The final minutes of our flight into Queenstown were jaw dropping. We flew right in between massive mountains as we made our descent to the airport. Announcements overhead indicated several times that use of electronic devices was not permitted on the tar mat and it was clear why. We walked amazed at the landscape around us. Thank you for the welcome, New Zealand!
There are a few options for transportation from the airport to Queenstown including cabs, public bus, private shuttle, and uber. I had planned on taking the bus into town but took an uber since our Airbnb was ready early, giving us the opportunity to drop our bags and freshen up. The uber cannot pick up directly at the airport so we had to walk a few minutes to where the car rental places are located. While we walked, we noticed our natural right sided nature was disrupting oncoming walkers- I do not know why this didn’t cross our mind sooner but we had to adjust to left sided behavior. Watching our uber drive was like a strange video game we were grasping to learn the mechanics of- while we did not have a car for a few days, we were hoping it would help by trying to follow our driver’s actions. Lean left!
The Airbnb description said it was up a hill but it was really up a steep large hill so we were very glad to have chosen the uber. It was perfect for our stay in Queenstown- very practical with plenty of space for two people. As long as you are aware that is it quite a climb up (we did this once) or a $10 car ride (we also did this once), it is very comfortable and affordable.
After washing away the discomfort of over 24 hours of travel, we were ready to explore Queenstown! It was a 30 minute walk all down hill to the center of the town. We couldn’t help but stop every several feet in awe of the surrounding scenery. Queenstown sits in what is referred to as a basin since the mountains contain the lake in the middle and makes for such a picturesque landscape.
I do not know if we had expectations of Queenstown but it is jam packed with all sorts of store fronts and tourism. There are so many options for food and shopping. We walked around as we matched our Google map with many landmarks to the layout of the town. Down by the marina, several boats were stationed where you can rent a boat, paddle board, parasail, book a jet boat experience, and more.
Look up and see the Skyline where you can bungy, paraglide, take a gondola ride, luge, star gaze and more. There is no shortage on things to do in Queenstown!
Hungry from all the travel, we decided on a nutritious lunch at Rehab. There are tons of options from grain bowls both hot and cold, salad options and fruit smoothies and bowls. I got the peanut and cacao bowl and Kevin order the salmon bowl.
We were both so satisfied with our food as it was exactly what we needed. As we happily ate, we both looked at each other… it was just 1PM and the bungy we had been debating each day leading up to the trip had a last run at 2:40PM. Kevin smiled, encouraged by our exceptionally on time flights and this healthy meal- we booked the AJ Hackett Kawarau Bridge Bungy giving us both little time to marinate on the idea for very long.
Read all the details of the bungy jump experience!
The bus ride back to Queenstown certainly had a completely different atmosphere as everyone conquered their jump/swing. We were dropped back into town and wondered- what does one do to celebrate jumping off a bridge? A meal sounded right but I was concerned about the condition of my stomach after so much nausea inducing activity. We found Taco Medic and figured it would be a good way to test the integrity of my stomach.
From the start we loved the vibe- the three guys working the place (one of which was from Philly- small world!) and the music blasting, this would work well. They immediately noticed the obvious writing on our hands, asking how it went. While i did not want to relieve it so soon, it was finally beginning to feel good- we bungy jumped.
We ordered two tacos- The Bajaman (crispy deep fried fish of the day topped with creamy spiced jalapeño sauce and tomato salsa) and The Bushman (slow-roasted pork belly topped with a sweet onion reduction and pork crackling), both of which were super tasty and flavorful.
These are small so if you are going with an appetite, order at least two if not three tacos. The more you get, the more you can try! Would definitely recommend stopping by this fun spot in Queenstown.
Continuing to explore, it is amazing how much is crammed into this little downtown area. The next store to catch my interest was Cookie Time. They do things with cookies that one can only dream of! Shakes, sandwiches, shots, and of course the cookies themselves.
Way too overwhelmed with choices and as much as I wanted to biggest most chocolaty item on the menu, I opted for a simple fresh, warm cookie. And for no reason I could find, it was buy on get one free! In retrospect we should have each just got two cookies but I ordered the Chocolate Chunk and Kevin ordered the Chocolate Caramel Fudge. Both were so amazing and I want more right now! What is it about fresh warm cookies that just penetrates the soul?
Having snacked, we wanted one more thing to complete our evening eating and after reviewing the multiple pubs in the area, we settled on Speight’s Ale House where Kevin enjoyed a glass of the Distinction Ale.
We also got an order of the seafood chowder and the Cesar salad- both of which came in enormous portions.
