Lake Wakatipu is magnetic. From first light into night it draws Queenstown locals and visitors alike, who skirt its shores and skim its surface on jet boats, kayaks, paddleboards and even a century-old steamboat. The sound of water lapping against the smooth stones of Queenstown Bay is the town’s heartbeat; Maori legend attributes the waterline’s half-hourly rise and fall to the slow and steady pulse of the mythical giant Matau, who rests on its floor.
Spring here is a fine balance. Skiers can still descend the slopes with the final flurries of the season but the rise in mercury – up to 22°C on a bluebird day – means hiking and biking trails lose their slip and are bordered by wild thyme and daffodils in October and tall stems of lupin in the last weeks of November (an invasive species but a pretty pest nonetheless).
The compact CBD is quiet in the morning, as adventurers scatter to hurl themselves off a bridge or cliff on bungee cords, swings and zip-lines, or careen through a canyon on a raft or mountain bike. Even as the streets start to fill in the afternoon, the crowds don’t reach the crush of summer and winter – there’s still a queue for a famous Fergburger but it’s much more manageable. Sunlit hours stretch out, making it possible to take a scenic flight to Milford Sound in the morning, traverse the lake in the afternoon aboard the vintage steamer TSS Earnslaw and be back to enjoy cocktails while watching the sun dip between crags on the far side of the lake. Queenstown is a natural playground – here’s how to play.
The best things to do
There are two ways to begin a whitewater rafting expedition down the Shotover River. The first is a thrilling 45-minute shuttle ride down a winding road to the floor of Skippers Canyon; the other is a chopper flight that takes under 10 minutes but is no less dramatic thanks to the skilful antics of your pilot, who sweeps the heli through skinny spaces for sideways views of the river below. Either way, once you get out on the water you’ll need to be a quick study to tame the river’s “bite” with your oar. The good-natured guides from Go Orange encourage camaraderie among a raft of strangers, which is crucial as one bend transforms the flow from a drift to rapids. An especially notorious succession of rapids with names like Aftershock and Squeeze spin your vessel and separate those who nailed the commands – “Forward! Forward hard! Get down!” – from those who end up swimming.
If bungee jumping is too much for your nerves, the Canyon Fox above the Shotover River gives an adrenaline surge without the freefall. After much clipping and checking, you’ll be guided to the edge of the 182-metre-high zip-line. Choose your “drop” style (the six options all boil down to being let go with the press of a button or flinging yourself off) and be gone. The five-metre fall before gravity – and the rope – catches you is over in a flash but the zoom to the opposite side leaves enough time to admire the view. Fear tamed, the return journey is a flying fox race against another zipper.
With spring comes ideal cycling weather; the headwinds are warm and the fields surrounding the trails from Arrowtown to the wineries of Gibbston Valley are in bloom. Around the Basin will drop you, a map and an e-bike at Arrow Junction for a power-pedal to vineyards; three stops is a good rule of thumb on a half-day tour. The Gibbston River Trail follows the Kawarau River over a stunning suspension bridge and past the world’s first bungee jump. Stop at Peregrine, where tastings of up to four wines are free, before visiting Cargo Brewery (above) for baked brie with sourdough, a beer flight and a hit of croquet. Finish with an appointment-only tasting of single-block pinot gris and pinot noir at boutique winery Coxs’ Vineyard. There’s no return cycle – Around the Basin picks riders up from the Gibbston Tavern.
Top restaurants and bars
Forget the flabby French toast on other brunch menus – the version offered at The Boat Shed Cafe & Bistro is unique. Freshly baked brioche filled with rich egg custard, it teeters on the edge of excessive yet isn’t sickly thanks to a dollop of mascarpone spiked with thyme and a sprinkle of lemon pistachios. The menu changes monthly but a few dishes are popular enough to make the cut each time, such as the chorizo scrambled eggs. Within a converted heritage railway building at the edge of the lake, the relaxed venue is a tasty pit stop on the Frankton arm of the Queenstown Trail, which goes past its door.
Boardwalk has one of the more enviable locations in town, a level above the shorefront with views over the water. Go left at the top of the stairs for the bar or take a right for the restaurant – if you haven’t been waylaid by the oyster bar downstairs. While the menu is updated seasonally, it always highlights New Zealand produce, such as poached blue cod with herbed potato gratin or a rack of lamb from nearby Cardrona.
At Little Blackwood, the wine list favours Kiwi tipples but the cocktail menu is no slouch. Espresso Martinis are a signature, while customised meat and cheese platters will keep you going. Tucked beneath a staircase on Steamer Wharf, it’s an intimate space for pre-dinner drinks.
The frontrunner for local destination dining, Aosta is a 30-minute drive away in Arrowtown. Both Aosta and its namesake town in Italy sit on the 45th parallel and chef Ben Bayly riffs on this simpatico by giving Northern Italian flavours a southern edge. Hero dishes might include eggplant cooked on hot ashes in what Bayly describes as a “fast hangi” or dough turned inky with burnt potato skin before being sculpted into tortellini and stuffed with goat’s curd.
Later on, sink into a cosy leather armchair by the window at The Lodge Bar, a few metres back from the Queenstown Bay breakwater. Drape a checked blanket over your lap and watch the last of the light disappear with a gin-based Kiwi Sunset cocktail in hand.
The best accommodation and hotels
You can’t get away from Lake Wakatipu at Azur Lodge. Its nine identical luxury villas zigzag down the mountain, each with uninterrupted views of the turquoise water laid out before them. Easing into the day with a late wake-up call? The lake is visible from your enormous bed. Ordering room service from a restaurant in town and eating dinner on the deck? The lake is your silent partner. Soaking in the tub with the windows thrown open to the breeze? Minimal light pollution means the water glimmers with stars. Only five minutes drive from central Queenstown, the lodge is blissfully quiet, though you’re welcome to make conversation with other guests in the main building during afternoon tea (from 3pm each day), at cocktail hour (drinks and canapés are included) and over breakfast (where there’s no set menu and you can order whatever you desire).
There’s plenty to distract you from the beautiful vista at Kāmana Lakehouse. Perched high above the lake, just outside of town in Fernhill, its communal spaces and rooms have been thoughtfully kitted out following an overhaul of an existing property in 2018. Rooms are made for two, with sleek bathrooms and a balcony prepped for chilly nights with comfortable private seating and a cosy blanket (Tahuna Lakeview rooms offer the best outlook). The lobby blends into a lounge adorned with recycled birch trees, a wall crafted with Jenga-like precision from blocks of timber and four fireplaces suspended from the ceiling. The Art Deco-style restaurant, Nest Kitchen & Bar, serves a broad buffet for breakfast and Mediterranean-skewed dishes at night, plus a drinks list that includes Central Otago wines, a selection of Japanese whiskies and a dangerous gin-and-tonic menu.