europeans, pack your non-perishables); and they’re all connected to each other by winding roads and jaw-dropping scenery.
Which just leave us with one question: where should you go?
A better question might be: where shouldn’t you go? I’ll let you know if I think of an answer to that one. In the meantime, here are three options for road trips from Queenstown — each one a beautiful drive, but also a worthwhile destination in its own right.
If weather permits, and/or you’ve got a decent vehicle with snow chains, the Crown Range Road will give you some great views of the valley below.
Depending on the season, you might even come across some snow — if that’s the kind of thing that excites you. (Me? I’m staying in the car.)
If you take this route, you can also stop off at the adorable Cardrona Hotel and have a drink in their picturesque country garden. Now that will get me out of the car.
However you make your way there, you’ll find that Wanaka itself is just as beautiful as QT (or more, depending on who you ask). It’s a bit smaller and more mellow than its more infamous neighbour, but it still offers a perfectly respectable array of activities and attractions.
Something I never did and am still kind of sad about was visit Cinema Paradiso, famous for its comfy couches and fresh cookies. You can also skydive over the lake, head to Treble Cone for some skiing, or relax near the lakefront with an ice cream. You might think those last two are best done in completely different times of the year, but the weather in the Southern Lakes can be a bit strange. You might find yourself doing them on the same day.
Photo by Hamish Clark
And, of course, there’s Puzzling World: “Wanaka’s Wonderful World of Weirdness.” There are pictures that require a triple-take, floors where you can “slide uphill,” and one of those freaky rooms with skewed perspective that make you look giant or tiny, depending what side you’re on.
If you’ve got some serious time to kill, there’s also an outdoor maze (I recommend taking water and photos of people you love). And before you leave, it’s basically mandatory to have someone take a photo of you pretending to “hold up” the leaning tower outside of the building.
Glenorchy and Paradise
Glenorchy is a small village about 45 km away. The Glenorchy/Queenstown road (which, as you can probably imagine, runs between the two) is one of the top places to spot Lord of the Rings filming locations in New Zealand. Go on, take out that guide book I know you packed. No one’s judging you here.
Aside from the road itself, you’ll find very few signs of civilization along the way, so plan accordingly. (In other words: pee before you leave.)
Glenorchy’s main draw is, perhaps predictably, its location and scenery; trekking, kayaking, jet boating, and horseback riding are just a few of the outdoor activities on offer. There aren’t a ton of businesses to be found — a shop here, a cafe there — but if my Instagram feed is any indication, this little red shed is downright world-famous.
Photo by Irwandy Mazwir via Flickr
Glenorchy is often called “the Gateway to Paradise.” That’s not just talk: there really is a place called Paradise, and it sits about 20 km up the road.
You won’t find any buildings here; for that matter, you might not even come across any other people. Getting to Paradise is not really the point, and you probably won’t even notice if you do. This bit is all about the drive.
Arrowtown is a historic gold mining town with a population of only a few thousand people. At a distance of 20 km from Queenstown, it’s the shortest drive on this list, making it a perfect choice for lunch or a quick afternoon trip.
Photo by Fill My Passport
Photo by Fill My Passport
The town center is a gallery of lovely old-fashioned buildings, ready to transport you back in time to the 19th century. There’s an abundance of shops and cafes to choose from, as well as the Lakes District Museum — a great stop for anyone with an interest in the area’s history and culture (including pre-European).
Naturally, there’s also plenty for the more active or outdoorsy among you — including multiple nearby cycling paths, walking trails, and golf courses.
On the way back to Queenstown, make a quick detour to the Lower Shotover Bridge. You’ll get a gorgeous panoramic view of the river and surrounding mountains, and you might even catch a glimpse of a jet boat as it goes flying over the water below.
Note: If you don’t drive or have access to a vehicle, Arrowtown is also accessible by bus from Queenstown’s town center.
Ideas for Longer Trips from Queenstown
• Invercargill (~190 km) – One of the world’s southernmost cities and a great base to explore the Southland region.
• The Catlins (~250 km) – A conservation area full of [almost] untouched natural beauty, great for hiking and camping.
• Dunedin (~280 km) – New Zealand’s fourth-largest city, home to the Speight’s brewery as well as some great architecture.
• Milford Sound (~290 km) – Part of the amazing Fiordland National Park, with lots of options for cruises, hikes, and scenic flights.
If all else fails: close your eyes, point, and go that way. In New Zealand, you’ll usually be just fine.
Any photos not attributed otherwise are my own.