Queenstown and the surrounding area is one of New Zealand's highlights when it comes to scenery. Once the borders open think about Central Otago as a destination to explore.
I decided to look at 10 cool things to do in Queenstown and the surrounding area from the advice I got from locals. With apps like Trip Advisor and Google it's very easy to get stuck doing activities that rank highly on searches.
But try asking a local and you may get something novel, quirky, off the beaten track and an absolute gem.
Read on to find what the locals told me. (No affiliates here - just sharing the love!)
Central Otago, NZ, has some spectacular scenery. This is Cromwell.
1. Kickstart your day with a great coffee where the locals go!
"Where do I get a great coffee?" I asked my friend.
The reply was, "Anna, at her coffee cart."
With directions in order, of I drove to where the locals get their coffee - Life's a grind espresso.
So, when is a coffee not just a coffee? When they make you feel like a local!
My coffee was great and easily found in the Liquor King carpark.
But this place is more than just a coffee. It's a meeting place where locals and us tourists mingle at a social distance.
Anna, the owner, remembered my order the next day. She's interested in her customers and she gets a gold star from me for customer service
This is when coffee is more than just a coffee. It's moments like these that make a bigger impression of a town than any tourist attraction.
I remember my coffee moments and especially when I'm traveling.
Sometimes it's the little things that count.
- Being included
Actually they're pretty big things!
2. Take a hike!
After that coffee head to the outdoors. Queenstown and the surrounding area has hikes and walks of all types, and they have the most jaw-dropping views!!!
Multiple day hikes like the Milford Track and the Routeburn are part of the Great Walks of NZ. These require plenty of planning, with training, booking accommodation in the DOC (Department of Conservation) huts. There are also guided tour options available.
But there are also short walks that suit all levels of fitness. These walks vary from a full day walk to a two hour hike or even a stroll along the edge of the beautiful Lake Wakatipu.
Lake Hayes walk.
We did the short two-hour walk around Lake Hayes, just outside Queenstown. It's a relatively flat walk which was a nice start to our week.
I loved walking past the beautiful architecturally designed homes. There were sensational views of the surrounding hills and mountains. And a great bonus it has toilets at both ends of the lake.
This is another shorter walk that follows the perimeter of a lake set in a basin of hills. The colours of the trees were just changing into autumn/fall colours. The dry yellow/brown hills from late summer and the bright blue sky were a stark contrast.
Lake Moke, Central Otago, has a remote & rugged feel to it.
3. On ya bike!
Now this is something I didn't get a chance to do, but is definitely on my list for next time in Queenstown.
Like many places, bike rentals are a plenty. And keeping up with the times - e-bikes are a-plenty in these parts.
Queenstown is the outdoor capital of New Zealand. There are bike tracks that take you away from main roads, through remote valleys, up hills and along the rivers.
There are plenty of cafes, vineyards, and photo opportunities along the way.
Even in Queenstown there is a beautiful lakeside route for biking and walking.
This view is just a one minute bike along from the bars, shops and cafes in Queenstown.
4. Hit the shops - second-hand is the best.
The second-hand/op shops in Queenstown are a real steal!!!
You'll find some designer gear here that the well-off have left behind.
My favourite pre-loved fashion boutique is The Walk in Wardrobe.
I love how the shop is organised by colour, and hangers are colour-coded for easy visibility of sizing.
Seriously, this is the only shop I go to in Queenstown!
5. Take a drive.
Hire a car and take a day drive around the surrounding areas.
You'll be stopping every 5 minutes to gape at the gorgeous views.
Some of my favourite spots are...
Glenorchy is just south of Queenstown. Here you'll get plenty of remote views of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains. Experience the views that inspire so many local and international artists.
NZ relies heavily on hydropower, and the dams in the South Island are the major source of our electricity. Cromwell is one town built on the shores of Lake Dunstan on the Clutha River. Surrounded by vineyards and orchards - this part of NZ is known for it's stone-fruit and wine.
Arrowtown was the heart of the goldrush. With the building style it's not too hard to imagine what a bustling goldrush town this would have been.
The surrounding hills are great for day hiking and reminiscing about the gold mining days.
Wanaka is the next biggest town in the area. Sitting on the edge of Lake Wanaka you can take a leisurely stroll or bike along the lake edge. Or if you're more adventurous there are some great day hikes in the area that give you views over lakes and mountains.
Just make sure you are fit, because these are some serious thigh-punishing hills!
Oh, and the lavender farm is very pretty with the well-known Instagram door - we didn't stop this time, but the flowers were out in full.
The Wanaka Tree!
6. Cruise the lakes.
There are plenty of opportunities to go on a lake cruise, hire a kayak or paddleboard, and get out on the water.
