Anyone who has been to New Zealand’s invaluable Queenstown would agree that this special part of the world deserves much more than just a few days of exploration. It’s not enough to call it a beautiful part of a country that’s famous for its beautiful parts; such a description would barely nick the surface of such an intensely dramatic landscape, framed by swirling mist, the epic Remarkables mountain range and Lake Wakatipu’s crystal clear blue waters. Year-round Queenstown has become one of New Zealand tourism’s biggest earners – particularly during ski season – and as soon as one steps off the plane to this spectacular alpine terrain it’s not hard to see why.
Hell, even Queenstown’s fresh, rich mountain air is being bottled and sold overseas because the place is just so darn idyllic. It’s understandable that visitors would never want to leave, but alas New Zealand is a country full of this kind of spectacle; the kind that vividly sticks for a lifetime, and constantly makes me wonder why, with Australia so close, I don’t make the short trip more often.
If you’re only in Queenstown for a few days on a much bigger New Zealand trip, you’re going to need to pull yourself away from the epic views of Peninsula Hill or the stunning walk along the town’s lakeside (it’s hard, I know) and actually start making the most of your time in what will no doubt be one of the most memorable stops on your journey.
In no way is this a definitive guide to Queenstown, just a handful of suggestions based on a recent trip to what has become widely known as the adventure capital of the world. I’ve left out the obvious day trip to Milford Sound, simply because that should be an absolute certainty for anyon who has a bit of leeway on their itinerary, and focused more on things to do closer to town – particularly munching your way through Queenstown’s glorious food scene, which is fueled by access to some truly beautiful local produce.
Food & Drink
Amisfield Bistro & Cellar Door
If cool climate Central Otago wines and rustic, by-the-fireplace feasts are your idea of a good time then one of the first things on your schedule should be this postcard-worthy winery on the outskirts of town. Snuggling up under dramatic mountaintops, this award-winning property is prefaced by its historic stone facade, a building which houses an ultra-modern and homely restaurant and winery.
Tasting sessions amongst rows and rows of wine bottles are to your right as soon as you enter, perfect before or after a dig into the “Trust the Chef” menu, an option which regularly changes and features fresh, flavour-rich food expertly paired with wines. Hearty roasts and fresh veggies seem to be a constant favourite, but with some of the world’s best produce right at your doorstep there’s plenty of delicious possibilities.
Not much can be said about Fergburger that hasn’t already been shouted from Queenstown’s magical mountaintops to jealous burger fiends the world over. To say the spot is an institution would be an understatement; it’s one of the most referenced food options in all of New Zealand, to the point where pre-NZ me once thought it was the country’s most popular fast food chain.
Sixteen years after first being founded in Queenstown, Fergburger is still attracting unbelievably long queues. Maybe it’s the lack of local burger rivalry, which is certainly nowhere near the level of say Sydney or Melbourne, but most likely it’s because these enormous gourmet burgers actually do live up to the hype; they’re bountiful, meaty and garden-fresh with an obvious dedication to each and every ingredient, right down to the onions. It’s beyond me how they manage to maintain this standard and still constantly roll out these burgers to hungry customers during such long hours (they are open 7 days from 8:30am to 5am; and yeah, being a night owl I can confirm that there’s demand even at 3am).
Fergburger have met with such success that they now operate two other adjoining shopfronts, Fergbakery and Mrs Ferg. The former pumps out freshly baked goods while the latter offers gelato. For me, it was way too cold in Queenstown to justify even looking at gelato, but wandering into Fergbakery proved a great success, having discovered that their $6 pork belly pie is just as good – if not better – than the burgers.
Josh Emett’s famed upscale restaurant is a destination for those who tend to spoil their palates while on vacation. It’s no fuss, honest food with a home-cooked sensibility; Emett’s influence has certainly fired up an inventive kitchen that is obviously held to a high standard. The focus is on fresh, local and seasonal ingredients, and when you have the entirety of Central Otaga nearby you can pretty much guarantee that the produce is going to be top of the line. The proteins are fantastic, the desserts are indulgent without being overly rich, and the cocktails are some of the best I’ve had in New Zealand.
