If all you do in Queenstown, New Zealand, is while away a few hours at the airport, you might still feel as if you’ve escaped to an alpine chalet. The mountains overlooking arrivals alone fulfill Peter Jackson’s promise of a landscape befitting the fantastical world of Tolkien’s creation, with every inch of the drive into town solidifying the suspicion that Middle Earth may have been discovered, not invented.
Yet despite the views that reward visitors for simply touching down on the tarmac, there’s a reason Queenstown’s praise is not limited to sermons on its scenery. The model South Island mountain town is far more famous for being the adventure capital of New Zealand, maybe even the world.
A history of firsts that’re just the beginning
Early visitors arrived on the shores of Lake Wakatipu in the mid-1800s with prospecting pans in tow, establishing a mining town on land occupied only by the odd sheep farmer. Gold deposits in the Shotover River dried up by the turn of the 20th century, taking with them the majority of the population. This vacancy, together with the area’s limitless potential for trails and pistes, eventually beckoned visitors back, resulting in the Coronet Peak Ski Area in 1947.
Coronet Peak was New Zealand’s first commercial ski field. A domino effect of commercial adventure firsts in Queenstown followed. In the 1960s, the world’s first jet-boating company began operating on the Shotover River, shortly after New Zealander Bill Hamilton invented the sport in 1954. In the 1980s, AJ Hackett opened the first commercial bungee jump on the Kawarau River, solidifying Queenstown’s status among daredevils. In between, whitewater rafting took hold, with sports like snowboarding, skydiving, mountain biking, tramping, and fly fishing rounding out the repertoire. Today, rarely an afternoon goes by without hang gliders circling overhead, their bright orange wings appearing to outnumber those of the local birds.
Queenstown has not only grown as an adventure destination, however. For every thrill there is to seek, every scenic lookout there is to snap, there are just as many restaurants to refuel at, calming ways to unwind, and drinks to cheers to all the new memories. After all, even Frodo and the Fellowship had to rest sometimes.
Don’t get hung up on Fergburger
“Too many people skip Ben Lomond,” my taxi driver told me on the ride from the airport when I asked what I had to do before leaving Queenstown, curious which bridge he’d recommend I fling myself from. I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the local-favorite hike instead. “No one skips Fergburger though,” he added.
A burger joint struck me as an uninspired recommendation for New Zealand’s adventure capital as I stared out the window at the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu. Then I remembered that, not long before, the first two stops I organized for a friend visiting the Bay Area from overseas were In-N-Out Burger and the top of Mount Tamalpais, in that order.
Fergburger is to Queenstown what In-N-Out is to California or the cronut was to the entire internet. The classic order can go toe to toe with a Double-Double, stacked with juicy New Zealand beef and the standard fixings, yet the sheer scope of offerings easily outdoes In-N-Out’s not-so-secret secret menu. Crowd favorites include the Little Lamby with mint jelly; Sweet Bambi with Fiordland deer, boysenberry onion chutney, and gooey brie; and Chief Wiggum with slow-roasted pork belly. And there’s almost always a crowd, despite opening times that cover 21 hours of the day.
Try to get your hands on a Fergburger if you can. Its cult status qualifies it as a cultural experience, after all. Your best bet is buckling up for a brunch burger as late morning is the quietest time in town with most everyone off adventuring. In the afternoon, though, when après-style boozing begins, the Fergburger demand gets out of control. Like many might have said at the height of the cronut craze after waiting in line for one longer than they care to admit, there comes a point when no food is worth wasting the better part of an afternoon to try. Especially if you’re on vacation in Queenstown, where every minute is an opportunity for excitement.
Rest assured that Fergburger is not the only option. It stands to reason that a destination known for attracting active types would know how to keep them well fed. There are some 150 eateries jammed into compact Queenstown, whose population hovers around 15,650. Restaurants range from fine dining at The Grille by Eichardt’s, part of the grand yet unassuming five-star hotel housed in an 1850 homestead on the lakefront, to fast-casual fare at Devil Burger, which, anywhere else, might be considered the best burger joint in town.
