Queenstown has a powerful magnetic pull, and everyone is always in a hurry to get there. But SLOW DOWN! Even locals are inclined to put their foot hard on the accelerator to get there in record time. However it’s well worth dawdling as some of the country’s finest attractions are sitting waiting for you on the side of the road that you'd miss if you go too fast.
Make sure you stop in the Mackenzie Country, one of the most used film, ad and doco locations in New Zealand and take in the epic scenery. And go on, take a selfie too.
After the devastating earthquake, Christchurch is being rebuilt and the emerging, greener city is bursting with creativity. Colourful street art, engaging installations and sculptures are everywhere in the CBD. Wander around Hagley Park, especially pretty in spring, visit the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, or punt down the Avon River. Christchurch is also known as the gateway to Antarctica, so head to the International Antarctic Centre, to explore life and the wildlife of that icy continent, before setting off on your own expedition, destination Queenstown.
Set off as early in the morning as you possibly can and stop at the Dunsandel Store just half an hour’s drive from Christchurch airport. It’s a great spot for breakfast, their own delicious apple juice is on sale and the coffee will have you wide awake for the trip, which is important as there’s loads to see.
This part of the South Island has huge quantities of molten ice and snow pouring off the Southern Alps, and the first braided river you cross is the Rakaia. It is full of big, fat salmon and if the real thing weren’t enough, Rakaia even has a massive statue of a leaping salmon - sure to lure the keen angler!
If it’s a beautiful day, don’t miss the Ashburton Domain - huge old trees and a great park to wander around in in every season if you feel like stretching your legs (or even running, if you’re that way inclined!) Try and keep an eye out for Orari Bridge. Everyone but the driver should play the favourite game of holding your breath from the minute you drive onto this bumpy bridge till the minute you get back on the highway.
Turn off the State Highway 1 at Rangitata and arrive in Geraldine. There really is so much to do in this area that if you can spare the time, a night at Peel Forest Lodge is a real treat. And if you are lucky enough to be there in late December, Mt Peel Station often holds open days for visitors to see the giant cardiocrinum lilies that only flower at this time of the year and tower above you.
Geraldine is a gentle, provincial town with pretty trees and a laidback feel. A lot of growing goes on here and the cafes are full of local produce. Verde Cafe Deli is a local favourite with a big list of vegetarian options - carnivores are kept happy too though - and those with a sweet tooth should head for the passionfruit scones and ginger slice. They have a lovely garden to sit in on fine days, or an open fire for the chillier ones.
The drive from Geraldine over the hill to Fairlie is wiggly and windy and very scenic. It’s farming country so don’t be surprised to round a corner and find a thousand sheep bleating and baa-ing and taking up the road as they move paddocks. Fairlie’s fairly famous for its pies. The Fairlie Bakehouse is where they bake all sorts of things but it’s impossible to go past the Lieber pies. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Whether you choose the butter chicken or the pork belly, or any of the myriad others, you may well find yourself having to backtrack to Fairlie just to have another one. Luckily, they are kind enough to let other cafes in the south of the South Island stock their pies, so keep an eye out for them.
The view gets bigger and bigger and more dramatic the further south you go. Whatever the season, winter with it’s crispy, pavlova white snow covered mountains, or brilliant ribbons of bright coloured lupins flowering along the roadsides in summer (actually, they are weeds, but no less beautiful for that), be prepared to be stopping every five minutes to take just one more photo.
By the time lovely Lake Tekapo comes into view, you may well need to stop at the shop and buy a new memory card. In fact you may find you need to buy a room for the night. It’s a World Heritage site for the night sky - no light pollution means brilliant stargazing. You can sit outside the incredibly pretty Church of the Good Shepherd and ooh and aah at nature’s spectacular light show.
If the weather isn’t kind to you in Tekapo, don’t forget you can have another go at stargazing at Mt Cook. This is New Zealand’s highest mountain - all 3754 metres of it (sadly a bit bit fell off a few years ago, and it got a little smaller). No wise visitor would miss driving up there and seeing it for themselves.
There’s accommodation at every price level at Mount Cook but if you can possibly afford it, a room at The Hermitage with a view of the mountain is terrific. Leave the curtains open and wake up with Mt Cook practically in bed with you. The buffet restaurant is a massive hit with starving travellers - teenage boys go crazy stacking their plates with mountains of steak, fish and ham and then demolishing dozens of desserts. More normal eaters will enjoy the soups and salads as well.
Do make a reservation for the Glacier Explorers trip - it’s a shocking example of climate change in action. A bus takes visitors down to a lake that only started life thirty years ago as the mighty Tasman Glacier began melting. As the terminal face started to disappear, the lake grew and grew - it’s now over 7 kilometres long and tiny rubber boats take you close to the creaking, groaning ice mass where you can see and hear colossal slabs of ice come crashing down into the lake. Utterly fascinating and frightening but very beautiful - the huge icebergs take two years to float to the far end slowly turning into glossy, glassy, floating sculptures and finally they shrink to tiny diamonds in the water. See how long you can hold your hand in the lake - we’re guessing ten seconds tops.
