When the thick clouds descend over the mountain peaks that tower above Lake Wakatipu, it generally means one thing: snow. Come morning, the bright white powder trails down the slopes, enticing skiers to head out early and leaves hotel employees with a morning that’s a little less jammed. But it’s not just the ski fields that make Queenstown the perfect spot for winter holidaymakers: the buzzing alpine town is a playground of cosy bars, delicious restaurants and a slew of adventure activities for days when the snow isn’t ideal. So rug up and start reading – this is how to get the most out of your visit.
Coffees at The Exchange come with a rolling red Jaffa. Made with Burton’s beans, lattes from this tucked-away space are NZ$5.
39 Ballarat Street, Queenstown; +64 3 442 8238
For a long day on the slopes, you need to a hearty start and Joe’s Garage delivers. In an industrial space with workshop touches – the door handle is a huge spanner – the open kitchen plates up porridge supercharged with granola and caramelised fruit (NZ$12) or burritos and breakfast rolls packed with bacon, egg and other morning essentials.
Searle Lane, Queenstown; +64 3 442 5282
Coffees are churned out quickly from the pale pink coffee machine at Yonder and, if you prefer something more Bondi, there’s several coconut-milk-based alternative lattes such as turmeric and charcoal. Brunch is served from 7.30am to 3.30pm (then the space is rejigged for the nighttime dinner and drinks crowd) and is easy for the dairy-, gluten- and meat- free to navigate thanks to a handy menu key. It covers off sweet and savoury, including a generous mash of avo and house-smoked salmon on grainy toast, a three-strong pile of decadent buckwheat and blueberry pancakes and options better suited to a late start, including a fresh tuna poke bowl.
14 Church Street, Queenstown; +64 3 409 0994
Image: Yonder buckwheat and blueberry pancakes.
Can it be anything other than Fergburger? It’s the first meal Queenstown veterans recommend, though the suggestion is always caveated by the warning you will have to wait. A line for these meaty morsels starts early but you can place your order over the phone to save precious minutes in line. From the time we joined the queue on a chilly Monday to the moment we had a juicy, messy burger in our hands, 28 minutes had passed – and that’s considered reasonable.
42 Shotover Street, Queenstown; +64 3 441 1232
Look around the Wakatipu shorefront and, no matter the mercury, there’s only one snack that will do: gelato. Patagonia sells scoops for NZ$5, including a mousse-like chocolate sorbet, and Mrs Ferg Desserts Beach Street offers up a similar selection from the store as well as a waterside cart on clear days between around midday and 8pm.
2 Rees Street, Queenstown; +64 3 409 2465
Beach Street, Queenstown; +64 3 441 1201
Sherwood, a hotel and restaurant/bar akin to a luxe log cabin on Frankton Road, proves that you can make friends with a green salad thanks to a vibrant bowl of 22 minty, peppery and citrusy plants sourced from the enormous kitchen garden out back. The menu changes seasonally and is designed for sharing. One large meat dish plus a few smaller veg-based dishes is a good amount for two.
554 Frankton Road, Queenstown; +64 3 450 1090
Image: Sherwood interior. Vaughan Brookfield.
Best wine bar
Serving up fruity frosé in summer and moody mulled wine in winter, wine bar Little Blackwood moves with the times. Tucked into a corner on the touristy Steamer Wharf, there is outdoor seating but the wood-panelled walls make the interior a snug spot to pass a rainy afternoon.
Steamer Wharf, Queenstown; +64 3 441 8066
Best hot chocolate
Patagonia’s comes in chilli and ginger twists but the original is the best: melted dark chocolate ladled from a black vat and swirled through full-cream milk. NZ$5 will get you a regular cup and a coco-dusted marshmallow.
2 Rees Street, Queenstown; +64 3 409 2465
Best gourmet dinner
Between the giant, carefully lit forest print on the far wall and the greenery pressing against the windows, stepping into Rata feels like stumbling across a hidden clearing in the pristine New Zealand landscape. Home to a seasonal menu created by head chef Josh Emett, the meals are fresh and clever without being pretentious: nubs of creamy potato bread beg to be slathered with herbed crème fraiche while the mains and sides highlight NZ seafood and local produce.
Te Nuku, 43 Ballarat Street, Queenstown; +64 3 442 9393
Image: Rata interior.
SoSpa at the Sofitel Hotel is highly lauded by the bodies that matter and offers so many blissful treatments, from a massage with heated greenstones to Manuka honey facials, you’ll need to set aside a whole afternoon to indulge.
8 Duke Street, Queenstown; +64 3 450 0048
Queenstown Hill rises 907 metres behind the town and if you’ve got two hours to spare and a reasonable level of fitness, the climb through dense pine forest along the wide Queenstown Hill Walking Trail will reward you with vast views of the sparkling lake and snow-capped mountains – and you might get up close to some snow yourself at the very top. It’s around 1.5 kilometres to the Basket of Dreams sculpture and a further 500 metres to the summit – keep your eyes peeled for storybook toadstools sprouting in the dark.