From barbecue to vegetarian, Asian fusion to French, Mexican to Mediterranean, much of it made from locally sourced ingredients, you’ll be just fine, and plenty full, even if the closest you get to Fergburger is Fat Badgers Pizza down the street.
Peddling for pinots from the 45th parallel
Queenstown sits in the South Island’s Central Otago region, where stone fruits and grapevines thrive. Orchards and vineyards are wedged between the lakes and mountains that define the countryside, a landscape that’s also defined by its location on the 45th parallel, a circle of latitude that draws an intangible line across the globe.
Winemakers in Gibbston Valley, one of the six sub-regions that comprise the Central Otago wine country, are quick to inform visitors that the Aosta wine region of northwestern Italy also lies on the 45th parallel. While Central Otago lies 45 degrees below the equator, making it the world’s southernmost wine region, its Italian counterpart sits approximately 45 degrees north of the equator in some of Europe’s highest vineyards. Both regions are said to share climates and terroirs that are mutually suited to their characteristic pinot noirs.
Hot summers, dry falls, and cold winters help fickle pinot grapes thrive in Gibbston Valley, as does the mineral richness of the loess-heavy soil. Riesling grapes grow there as well, alongside whites like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, and gewürztraminer. Visitors to Queenstown, which is a 20-minute drive or two-hour bike ride from the valley, can sample them all on the Gibbston River Wine Trail leg of the 75-mile Queenstown Trail network.
Cellar door tastings typically cost between $5 and $15 for three to five wines. Start your tour at the Gibbston Valley Winery if you plan on cycling. Not only is there a bike center there that opens to the Gibbston and Arrow River trails, among others, but the property also plays host to the country’s largest wine cave. Ride on from there, racking up tastings and snapshots of the Kawarau Gorge scene below. Bike taxis are also available, as are shuttles back to Queenstown.
Bungee jumpers may already find themselves in the neighborhood at the Kawarau Bridge. Signs from the AJ Hackett parking lot point to the Gibbston River Trail, and a five-minute drive west brings you to Chard Farm Vineyard, one of the region’s viticultural pioneers and a quiet place to let the adrenaline out and the pinot noir in. On the way, stop at the Pillars of the Kings filming location from The Lord of the Rings. Alternately, chart a course east along the Gibbston Highway, starting with lunch at the Gibbston Valley Winery a few minutes away and working in nearby heavy-hitters like Peregrine and Brennan Wines.
Follow the 45th parallel to Patagonia
Unlike the 45th parallel north, the southern parallel cuts entirely through the ocean except in two places: New Zealand and Patagonia, two destinations chocolatier Alejandro Gimenez knows well. Hailing from Argentina, where the Patagonian climate resembles that of Queenstown, Gimenez brought his chocolate-making talents to the South Island in 2005. He opened a modest sweets shop in Arrowtown that has since expanded to include a heavily trafficked location on Beach Street opposite the lake downtown Queenstown, among others.
Anyone, or perhaps everyone, will tell you that there are three ways to max out the Patagonia Chocolates experience: with the bonbons, hot chocolate, or ice cream. During summer, primarily with ice cream. It’s practically tradition to order a scoop or two of the signature Tramontana and take it to the grassy plaza across the street, where boats come and go on the water while buskers and artisans showcase their talents by the mall entrance. Others take cones on the go, strolling to the Queenstown Bay Beach and 1911 Coronation Bathhouse turned cafe-bar on one end of the waterfront or quieter, windier Lake Esplanade on the other.
Gimenez continues to sell his original creations, chocolate treats, in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, from dark chocolate and dulce de leche bonbons to cherry and pinot noir truffles, tributes to both of his homes. Stock up on an assortment to support the local success story and share with loved ones back home.
Choose breathing deep over breathing hard
Between yoga at Nadi Wellness Centre and the city’s three takes on golf, including mini and disc in Queenstown Gardens, even downtime in New Zealand’s adventure capital can be active. Hot stone massages at Body Sanctum promote relaxation after the day’s thrills, much as soaking in cedar onsens while soaking up scenes of the Shotover River canyon is soothing for both the muscles and soul.
