I’ve just returned from a 12-day trip to New Zealand. I spent 4 days each in Auckland, Rotorua, and Queenstown. To be perfectly honest, the only place I knew about in New Zealand is Matamata, because that’s where Hobbiton is. Queenstown was very much under my radar, because it’s labeled as a hub for high adrenalin adventure travel. That’s not my thing. I didn’t have much expectations for Queenstown, and I was blown away by its natural beauty as soon as I caught a glimpse from the plane window.
For friends who are flying into Queenstown in the coming weeks, and for everyone else headed to New Zealand, here are my tips and suggestions for traveling in Queenstown.
Pay for a window seat
At the last minute, I decided to pay for a window seat before I checked-in for my flight online, and it paid off. As the plane starts its descent, you will be greeted with a view of the mountain tops, and maybe it’s just because I come from a place where there is no snow that the sight of snow makes me excited. I sat on the right side (F seat), but I imagine the views will be equally gorgeous on the opposite side of the plane.
Pack for all weather
It’s already spring in this part of the world, and that means mild temperature with rain. Couple that with the hole in the ozone layer that’s directly over New Zealand and Antarctic winds from the south, and you’ll find yourself taking off and putting on layers throughout the day.
Seriously, my niece and I sat outside for lunch, and at the end of our meal, one side of our bodies are already on its way to a sunburn. Later that day, we found ourselves putting on wind and rainproof outerwear to combat the elements.
Bring your ATM card
There was only one currency exchange at the airport, and their rates are not very good. My niece exchanged AU$100, and got NZ$88. In town, she exchanged another AU$100 and got NZ$92. She withdrew money using her Westpac card on a Westpac ATM and got $100 and was only charged a AU$1 transaction fee.
Consider the Connectabus 7-day Unlimited Travel Pass
The Queenstown public bus system is very easy to use, and gets you where you need to go. It connects the airport to the town, and have stops near most hotels. We opted to get the 7-day pass for NZ$52, which covered our return trips to the airport (NZ$12 each way), and the trip to Arrowtown (NZ$15 each way). It also freed us from having to compute for each trip or making sure we have enough cash on us for the fare. We were also able to make an extra trip to New World at the Remarkables Park, which would also cost around NZ$12 per way.
There’s only one bus stop in the center of town. Where the bus from the airport drops you off is the same stop for the bus to Arrowtown or the bus that passes through the hotels in the Lake Esplanade.
Splurge for a room with a view
Queenstown is so beautiful, we cannot stop taking photos everytime we are outside or looking out to the lake from our balcony. Since my niece and I both wanted to have a lakeview room, we opted to stay at the Rydges Lakeland Resort, which is right at the banks of the lake. Queenstown surrounded by mountains, and many accommodations require a hike up steep streets, so if you or anyone in your party has mobility issues, the hotels and apartments along the Lake Esplanade would be a great idea. It’s also a short walk into the center of town.
Intercity day tours are pretty good value
For our day tour to Milford Sound, we opted to go with Intercity. When we booked, it was priced at NZ$119, but they have raised the price to NZ$125, which is still pretty good. This includes transportation by coach to Milford Sound, and the 2-hour cruise. In our tour, we were told that we have the option to pay around $32 extra for a buffet lunch, which I think on top of the tour cost is still pretty reasonable, since other companies are pricing their tours at $160, with a sandwich lunch (which, let’s face it, not enough for us Asians). We just packed some snacks and lunch, and enjoyed it on the top deck as we were cruising. If you aren’t able to bring food, you can buy at Te Anau, during the morning stop. There are convenience stores, supermarkets, cafes, and a shop selling good meat pies.
Be sure to bring outerwear that can shield you from wind and rain during the Milford Sound cruise, especially if you are staying outdoors.
Do not skip Skyline
Queenstown is already gorgeous on the ground, but it’s even more amazing seen from Skyline. The view is nothing short of spectacular. Be sure to do the luge at least 3 times: once is not enough, twice just lets you experience the advanced course, and the third time is for figuring out whether you like the scenic route or the advanced course better (ours is the advanced course). A note for GoPro owners: strap on your camera. Don’t be that asshole who holds it in their hands as they make their way down the track. Don’t even think about bringing out your phone.
There are lockers available (you’d need two NZ$1 coins or one $2 coin), but many are able to whiz down the side of the mountain with their bags strapped on their backs or in between their legs. Wear gloves if your hands get cold.
The buffet lunch at Stratosfare was pretty okay. Not as extravagant as the hotel buffets in Manila, but it has a very good selection of food (and great dessert). If you prefer to bring your own food, there are a number of picnic tables available outside with great views.
We purchased our tickets online, and we went to Skyline the day before to exchange them for tickets, which saved us the hassle of lining up the following day (when all the tour buses seem to be arriving). As soons as we arrived at the top, we checked in for lunch. You need to be early to score a window seat, but if you want to guarantee your seat, you can pay extra.
Gforce Paragliding operates at Skyline, and I have to admit, I felt more than a twinge of envy everytime I see them floating by while we were at Skyline. They fly over the city center and over Lake Wakatipu. They don’t operate everyday though: if the weather’s bad, nobody’s flying.
Milford Sound, you are amazing. While most of the day was eaten up just by the drive to and fro, it was easily the best part of the day. The view was simply astounding, especially when we were driving in the Fiordland. @donghoeskapo, @chyngreyes, @magnetnavales, @danepolicarpio, you have to come to New Zealand!
Arrowtown is more than old buildings
When I was researching about Queenstown, Arrowtown was mentioned as a great side trip. It’s mentioned mainly as an old gold mining town, with quaint old buildings. What we didn’t realize was that there was really nice walking trails from the Old Chinese settlement, which we could have done, if we were suitably dressed for it (we weren’t).
We also took the first bus from Queenstown (7:35 am), and it was the best decision ever. When we got there, the town was still sleeping. It was empty, and we were able to take photos without people milling around.
Fudge and Nougat
One of the shops that opened early (aside from the liquor shop), was the Remarkable Sweet Shop. When I passed by their store in town, I thought they were just selling candies. Well, they were, but they also have their own product: fudges and nougats. The affable girl behind the counter offered us small bites of their products and they were just too good, we ended up buying a box of each, which is actually packaged really nicely and works as a great souvenir for people back home.
No lines at Fergburger at 4pm.
Much as been said about Fergburger, and the long lines everyday attests to just how popular it is. If you want to avoid the queues, you can try heading there at 4pm (or 4am, since it’s open until 5:30 am). There is, however, about a 10-15 minute wait for your burger though. There’s also the Fergbaker right next door, which sells really good meat pies and scones, and Mrs. Ferg Gelateria, which has good gelato.
Head to New World or Countdown for groceries
There are 24-hour convenience stores and mini supermarkets in Queenstown’s city center, but if you want better prices and wider selections, it’s better to head out to New World in Remarkables Park or Countdown in Frankton. Of course, the bus fare would cost you, but if you have the bus pass, it’s no biggie. There’s also a Fresh Choices just a couple of minute’s walk up an incline from Queenstown’s center.
Have you been to Queenstown? What are your tips?