Best kids' activity
The Skyline gondola ride is NZ$39 for an adult and NZ$24 for a child but if you tack on a few luge rides (gondola plus two luge is $55 for an adult) it’s a more wallet-friendly afternoon out. The five-minute ride up the side of Ben Lomond in a glass-walled gondola will thrill most preteens and older kids will get some great selfies. The Skyline is about to undergo a major overhaul so check for closures before you visit.
Breacon Street, Queenstown; +64 3 441 0101
Best non-skiing adventure
As your tomato-red jet skids over barely 10 centimetres of water and flicks and kicks in a full circle, you’ll ask yourself, Should I have chosen more relaxing way to experience the Shotover River? The answer is actually no, which you’ll realise at the end of your 25 minutes on the water, but when speeding through increasingly narrow canyons, your heart will be pumping.
Shotover Jet Beach, 3 Arthurs Point Road, Arthurs Point, Queenstown; +64 3 442 8570
Best walking track
There’s 120 kilometres of interconnected walking trails on the Queenstown Trail but an easy option is the tranquil lakeside stroll that starts just north of the Queenstown Botanic Gardens and finishes five kilometres away in Frankton.
Though fireplaces – indoor, outdoor, gas, log-burning – are ubiquitous in Queenstown’s drinking dens, the one at Bardeaux is especially atmospheric thanks to moody lighting. You’ll spot it as soon as you walk in, surrounded by three brown leather lounges. Order a whiskey from the five-page list and settle in.
Eureka Arcade, Queenstown; +64 3 442 8284
Best rooftop bar
Espresso martinis at The Sundeck come with enviable views of the lake and mountains, thanks to the bar’s corner location above Mediterranean restaurant Attiqa. Though you might have to dodge a hoard of happy backpackers to place your order, this is the place to start an evening. There’s ample heating, too.
Top Floor, 2 The Mall, Queenstown; +64 3 428 0266
If you fancy plunging 43 metres into a rushing river supported by an elastic cord, then the Kawarau Bridge Bungy, 25 minutes out of town, is for you. The first commercial bungy spot in the world, adrenalin junkies and first-timers flock here to tick jumping from the rust-red suspension bridge off their bucket lists before trying out even longer drops scattered around the region.
State Highway 6, Queenstown; book at The Station, 25 Shotover Street, Queenstown; 0800 286 4958
Best helicopter ride
No matter where the propellers take you, looking down on Queenstown and the surrounding Otago region will be etched in your memory forever. A popular helicopter jaunt is the trip over Milford Sound, both for the chance to see the intricate path the fjords carve through the land and for the fact it takes 40 minutes to fly there from Queenstown compared to a four-hour drive. For views of an even more untouched landscape, head further south to Doubtful Sound, the deepest fjord in Fiordland.
Central Otago is all about pinot noir and the best place to sip a glass is in front of the huge fire at Amisfield Vineyard & Bistro. The cellar door and innovative restaurant are a 20-minute drive from the centre of town.
10 Lake Hayes Road, Queenstown; +64 3 442 0556
Best post-ski soak
Use your long day in the snow as an excuse to treat yourself to an hour-long soak in one of the one-metre-deep, 38.1°C cliff-side private tubs at the Onsen Hot Pools. One wall is open to the elements so you can nibble on New Zealand treats such as Kapiti ice-cream and gaze out over the ice-blue Shotover River while the steam rises around you. The six baths are Instagram-famous so book at least 12 weeks in advance.
160 Arthurs Point Road, Arthurs Points; +64 3 442 5797
Best day trip
Even without a car, quaint Arrowtown is just a 40-minute ride on the Orbus from central Queenstown. The main thoroughfare, Buckingham Street, retains its gold-rush-era charm, with colonial buildings converted into sweet cafés and souvenir shops. Leave time to tour the reconstructed Chinese settlement just outside the main tourist stretch and to stroll the banks of the Arrow River – the Arrowtown Millennium Track is an easy 45-minute loop beneath the wilting willow trees and a favourite among locals and their energetic pups.
Best ski spots
Lil’ Bucks Park at Cardrona will ease small skiers (and first-time adults) into the snow with jumps no bigger than three metres and wide, easy-to-navigate slopes. There’s also a childcare centre for children under five and the Chondola ski lift to ease beginners up the mountain and provide a smooth exit.
The Remarkables, at 25 minutes away from Queenstown proper, are ideal for novice skiers who want to test the ice. There’s a beginners’ slope serviced by conveyor lifts and a four-day ‘Intro to Snow’ pass that includes lift passes, equipment and eight lessons.
Two words: night skiing. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 4pm, the runs at Coronet Peak light up so those who can’t tear themselves away from the chill can keep skiing down the blue trails.
Treble Cone, the largest ski area on the south island, is where the seasoned snow bunnies go, with only 10 per cent of its terrain suitable for beginners. Skilled skiers and snowboarders head to the ridge-strewn Saddle Basin where there are two advanced runs, and the super-, super- skilled attempt the challenging Motatapu Chutes.