The salad was very good and the chowder was different than we were used to- it was more watery but had chunks of whole seafood. It took a few tries to grow on us and liked it in the end.
Since we had a long hike planned for tomorrow, we went to the local food store to pick up some groceries. Having researched hiking essentials, we purchased bananas, granola bars, oatmeal, canned chicken and tuna, tortilla wraps, apples, and knor-like pasta packets. Since bags are an extra fee, we added a reusable grocery bag to become our pantry- a souvenir!
PRO TIP- check that cans have pull tabs and that ready in three min meals you have everything you need (milk, butter, etc).
The moment we had both silently been dreading arrived- the climb back to our Airbnb. Enough time had passed since our walk down to erased how steep some portions. We optimistically started the journey ascending higher and higher, our burning thighs distracted by the incredible sunset.
After what felt like an eternity, we made it to the top of the hill- victorious and ready for a shower. More importantly, we stayed awake all day in hoping to reset our internal clocks and went to bed easily exhausted from a very long and exciting first day in New Zealand.
We slept well through the night, only waking up a few hours before the alarm but felt well rested. Today’s plan was to conquer the difficult journey atop Ben Lomond for a rewarding view. With an electric water kettle (our new favorite gadget), making oatmeal was a very easy and healthy breakfast to prepare. We left the Airbnb a little after 7AM hoping to start the trail within the hour.
Arriving the bottom of the Queenstown Skyline gondola, we spotted the start of the Tiki Trail just to the left. It was just after 8AM and expected to take sever hours round trip to complete.
The Tiki Trail was way more challenging that we anticipated. Almost entirely vertical, this hour journey took a physical toll that we were not expecting. While we felt rested, our bodies clearly did not catch up.
We are in relative good shape so it was disappointing to get the to the top of the Skyline and feel physical exhaustion.
I wanted to continue forward- it was on our itinerary- we had to go to the top! Kevin voted to stop due to the risk of physical injury that could ruin the rest of the trip. I had read the final portions of Ben Lomond were incredibly steep. Meeting halfway, we decided to go on until we reached a point that did not make sense for us physically. We walked for about a half hour before the forest revealed some spectacular views.
Once we spotted a sign that indicated 2.5 hours to the Ben Lomond summit, we decided to turn around. It was very disappointing to not make it to the top, especially as I do consider ourselves in good shape. I think our bodies were still adjusting to the new time and all the travel from the day before (intense hiking later in the trip would validate this!). Perhaps if this was on a different day of the trip we would have been successful. Gives us another reason to return to Queenstown in the future, right?
While I know people that hike to Tiki Trail continue straight through to Ben Lomond, perhaps in the future we should take the gondola up (steep $40 round trip price) to save energy and stamina.
We spent some time exploring the Queenstown Skyline– there is so much to do! There is a luge track, mountain bike park, the opportunity to paraglide or bungy jump, as well as star gaze at night.
The gondola price is a bit ridiculous at $40 round trip per person so we hiked down the Tiki Trail which while easier descending, it was critical to pay attention to foot placement down the vertical inclines.
A vacant spot existed in our day- we gained approximately 4 hours back so we began brainstorming what we could do. There was the popular jet boating activity but a recent accident over the weekend left us a tad hesitant. Kevin recollected all the vineyards we passed while en route to bungy jumping- I am glad he was paying attention on the bus since I was overcome with distress and nausea. We struggled with our phones to try and make contact for this last minute reservation (when to use a 0 or a + proved to be a bit of a stumper!) but a friendly Kiwi lent us a phone to make the reservation. We were in for a 1PM departure on the Original Wine Tour Experience with Queenstown Wine Trail.
Read the details of the Central Otago Wine Region!
We made it back into downtown Queenstown around 5:30PM and with so many places to eat, another tough decision was upon use for dinner. After reviewing several restaurants (thank you for free Wifi Queenstown!), we sat at the bar of Blue Kanu for a Polyn-Asia meal.
The menu here was unique and we (of course) had difficulty choosing. Kevin ordered a beer and ordered the curried lamb dish with kumara (sweet potatoes) snake beans and coconut yogurt. With a mild heat that burned throughout his meal (I will never understand the enjoyment!), he really enjoyed the blend of flavors together.
I ordered the duck nachos which other than having red flakes covering the entire thing (was advertised as not spicy but I definitely picked up on it), it was was fun dish. The fat of the duck, the airy crisp of the wonton, the avocado and the whipped goat cheese- it really was a great combination and surprisingly very filling.
With both of us retaining a burn in our mouths, the only solution was to have ice cream at Patagonia Creamery. Walking down to the lake with our giant ice cream cones, I was so happy and content.