In Queenstown, the elegant steamboat - The Earnslaw - is the lady of the lake, and was built in 1912. The boat cruises up to the Walter Peak High Country Farm Station, where...wait for it...
...they farm merino sheep!!
And a wee bit of my family history - my grandfather once shore sheep with hand clippers on this station! You can see the workings of the farm. It is a beautiful day out on the lake.
We also enjoyed going out on The million dollar cruise. This family-run business was a lovely cruise around the top of the lake and was great to see the amazing homes built on the waters edge.
Plenty of lake to explore here!
7. Take in the gold-mining history.
New Zealand has a long Maori history, but a relatively short European settler history. Many immigrants came in the 1800s gold rush.
There are plenty of museums, plaques, and old digging sites to be found in the area.
Heading further south to Alexandra you can see where the gold miners lived in their ramshackle huts, clinging to the rocky sides of the cliffs so they were never far from the work. Panning for gold is a fun family activity - good luck with that!
We loved walking the hills around Arrowtown a few years ago and coming across the man-made water races for the sluicings.
I think my enduring memory of these parts though, as I stood there in my toasty puffer jacket - was, 'my god, they lived a hard life.'
Do you really want to see some gold?
Head to Central Otago in April and see the autumn/fall colours. The gold is in the trees and it is a phenomenal sight.
There's gold in them there hills - Arrowtown.
8. Head to the wineries.
Central Otago wine is some of the best in the world! So I'm told. World renowned for it's Pinot Noir.
I don't drink - just the occasional sip - to see what they are all ooh-ing and ahh-ing about. As the dedicated driver there was still plenty for me to enjoy - local art and produce, the gardens and the architecture.
We went to a few, but our favourite was Wet Jacket winery situated in the Bendemeer Station woolshed. Our host, Daniel, was exceptional in his knowledge of not only the wine but the local history. He brought the area and building to life as he explained that we were sitting in the old stone home of a Scottish immigrant family of nine who lived in this 25m square space. The similar sized bar, was the original stable. In later years it became the woolshed and stockyards.
The early European settlers in New Zealand had a very tough life, and through his story-telling it came to life.
According to my sources, the wine was exceptional.
Silly photo time!
9. Grab a bite.
Queenstown caters for tourists - and the food is exceptional.
We ended up at The Public Kitchen and Bar - we ordered the chef's choice menu, and the food just kept rolling out. Everything tasted stunning and the portion sizes were perfect.
Looking out at the lake and the mountains really made this an incredibly magical spot.
The food and spot was magical, but again the stand out memory was the manager and staff. So friendly, and so knowledgeable about their food. You can tell when people are treated well and love what they do - it comes out in their service.
For a lighter snack I had to keep going back to Hikari Sushi. Seriously, the freshness and substantial serving sizes has ruined me for any other sushi places.
10. Stay somewhere different.
I was with our friend picking up his new puppy when I came across the cutest B&B - The Old Ferry Hotel.
The owners, Dan and Mitzi, are sooo lovely and welcoming.
The hotel is on the terrace above the Lower Shotover River. The rural scenery is intoxicating and what's more there are river trails right outside the front door.
Gorgeous accommodation, gardens, scenery, river trails...
Meeting real locals is such a big part of travelling and I loved hearing their stories of how they have made their family home here in such an incredible spot. Along with the old hotel accomodation, there are also smaller cabins and a Shepherds Hut - that I absolutely want to come back and stay in.
But probably the greatest connection was when I mentioned to Dan that I write a travelling light blog and could I include them in it.
"We travel light!" he announced.
Well, you can imagine the conversation from there. They travel with their kids and just a small bag on the backs each. One of their last trips before covid was to India. So I need to get back and talk more about travelling light and explore the area on bikes.
Dan & Mitzi & their kids - light travelling family extraordinaires!
I could easily write another 10...
But I won't.
I will say, that I haven't mentioned skiiing or The Lord of the Rings! Two major drawcards here.
I do have a story though that encompasses both...
We went for a four hour hike a few years ago on a cloudy summers day up on the schist-covered slopes of the Remarkable skifield. Above us were looming black clouds. As we walked up into the shadow of the cliffs I felt a fear building up. A sense of doom. I could feel the hairs on my neck standing up.
I turned to our friend, and said, "I don't like it here."
He laughed, and explained that the mountain walls we were under featured in The LOTR and the light we were having was exactly like that in the movie. I swear I could've seen the hobbits, Gandolf, and Viggo Mortensen burst out from the side of the mountain as they escaped.
What a day!
Keep Queenstown on your bucket list.
Queenstown really is a special part of New Zealand.
Keep it on your list for when travel opens up again.
And it you're a Kiwi reading this - book some time in down south. As an area that relies heavily on tourism, they need our support.
I went for a week, yet felt like I'd been away for much longer. It really is a different world down there. And we're so blessed to have it on so close.
Happy travel planning