The second stop on our New Zealand South Island road trip was to be the ultimate Kiwi traveller destination: Queenstown. Take a look at how we spent 3 days exploring the Queenstown-Lakes District, from historical boat rides to incredible mountain views and more with our Queenstown highlights and short day trips!
Following our time exploring Dunedin, we continued through Otago down to the Catlins and on to the infamous tourist city, Queenstown. This was to be my 4th time in the city, so I was eager to tick off activities that I was yet to experience, and of course make full use of having a car to see more around the lakes and those indescribable NZ views. Queenstown can be known as a young party city, an adrenaline capital, or even a luxury getaway – but for me I was all about immersing myself in nature on this trip!
We began early in the morning for our Dunedin to Queenstown road trip leaving Waitati to head further south, as we took the opportunity to be in this part of the country to enjoy detours and visit a couple of attractions along the way. We drove south on State Highway 1 and after passing through what seemed like endless fields, turned off at Balcultha towards the coast and Kaka Point. As the scenery turned to beaches and we encountered fewer people and buildings (but lots more sheep!), we knew we were getting closer to our destination.
Our first port of call in the Catlins was to be Nugget Point Lighthouse. An iconic and popular Instagram spot, we arrived into the car park on a bright morning as the low autumn clouds still clung to the hillside. A short coastal track with dreamy views over the Pacific Ocean and we were at the lighthouse. To view the “nuggets” there is a large viewing platform, making one truly feel at the edge of the Earth (or at least the country!).
The lighthouse itself is closed to the public, but there’s certainly no view that can’t be seen from the free view points overlooking the rocky cliffs. We were so fortunate to arrive in good weather, and early enough in the day to be the only ones there! As Nugget Point Lighthouse is a little out the way, one definitely needs to make the effort to visit. With not much else in the area (unless you’re into fishing perhaps) it does make a great little off-the-beaten-track detour if you can allow the time.
As we continued on and headed back towards more urban areas, we wanted to pick another quick stop-off to make our diversion into the Catlins worthwhile. We eventually settled on Purakanui Falls, only a 15 minute drive from the small town of Owaka and arguably the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand. Another quiet road with not much around besides farmland, and we reached the car park. 5 minutes walk through thick forest and we found ourselves at the waterfall lookout, again having the area to ourselves to enjoy capturing the cascading water and lush green surroundings!
Having driven further south, the main bulk of this 5 hour journey took us through – you guessed it – more farmland! Knowing we would soon be in the humbling presence of the mountain range, I didn’t mind the limited views, and let’s be honest, everywhere in NZ is still gorgeous and thankfully we were blessed with sunshine most of the way.
After driving through Otago and very much enjoying a few podcasts to occupy our minds, we made it to the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu. We pulled up in the village of Kingston, me running towards the lake to catch the mountain views and Kazimir aiming for the old train station!
After a little exploring, we continued along the Devil’s Staircase; why do you think this mountain road got its name? A couple more stops to take in the views, and we eventually reached Frankton, an up-and-coming town compensating for the condensed population of Queenstown. We stopped for a few groceries, as accommodation for the evening would be an Airbnb in a rural area. Driving alongside The Remarkables in all their glory and met with beautiful sunset views was the perfect introduction back into Queenstown!
After a long day, we finally were able to fully relax in our beautiful Airbnb. Our kind hosts allowed us full use of their home, so we were able to enjoy their mountain-view hot tub and play with their adorable pup! An evening very well spent in my opinion…
We arose refreshed and early to spend the morning exploring Arrowtown, just a 10 minute drive from our Airbnb, and around 20 minutes from Queenstown. Arrowtown is famed for it’s gold mining history, featured throughout the old main street with original building fronts and a charming atmosphere. Hidden away with mountains on all sides, it’s easy to get immersed in the gorgeous shades of yellow and orange particularly in the autumn and winter seasons – when we so happened to be visiting!
We spent the morning watching the mist rise from the town to reveal snowy peaks, before walking through the village and taking a short track along the river to bask in the beauty of the day and surroundings.
To finish off our morning meandering through Arrowtown and taking copious amounts of photos, we tucked in to the famous Arrowntown pies from the bakery, and sat atop the hill at the War Memorial Park, watching the world go by and catching some rays!
Glenorchy & Kinloch
Next on the agenda was a drive through Queenstown to head towards the top end of Lake Wakatipu. Stopping along the way, we visited Twelve Mile Delta. This conservation campsite is a great starting point for several day hikes, and as a slightly more remote spot was ideal for enjoying the views across the lake while skipping stones (we do that a lot on this trip!).
Conscious of the cloud looming in the distance, we continued on to Glenorchy, the northernmost village on the lake. Scenic views all along the road never failed to amaze at every corner, and eventually we reached this small and unforgettably beautiful settlement. A quick stop to walk along the jetty and visit the old boat shed, snap a few photos, and we were back in the car. It seemed like a race against the clock before the views were obscured from rain!
We wanted to keep exploring this region of the Queenstown-Lakes District, and would soon be off-the-beaten-track. At the fork in the road the choice was made for us, as the dirt track leading to Paradise (literally, that’s what the area is called – a very fitting name I think!) was blocked by tractors working on the roads. Deciding not to venture down that track, we aimed for Kinloch, a tiny settlement at the end of a long unmarked road that overlooks the tip of the lake and dramatic mountains all around.
Although we didn’t stop for long in Kinloch, the drive was more than worth the effort thanks to the views we were treated to along the way. Being so close to the West Coast at this point is amazing, as the landscape changes and unfolds ahead. The mountains sharply divide the districts here, and driving on the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park provided some incredible views, of which even the low-lying clouds couldn’t spoil.