One night may not be enough at Mt Cook - there are oodles of hikes and tours for all levels of ability, and inside activities are excellent. Visit the museum and 3D cinema at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, access through the Hermitage hotel. The cinema shows a great film on Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand’s HIGHEST achiever, and the planetarium explains the universe so well that we even understood black holes for the first time.
Omarama is the next stop - it’s the gliding capital of New Zealand and it can be a little alarming as a glider zoops in above your car.
There are a number of cafes around including a caravan called The Love Shack which does outrageously good kebabs. Sit and munch away as silent gliders swoop and swirl in the thermals coming off the mountains.
Now you’re not even two hours drive from Queenstown, but to get there you go through more staggering scenery. The Lindis Pass takes you over the mountains to Tarras, but please note, it can get very snowy here in winter, so do follow the safety signs. If the signs say the road is closed, believe them! Tarras has a few good country stores and they are dab hands at cake and scone making - be sure to try some of these homemade goodies.
The old town of Cromwell was partly submerged when the river rose but the main historic centre has been preserved and is worth visiting for its art galleries and markets, especially on the weekends. It’s a big fruit growing area, as you’ll be able to see from the giant stonefruit sculpture at the entrance of town. The cherries, apricots and peaches are fat and juicy and should definitely be sampled if you’re here in fruit season. There are even orchards where you can pick your own, or in spring just marvel at the blossoms.
A tiny detour from Cromwell will take you to Bannockburn where some of Central Otago’s finest pinot noir comes from. Many of the wineries have restaurants and it seems they are all feeding the customers just as well as they wine them. Signposts will show you where to go and all of them offer wine tastings, so check the menus while you are there. They can all organise shipping wine to wherever in the world you want it shipped to, but shipping’s expensive so make the most of drinking it while you’re here! Unless, you’re the driver of course.
Car nuts and petrol heads will be squeaking with excitement if they head into Highlands Motorsport Park - a motor racing circuit where you can race your own car, rent high performance ones or get a professional racing driver to hurtle you round at insane speed. There are displays of racing cars and go karts to play on as well.
It’s time to head into the Kawarau Gorge, a deep, fast river of an intense jade green that’s been the focus of many goldminers’ dreams. Goldfields Mining Centre is on the far side of the river but there’s a walk bridge over to it, and there are numerous reconstructions of the old miners’ huts, plus the history and how-to of gold mining.
BUT there is plenty of parking at the AJ Hackett Bungy Bridge where you can be thrown off the bridge, with only elastic to stop your fall, for the ultimate adrenalin rush. Or, if your vertigo prevents you taking the leap, watching others is almost as much fun. The building is designed by Andrew Patterson, one of NZ’s most exciting architects and it’s very easy to waste away quite a few hours here. Great cafe and bar and the whole place just oozes adrenaline.
Next along is the Gibbston Valley, another great wine area - again there are plenty of wineries to check out, so many in fact that it may be best to make a separate trip from Queenstown to explore them all. You can rent a bike and take the Queenstown Trails network to get here, and if you overindulge or your bottom or legs get tired, the bike bus will come and take you home again.
As you curve round Arrow Junction, the temptation will be to head into Arrowtown. Arrowtown is a delightful little historic town which is another destination that requires more than just a couple of hours - it warrants a whole day of exploration and enjoyment, especially if you love settlers era architecture, or hiking, or golf, or food, or shopping or movies.
Below Arrowtown you will find the divine Lake Hayes, one of the country’s prettiest lakes. Pull in at the showgrounds and have a look - it’s a bird sanctuary and there’s a walking track that takes you right the way round. It’s 7.4 km which takes most people around two hours. Or just sit and marvel at the view. Coronet Peak is straight ahead of you here, and the Remarkables are right behind. Now get back in your car and head to Queenstown.
The road from Arrowtown takes you over the Shotover River and you may well see jet boats skidding over the surface - if you do go biking around the district, you get a closeup view of them - but the very best way to experience a jet boat is to go in it. Many companies offer different trips on different rivers, the only thing that’s the same is the thrill!
At bustling, commercial Frankton (good for a supermarket stop if you’re self catering), you’ll finally see Lake Wakatipu. This will be the busiest bit of road you’ll have seen on the whole trip and it always comes as a surprise to be in traffic again. The lake and the mountains frame everything in Queenstown - there’s nowhere you won’t see them from. Find where you’re staying, the options are endless from the budget backpackers to the glitziest glamour spots. Ask your hosts for advice as new eateries open here all the time, and the whole place buzzes frenetically. Fergburger deserves its block long queues for excellent burgers, but if you’re seeking comfort and top end New Zealand food, there are plenty of options. Patagonia ice creams and hot chocolates are the stuff of dreams, Mrs Ferg Gelateria is a delight, in fact everyone finds their favourite eating spots here. Just check out our Queenstown Eats article for a bit of you.
Enjoy your time in Queenstown - almost all visitors come back again and again. Very few people are born here - the majority came for a visit once, and just HAD to come back. Dozens more just never left. Be warned!