All of the travel guides refer to Queenstown as New Zealand’s “adventure capital” — and it’s true. For those who’ve visited western Canada, it’s like Banff and Lake Louise combined into one location — mountains, crystal blue water, high end shops, high adrenaline activities and backpackers. Here are a few insider tips to help you make the most of a few days in Queenstown if you ever have the opportunity to visit:
- Save up. Everything is expensive — from the food to the accommodation to the adventures. It’s a backpacking mecca, but we have no idea how young backpackers afford to do much there.
- We saved some money by using BookaBach. We met another family staying in a family-friendly room in a hostel. We were there over a weekend in early March 2017 and saw and were told that every room in town was booked.
- There are brochures for “Queenstown Combo” activities. We found that local tour companies (they’re everywhere) can book activities in combination for less/same money but a better experience than those listed in the brochures — so it’s worth asking for the best price and for their recommendations. For example, we booked a helicopter ride and a jet boat — ended up paying a bit less than the listed price (and lower than the on-site price would have been) for the 5 of us, and got a longer ride.
- On the other hand, the tour company told us to buy our gondola/luge tickets directly at the base of the gondola, and they told us how much those would cost. Thankfully, upon arrival, they had a combination ticket available that was less expensive than we’d expected.
- The Skyline gondola ride and luge were well worth it. The area at the top of the gondola was very pleasant — restaurant, free Wifi, outstanding views, souvenir shop, walking trails (we did the 40-minute loop — a well-groomed wide path through the woods, took about 25 minutes for us), places to watch the luge runs. You could easily spend a chunk of time up there, in addition to enjoying the rides. (We thought the stargazing option might be fun too…another time…)
- The adrenaline experiences are over quickly (don’t even bother calculating the per hour or per minute price), but to extend your enjoyment of the jet boat, and your time/money here’s an idea: we went on the Shotover Jet boat (it’s the best known one in town) — the drive was only about 10 minutes in their red bus. There are other companies that take you farther away for the same cost, including telling you more about the gold mining history of the area en route, but we’d had enough of tour bus rides by that point. When we got to the river, we were pleasantly surprised by the lovely setting — they have a sandy beach area right beside the dock and the river was absolutely gorgeous — glacial blue. If we’d known, we’d have booked a late morning ride, brought a picnic to enjoy on the beach (there is also a small concession stand, with toilets nearby), then added a second jet boat ride in the afternoon for just $19 per person. The bus leaves to go back to town every 15 minutes.
- We went to Milford Sound with the BBQ Bus Tour. It’s a long day (7am to 9pm) with a lot of time in the mini van, but we enjoyed the whole experience. It was disappointing to have a lot of rain and fog in Milford Sound (despite sun in Queenstown — not unusual for second rainiest place on the planet)! Bad news: no views or dolphins. Good news: dozens of gorgeous, towering waterfalls created courtesy of the rain that literally had not been there the day before. You can choose to drive or fly to Milford Sound — we heard mixed reviews on that. It’s considerably quicker and more expensive to fly, and they only go if the weather is clear. So it’s a tradeoff: you won’t see Milford Sound in the fog, but you risk not seeing it at all. We had one guy on our bus who had planned to drive there and fly back, but because of the fog, he ended up having to drive both ways and was refunded the difference in price.
- The grocery store right in town has little choice and high prices. We wish we’d found Raeward’s sooner — it’s a bit farther out of town (we drove, but likely walkable) but had an excellent selection of fresher food and prepared items. We bought picnic far there for our drive north up the west coast and were delighted with our choices.
- There is free Wifi throughout most of the downtown, especially near the waterfront. We appreciated that. It’s a great town to wander around.
- Patagonia’s offered probably the best ice cream we’d ever tasted. And we’ve sampled ice cream in many a spot! Great vibe, good views of the lake and buskers, and fun to watch them making the treats on-site too.
- Cookie Time was a fun spot, and they offer $1 coffee from 8-9am and 2-for-1 cookies from 6-7pm.
Our helicopter pilot Paul told us that the town’s population has grown 4x while its tourist population has grown 10x over the past 20 years or so — it’s bursting at the seams, and is starting to build 3500 new homes (which could grow the permanent population by roughly 30%). If you have a chance to get there, go as soon as you can!