Queenstown, a small city in the south of the South Island of New Zealand, has come to be known as “the adventure capital of the world”. Bungee-jumping was supposedly invented here, and its proximity to picturesque mountains and lakes make it ideal for summer hiking, paragliding, and water activities, as well as skiing and snowboarding in winter. Although it is still a hefty journey away (eight hours round-trip), Queenstown is also used as a jumping-off point for other famous sites such as Milford Sound, in the Fiordland region.
Tucked on the edge of the achingly blue Lake Wakatipu, much of Queenstown is geared towards the millions of tourists who pass through there. It’s become too pricey for most Kiwis to live there, and the concentration of hostels, travel information centres, and overpriced outdoor activity shops is a bit off-putting. Nonetheless, it’s a cute town with a lovely little beach, gorgeous surrounding mountains, and a few highlights worth visiting such as the lovely Queenstown Gardens and nice coffee spots such as Vudu.
By far the best thing I did in Queenstown itself was the Queenstown Hill Track, sometimes known as the Queenstown Loop Track. It was easy enough to find from the town centre, even for someone like me who is blessed with lacking both a sense of direction and a driver’s license. The path takes a pretty easy uphill route through cool, quiet pine forests offering welcome shade from the sun, before emerging out onto the bare yellow hills so particular to this region.
If you walk right to the top, you’re rewarded with the most spectacular views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range – named as such not only for their grandeur, but for the unusual way in which they run directly north to south, one of only two mountain ranges in the world to do so (the other is the Rockies, in the USA). The entire walk takes around three hours.
On a different day, I took a trip with one of the local companies – there are so many – offering a Lord of the Rings-esque tour to a little settlement called Glenorchy. With that kind of tagline, how could I resist?
The tour guide drove our little group towards Glenorchy, 40 minutes or so from Queenstown, on a little winding road that surely has to be one of the best drives in the world. New Zealand is full of such contenders, though – my favourites being part of the South Island’s west coast (from Nelson to Greymouth, passing through Paparoa National Park) and its east coast (from Picton to Christchurch, though the train offers even better views). The Intercity bus route from Franz Josef to Queenstown is pretty spectacular, too, hugging the edges of sparkling blue lakes for the final hour or so.
And of course, I couldn’t leave Queenstown without visiting Milford Sound. It’s probably much better to go there from Te Anau (another pretty lake town a few hours closer) to shorten your journey, but I was happy to make the day trip.
The tour left early from Queenstown, stopping at points along the way to show us things we wouldn’t get to see otherwise. A real highlight was the Mirror Lakes – there are plenty of mirror-like lakes in New Zealand, but these ones are well-known and for good reason.
When we finally got to Milford Sound, we were ushered from the coach straight onto a pre-booked ferry, cattle-like. Despite this, what is known as New Zealand’s busiest tourist destinations still felt quiet to me – after living in Paris and London, nothing feels busy any more!
We were incredibly lucky on the day of our visit. Milford Sound is in a famously rainy region of New Zealand, and arguably is at its best when it’s rained the day before, making its many waterfalls even more spectacular. As it happens, this is exactly the weather pattern we witnessed – and it was sunny and clear as our ferry left port.
Milford Sound is known informally as the eighth natural wonder of the world, and it’s not hard to see why. Evidently, no photo can capture the scale and texture of such a grand place, and I wasn’t sure what to expect before going. But it is not something to be missed. Towering vertical cliffs adorned with moss, grass, and even trees drip with recent rains; huge mountains rise out of the water like the spines of a giant stegosaurus. Cruising around on the ferry, it’s an amazing experience.