But if it’s wellness you’re well and truly after, paragliding can take a backseat to pilates, tailored nutrition plans, mindfulness and massage programs, and alpine hikes that rejuvenate the old-fashioned way at Aro Hā. A luxury outpost in Glenorchy, roughly 45 minutes from Queenstown around the bends of Lake Wakatipu, Aro Hā organizes retreats in the truest sense of the word: retreats from technology, compelling guests to curb their usage and limiting its own strain on the grid with permaculture, passive haus, and photovoltaic technology; retreats from Queenstown’s busy days and late nights on 21 private acres, with schedules catered to each guest’s needs; retreats with themes ranging from wild pilates to winter wellness to intuitive writing for expressive types, or those who desire to be.
Aro Hā retreats can be demanding, and a bigger commitment than the four-second freefall from the Kawarau Bridge, with an average retreat spanning five nights and costing around $3,500. But if you’re up for the challenge, physical and spiritual, there’s a reason guests report leaving feeling at once more in tune with themselves and like new people entirely.
Brews in the afternoon, nightcaps until morning
Like any mountain town with the outdoor crowd to match, beer starts flowing in Queenstown as soon as everyone starts filtering back in from the day’s excursions. On sunny days, groups cluster around the village green, descending on the 1876 Beer Garden and spilling over into the Pig & Whistle next door and Speight’s Ale House across the street.
For a literal taste of the South Island drinking culture, venture out to Altitude Brewing in Frankton. Locally made, and inspired, brews honor the region’s defining characteristics with names like Singletrack Mind Red IPA, Goldpanners Profit Lager, and Mischievous Kea IPA after the parrot species native to the South Island. If you’re truly a glutton for adrenaline, work a visit to Canyon Brewing into your Shotover River rafting or 50-plus-mile-per-hour jet boat ride plans instead. The brewery is only a few minutes away from Shotover Jet in Arthur’s Point on foot. Whether you stop for a beer before or after depends on your nerves (and safety, of course).
When it comes to after-dark entertainment, which it invariably will in Queenstown, follow the masses. You’ll find them crowding around Fergburger and quasi-clubs like Winnies and The World Bar. Cafe by day and self-described magnet for shenanigans by night, Yonder is best for nightlife that’s lively but not rowdy while Little Blackwood is the place for creative cocktails. Try the Sundeck rooftop bar and lounge for an aperitif at sunset overlooking the lake, then tuck down the alley on Cow Lane for dinner and late-night drinks at speakeasy-style The Bunker.
A little bit of everything in Arrowtown
Queenstown’s gold-rush past has taken a backseat to its adrenaline-rush present, but in nearby Arrowtown, Otago’s mining heritage is on full display. Cottages once belonging to 19th century prospectors bound the main street. Gold panning is a main draw for day-trippers. The Lakes District Museum on one side of town lays out its whole history while the Historic Arrowtown Chinese Settlement in the other direction presents a different perspective on the gold rush.
Yet despite its century-old post and telegraph office, Arrowtown is no frozen-in-time reminder of glory days past. The cottages that line Buckingham Street were restored more recently than the fire-stricken post, rebuilt in 1915. A new rush of out-of-towners, Queenstown’s tourist runoff, has brought with it bars, restaurants, and boutiques on par with those in Arrrowtown’s better-known neighbor.
Aosta, for one, does fine dining as well as any South Island restaurant, borrowing its name, and cuisine, from the valley in northern Italy that shares Central Otago’s 45th parallel position. For something quicker, depending on the crowd, the Arrowtown Bakery peddles venison pies with a Fergburger-esque following.
WoolPress on main street sells New Zealand’s luxurious merino knitwear while the Jade & Opal Factory a few doors down showcases the craftsmanship of local carvers. Away from downtown, the par 72 championship course at The Hills Golf Club was designed for the 2007 New Zealand Open, has hosted several PGA tournaments, and can be booked in advance by non-members.
If after all of Queenstown’s excitement it’s a truly quaint, quiet afternoon you’re after, you can’t beat spending it a few towns over in Arrowtown. After all, Queenstown is New Zealand’s adventure capital.