A guide to Queenstown if you have no idea what you’re doing

Travel News from Stuff - 04-09-2023 stuff.co.nz

Somehow I have attained (ahem) middle age without ever skiing, or snowboarding. Or barely ever being in actual snow. I’ve never properly been to Queenstown, other than en route to other places, let alone in winter.

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In other words, I’m a Queenstown virgin. Snow celibate. An après-ski amateur. I mean, I’ve heard of Coronet Peak, but I have no idea what goes on there. Cardrona? Isn’t that a pub?

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So this is for people like me: how to ‘do’ Queenstown if you have no idea what you’re doing.

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Obviously winter is when Queenstown puts on her best white dress and flirts with allcomers, but many visitors don’t realise the ski season often extends at least two weeks into October. And because the snow base accumulates through winter it can be the best time to hit the slopes.

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If you want to do more than just ski – and you very much do – you’ll need to grab a car rental. And add on some chains. We got away with a small Suzuki Swift because we arrived between snow events, but a 4WD might be the safer bet in winter’s depths.

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They reckon if you stay for four or five days you qualify as a ‘temporary local’, which means you need to upskill on the local patois, like saying “yeah I’m thinking about hitting the Remarks tomorrow” (translation, you’re contemplating skiing at the Remarkables the next day). Throw in the odd grumble about the traffic (Aucklanders especially will relate to the crazy tailbacks), and also slip in a little te reo by referring to the place by its Māori name, Tāhuna (which means ‘shallow bay’).

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Being the modern eco-conscious traveller you are, after marvelling at the drop-dead gorgeous scenery, you’ll want to cover your mucky carbon tracks. The charity is the answer, a platform for visitors to help protect this beautiful place.

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Well, yes, skiing and snowboarding are clearly the go-tos. But where to start for novices? We hit the Remarkables, along with a few thousand others, and my girlfriend lucked into some skiing lessons with Harry McFadden, their amiable head of snowsports.

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The team at The Remarkables are amazing at upskilling and Harry reckons it’s always worth stumping up for one-on-one lessons if you want to fast-forward to actual skiing, though the group lessons looked productive as well.

Another great thing about skiing in Queenstown is that they’re determined to throw down the inclusive welcome mat to everyone, and up at the ‘Remarks’ and (Coronet Peak and Cardrona) they offer adaptive ski programmes. This means specialist gear and lessons to support adults and children with any disability – physical, cognitive, sensory – into getting on the snow and having some fun. Now that’s bloody cool.

Getting up a hill guarantees great views and Shay at Ride To The Sky is your man. His slickly organised, bespoke e-bike adventures are a real blast – we did a three-hour ride to the top of Queenstown Hill, much of it on private land. At the summit, Shay broke out the camp chairs and refreshments and we enjoyed the panoramic views over the area and watched the planes flitting in and out of the airport. A magnificent respite into nature, undoubtedly a highlight of our visit and an excursion that wouldn’t have existed in the pre e-bike era. Shay also offers vineyard and lakeside rides, plus you can ride year round.

Free is a great price for any activity, so we headed out early one morning to walk Moke Lake, an atmospheric, misty treat of stillness and light. Just a 15-minute drive towards Glenorchy, this hidden gem of a hike is an easy two-hour lakeside loop, taking in glorious mountain views along the way. The Lake Hayes Walkway is another scenic two-hour lake walk.

A side trip to Arrowtown is a must; dive into the gold mining history of the area, wander around the old Chinese village, check out the Lakes District Museum and enjoy some confectionery at the Remarkables sweet shop. There are also plenty of nice bars to enjoy: The Winery has a collection of all the best wines in one place and does delicious cheese boards. Hyde Bar is a glamorous cocktail bar with a speakeasy atmosphere or later in the night sample there’s the Blue Door bar.

Jet boating is the classic Queenstown thrill ride. Shotover Jet is probably the most well-known operator but if you have a bit more time and want to take in more of the scenery Skippers Canyon Jet (3 hours) and Dart River Jet (half day to Glenorchy) are also worth looking into. The Dart River boat heads into the wilderness of Mt Aspiring National Park and a place aptly called Paradise, a brilliant way to get deeper into the region.

Kiwis can be a bit reticent about hiring private guides, but why not cut to the chase and get to know the area, hear the stories and learn the history in a compact timeframe with a customised tour. And some companies now offer electric vehicle options, like Nomad Safaris’ private Tesla tours.

A scenic flight over drop-dead gorgeous scenery. Air Milford is probably the most climate-conscious operator, with a number of initiatives to either offset or reduce their emissions.

There are offerings to suit different budgets, but I reckon Queenstown in winter is one destination where you want to go all in, because when it’s bone-chilling outside, it makes such a difference to be in premium accommodation. So raid the piggy bank or emergency fund and book somewhere luxe, warm and indulgent. Here’s a couple we tried:

The Cottages at Lake Hayes were a revelation. Opened in 2020, these are luxe cottages with lovely lake views. We stayed in Luna, which sleeps four adults and has the added bonus of a toasty hot spa pool to soothe away the post-activity aches. It also had a wood burner to loll in front of with a bottle of the local pinot noir. The owners are super community-minded, supporting local sustainability projects and local artists, with each cottage featuring curated artworks. From $795 per night.

set in a grand old Victorian villa, just a few metres up from town with dreamy views back over the lake. This is ultra boutique, with only six rooms and low-key but wonderfully on-point staff. And the rooms and hallways tell the intriguing story of Queenstown through a wonderful collection of heritage photographs. From $880 per night.

Eating out in these parts does not come cheap, but the good news is the dining scene is on a roll.

Owner Ben Bayly became smitten with Italian food as a young chef working in the Valle D'Aosta in Italy’s alps – and Aosta in Arrowtown is the result of that romance, in proud combination with Aotearoa flavours. Dishes like the kina pappardelle and the Foveaux monkfish pie demonstrate the mash-up of two cultures, while the tiramisu is performance art at your table – and the best tiramisu I’ve had in eons. There’s also Little Aosta for takeaway pizzas and more.

Steamer Wharf is a hive of buzzy restaurants and bars and Ivy & Lola’s is a cool haven, with a playful fit-out of old valve radios and mantelpiece clocks. Great food with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients and local produce, like the green-lipped mussels or the Cecil Peak Station lamb.

Bespoke Kitchen is a sustainability-focused breakfast/lunch joint with ace vegan options. Taco Medic is another sustainability-oriented operator offering the best Mex in town.

After an exhausting day on the snow, a little après ski can make up for those wipe outs, sorry, beautiful runs down the piste.

At Canyon Brewery, they grow their hops locally and recently started to harvest their own barley locally, with a micro-brewery onsite. It is also where the Shotover Jet departs.

Altitude Brewery is a top tap room next to the Marina on Frankton Road, where the local crowd hang out, plus there’s usually a food truck parked up as well.

The Bathhouse offers Edwardian poshness right on the lakefront next to the gardens, often getting the last of the sun. A scenic spot to enjoy a warm mulled wine and breathe that crisp Queenstown air.

Flying generates carbon emissions. To reduce your impact, consider other ways of travelling, amalgamate your trips, and when you need to fly, consider offsetting emissions.

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