Queenstown is the closest New Zealand gets to a mountain resort town, and is one of the chief tourist destinations in the country. The scenery is spectacular: the town is set on a lake with mountains all around.
Queenstown has something for everyone, from super-wealthy film stars to families or the backpacker/ski-bum. Any adventure activity you can think of is for offer. There are cordon bleu restaurants and cheap takeaways, vineyard tours and tramping in the bush. The population is about 9000, but an even greater number of tourists seems to be present at any one time.
Although widely derided for its commercialism, Queenstown is really a fun place to be, and a good base for touring the national parks nearby. Everything seems to require money, but with a little inside knowledge, a lot can be done on the cheap. In winter there is good skiing on two nearby ski areas, Coronet Peak and The Remarkables. Snow in winter can fall down to lake level in the town itself, but not reliably.
Queenstown is a boom town and always has been. The town literally sprang up beside Lake Wakatipu the 1863 gold rush, and for a time was at the centre of one of the world's richest goldfields. Many of these miners had come straight from the Australian goldfields, and downtown Queenstown has Ballarat Street, Melbourne Street and Sydney Street. When the gold had been worked out, the gold rush moved on to the Klondyke gold fields in Alaska, and Queenstown settled back into a farm service town and kiwi summer holiday camping spot.
The second boom has been tourism, and it is a more enduring one. Winter tourism began gradually with the first rope tows at Coronet Peak in 1947, and later chairlifts in the 1960's. Jetboating on the Shotover, and other fast-flowing rivers around the region has long been popular. However the one thing, more than anything else, which made Queenstown into an international destination was AJ Hackett's bungy jumping operation at the Kawarau gorge. Nowadays you can bungy jump anywhere in the world, but the attraction of the original Queenstown site remains, and all sorts of other adventure activities have been commercially packaged to cater for the international backpacker market drawn in huge numbers to this town. Summer is the busiest time, and New Years a particularly hectic time.
An offshoot of this tourism boom is the property boom, whereby any piece of land with a view of the mountains and lake (which there is a lot of) is suddenly worth squillions of dollars, and seems to be especially attractive to foreign financiers and film stars with hard currency for whom the land prices in Kiwi dollars still seem very cheap.
Getting there and away
Christchurch to Queenstown by road 487km, 5½ to 6 hours driving time plus breaks. All turnings well signposted.
Take Highway 1 south from Chch, and turn right at Rangitata onto Highway 79 through Geraldine to Fairlie (180km so far, 2 to 2¼ hours). There is a campground and a couple of motels in Fairlie and a nice restaurant (The Old Library). Take Highway 8 through to Lake Tekapo, and across the McKenzie Basin (views of Mt Cook on a clear day) to Omarama. Good roads on this section, NB cops with speed cameras!
Then comes the Lindis Pass (which can sometimes be closed by snow in winter – check the AA road watch
Since the alternative route in to Queenstown is all the way down the coast to Dunedin and up the Clutha Valley, you want to know about road closures before leaving Highway 1.)
The tiny cafe at Tarras is at the Wanaka turn-off. Keep going straight ahead to Cromwell where you turn right onto Highway 6, up the spectacular Kawarau gorge to reach Queenstown.
Places to stay
Places to eat
Top-notch restaurants all over the place. Do not miss The Cow, a pizza restaurant in Cow Lane, downtown Queenstown, the converted milking shed of 19th century Queenstown.
Alternative (non-ski) activities
This is the big one. All sorts. Mostly of the adventure type. Scenic flights are highly recommended. Fishing is excellent, but fishermen will already know this. Dart River Safaris and Milford Sea Kayaks are great fun. Or you could even hurl yourself off a bridge with a rubber band tied to your feet if you're really desperate.