We hopped back to the car just in time before the heaven’s opened and the drive back to Queenstown was a long and wet one as the light faded to night. At least we had made the most of stops on the way up!
After a long day, we were glad to check in to our lodge room and enjoy a night of flicking through our photos and (after the rain eased up) a delicious dinner at Caribe Latin Kitchen for a hearty burrito. Followed up with a a sweet treat from the famously more-ish Cookie Time on the way home, it really was a great day all round.
Our final day in Queenstown was expected to be another busy one. We were lucky to have ourselves another gorgeous morning of snow sprinkled on the mountain tops as the clouds gradually faded into blue skies.
We kicked off our day enjoying a little slice of history and scenery, with a boat ride on the TSS Earnslaw. This steamboat built in 1912 is the best way to see the lake and be immersed in your surroundings, and holds the coveted title of the only remaining coal-fired steamship carrying commercial passengers in the southern hemisphere (now that’s a mouthful!).
We boarded the first return trip of the day along with a large tour group and other excited visitors. Before long we were off with the boat chugging its way from the dock and leaving the town in the distance. Of course, the views throughout the boat ride were phenomenal, I took way too many photos of every angle possible! We enjoyed the brisk fresh air at the front of the boat, until our fingers were numb and we headed inside for a warming hot chocolate and to enjoy the pianist play a few sing-a-long tunes on the old ivories!
We decided to explore the decks and interiors of the boat, discovering more fascinating snippets of history along the way. The ship has been kept in exceptional condition, and is very true to the original style – making it a lot of fun to imagine the people who were transported around the lake back in its prime!
The mid-way point of the 1.5 hour trip takes passengers to Walter Peak High Country Farm, where for an additional fee visitors can take a tour of the farm and experience a piece country life in New Zealand, before catching the next boat back. The farm is at a bay just shy of half way along the lake, before a large meander takes the lake north to Glenorchy.
We opted for the shorter return trip, which meant our return journey was a lot quieter and we had the boat practically to ourselves! More photo snapping, exploring, and jaw-dropping views, and we were back in Queenstown waving at onlookers at the lakefront as we slowly crept back to the dock.
If you’re a fan of history, nature, or just need an efficient way to see lots of the lake and surroundings of Queenstown the boat ride is ideal. The helpful commentary and friendly staff make it an enjoyably educational experience – a great activity for families visiting Queenstown.
The cost of our trip on the “Lady of the Lake” was $140 for two adult tickets. Journeys are made almost all year round (except one month June – July for annual maintenance) so visitors can enjoy this historical vessel throughout the seasons. Visiting in the winter months was an amazing way to admire the mountains, but I imagine it to be just as beautiful in summer too!
Feeling pumped for a great day and grateful the weather was behaving, we decided to aim for a Lord of the Rings filming location walk at Lake Alta. To reach the lake we’d be driving the zig-zagging and treacherous roads up to The Remarkables ski field. The ever steep and winding road was dripping with melted snow the higher we got, until we reached the ski field in grey sludge.
At this point with the clouds looming over us and an expectation of rain and wind in the distance, we decided that maybe a walk, no matter the duration, might not be the best idea. In better and more stable conditions we would love to do this walk (let me know if you’ve been and if you’d recommend it!). Despite missing out on the hike, we were still grateful to observe Queenstown and the fittingly named Remarkables mountain range from this perspective. The views speak for themselves!
Still eager to stretch our legs, we took an easy and familiar evening walk along Queenstown Trail, taking us through the gardens and the edge of the lake. This popular little track takes visitors to some gorgeous viewpoints of Queenstown, and for the more adrenaline-fuelled visitors one can even play a game of frisbee golf in the park (I know, it’s as odd but hilarious as it sounds).
There is so much to do in the surrounding areas of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, it’s easy to see how the town came about as a central base for all sort of activities. Beyond the many trips and exertions available, the town itself is also a wonderful place to spend some time. With plenty of shopping, restaurants, bars, art galleries, and of course the amazing scenery, the cliche of getting endlessly immersed in QT life is so palpable when visiting.
Just a few of the best things to do in Queenstown include:
- Soak up the views at Lake Wakatipu from Marine Parade.
- Take a hike! There are plenty to enjoy, from Queenstown Trail to Queenstown Hill and beyond.
- Wander Queenstown Mall to pick up a few souvenirs, or just to window shop!
- Grab an infamous and delicious Ferg Burger and revel in the fact you made it out the crammed store in one piece!
- Head to Beach Street for a choice of cuisine and bars overlooking the mountains – dinner with a view anyone?
- Try the best burrito in town at Caribe Latin Kitchen, the best for dinner on a budget!
- Wash it down with a beer at The World Bar (they even do cocktails in teapots!).
- You can’t go to NZ without trying Cookie Time cookies! Head to the store for an indulgent sweet treat.
As you can see, a lot of my enjoyment in Queenstown is food related, but that’s not to say there’s not a whole bunch more to do! As the home of adrenaline sports, the birthplace of bungyjumping, the heart of frivolity, and the epitome of NZ’s outstanding panorama, you can guarantee you won’t be bored when you visit Queenstown.
I’ve previously touched on a few important things to remember about driving in the South Island, however I’ve also put together a guide to road trips in Queenstown specifically – make sure you check it out before setting off on your adventures through Otago!
As for accommodation, we stayed in an Airbnb for our first night (being completely honest – a big factor for that decision was their ADORABLE pupper), and at a centrally located lodge for another 2. Take a look at the benefits of these places to stay in Queenstown!
Now if this hasn’t got you excited to pack up the car and head out to the mountains, I don’t know what will! Have you visited Queenstown? I’d love to hear your favourite spots to enjoy the views!
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