Madam Woo isn’t nearly as renowned outside of Queenstown as hotspots like Fergberger and Rata, but make no mistake about it, this is one of the area’s MVPs when it comes to casual eats; certainly one of it’s most unique with it’s Malaysian street food inspiration. If you have to try only one thing make sure it’s either of several Hawker Rolls, which are available for both dine-in and takeaway. These fancied Malaysian street snacks are incredible, helped along by those large, impossibly crispy and buttery roti breads which wrap around fillings like sticky pork and fresh greens. Once I found out that Josh Emett, the Michelin trained brains behind Rata, is one of the figures behind the restaurant there was little surprise.
The award-winning Vudu Cafe is a favourite for Queenstown locals. Their muffins are exceptional, their coffee is fantastic, and their obvious focus on highlighting clean-eating with strong flavours is progressive. It’s a small, country-styled cafe on the edge of Queenstown, perfect for morning pick-me-ups and brunch. Though it is quite small, and given its popularity it’s best to takeaway (especially if you’re stocking up before a scenic road trip to somewhere like small-town Tapanui).
Blue Kanu is one of Queenstown’s most interesting new casual restaurants. It’s a lot darker than those that line the nearby wharf, adding to a moody little atmosphere that’s got a tonne of quirks from neat details like the on-entry tiki masks which are plastered over lights so the eyes are glowing, to the bright blue colours from the vibrant graffiti that hangs around the venue. The dedication to fusing Asian and Pacific styles of food is beautifully articulated on the menu, so expect a lot of seafood dishes to pair up with playful cocktails like the Coconut Caipirinha, a perfect blend of cachaca, coconut and fresh lime.
With their flagship perfectly positioned on the wharf, Patagonia Chocolates seems to be one of those institutions that both locals and tourists can’t get enough of. Truffles, desserts, gelato, sorbet, hot and cold drinks, and all other assorted chocolate-related goodness can be found here, but above all else I recommend grabbing one of their rich and creamy hot chocolates to takeaway while you’re strolling along the wharf. They’ve got a few locations around Queenstown – including at Queenstown airport – but the flagship on Beach Street and the one at the end of The Mall are the best.
AJ Hackett Bungy
Here is where it all began – the bungy craze I mean. AJ Hackett Bungy was the original location for this heart-pounding activity and there’s little doubt that it remains one of the best. I don’t think anyone would disagree that this is the perfect scene for both beginning and frequent jumpers once they walk out of the bustling reception area and lay eyes on that impressive Kawarau Bridge.
Safety is without question here – they’ve got a reputation to protect after all – so any (well, most) jitters a beginner may have are immediately stomped out by the friendly, reassuring staff who make jumping off a bridge above a fast-flowing river sound like the most relaxing thing in the world.
They do a nice – although very short – scenic zipline too, and I highly recommend superman-ing it down face first.
Shotover Jet is another big player in the sports and rec box for Queenstown, offering tourists an exhilarating and speedy ride down the terrifyingly narrow shotover river. The actual availability of the activity can be a bit volatile at times since if the water level is off they’ll cancel sessions for the day, but if you’re fortunate enough to get a go then expect to be well taken care of. They’ve been operating successfully since around 1970, so smooth sailing during this thrilling jetboat rush is a given.
Where to Stay
Notovel Queenstown Lakeside
If you’ve got a limited amount of time in Queenstown then right in the middle of the action is where you’ll want to stay. Novotel Queenstown Lakeside is a stunning property situated directly next to the waters of Wakatipu with one of the town’s best areas for bushwalking on the other side and the major areas of Queenstown a stone’s throw away (it takes about 5 minutes to walk to Fergburger from here; especially valuable for after-midnight burger cravings). The rooms are modest but comfortable, most featuring a balcony from which you can take in big puffs of fresh mountain air each morning.