We sat for awhile, enjoying our ice cream, observing people, and counting the number of Fergburger bags- what is the deal with Fergburger??? I understand it is a giant burger but almost every third person was eating a Fergburger… was it worth the hype? The line was constantly out the door. Maybe if we have time and stomach space, we will give it a try and decide for ourselves.
Too full and sore to make the journey back home, we shelled out the $10 for a ride back to our Airbnb- well worth it. Before bed, I checked on the weather for tomorrow’s Mildford Sound journey and Wednesday’s Mt Cook hike. While the weather looked perfect out of Queenstown for Tuesday, Wednesday was looking like a rain out at Mt Cook. How could we rearrange the days to fit Mt Cook in? We had already missed Ben Lomond and I did not want missing things to be a new trend. Hoping for a change in the weather, we went to sleep and would check in the morning.
Immediately checking the weather, there was no change in Wednesday’s Mt Cook forecast- rain, sometimes heavy, would occur for most of the day. The options were forming- 1) we try and hike it in the rain but missing seeing actual Mt Cook – 2) we hope the weather ends earlier than the predicted 4PM so we can hike after the rain moves out – 3) we change our plans, skip Christchurch, find a place to stay and hike Mt Cook Thursday when the weather looked beautiful – 4) or we skip it. This is certainly one of the disadvantages of going to New Zealand for such a short time- it gives very little flexibility to account for things that are out of your control, such as the weather. Unsure which option to go with, we favored option 2 hoping to hike it in the evening. For now, we focused on the journey to Mildford Sound!
We packed up our bags and waved bye to our comfy Airbnb– we would stay here again in the future as it had all the amenities snugly fit into a studio. Going to miss this beautiful view of the basin!
Our first stop was to pick up our car at Apex Car Rentals– an exciting and nervous time in the trip. We loved the car we were given- a Toyota Corolla but it was more like a Prius and was very new with our starting mileage at 25,572km. Apex Car Rentals made the process very easy as we signed the paperwork, gave us a “driving in NZ” guide, took pictures of the car, and given the keys. Since we had a valid driver’s license written in English, we did not need an International Driver’s license.
Kevin took the first round behind the wheel. Before pulling out of the stop, we reviewed the rules of driving in New Zealand before gingerly driving around our first round-a-bout. Since we were going to be at Mildford Sound for most of the day, we were told about free parking around the Queenstown Gardens. Happy to have this insider tip, we slowly made our way there, constantly vocalizing “LEAN LEFT” to avoid entering the wrong lane. Turns out this insider intell is a well known tip- it took us awhile to find an open spot. Then our first encounter parallel parking as a left sided driver. Thankfully we found a generous spot but it still took some maneuvering to get the car in close enough.
Celebrating a successful left sided five minutes drive, Kevin treated himself to a coffee from Patagonia Coffee Roasters– his new favorite discovery of a long black. Wanting a snack before the flight to Milford Sound, we grabbed a meat pie at Fergbaker– steak, mushrooms, and blue cheese… sooooo yumm! Why are meat pies not a thing in the US?
We sat and enjoyed the view of the basin before heading over to check in for our flight to Mildford Sound. While this was one of our most expensive excursions, for the time we had in New Zealand this saved us for driving 8 hours one way to the sound, basically two days of the trip.
We arrived at the Real Journeys store front around 10:30AM for an 11:15AM check in hoping they would take us to the airport early. The staff told us that the final weather report comes out at 11:15AM and to check back in then for the final go-ahead. Since there wasn’t that much time left, we sat in the office reading about the other trips they offer.
As 11:15AM came around, we got back up to the counter for the final weather check. The staff member got on the phone with the airport and upon hanging up promptly reported “The plane can fly there but cannot land.”
The weather there did not permit for landing, so the best they could offer was a 45 minute flight to the Sound and then loop back to Queenstown. Our choices were to take the flight or get a refund. Asking several times that if the weather is bad what we would expect to see from the air, we did not give a confident “yes, you will still experience the wonder of the sound!”. Apparently, they are lucky to have 50 calendar days a year where they successfully have this flight that can land. Had I known that, we may have restructured the trip instead of banking on this shortcut. We also would not be alone on the plane so there was no guarantee that we would have a window seat on the correct side of the plane to see. With so many variables and a lot of money, we decided to take the refund.
It became obvious now. We had the car already and the day was now wide open- we would move Mt Cook up immediately. A three hour journey, we would still have enough day light to complete at least the 3 hour trail. This gave us little time to mourn missing Mildford sound…another itinerary item we were forced to miss. It is very sad to go home and not seen the wonders of Milford Sound, but it seems like we are developing a list of to-do’s quickly for a return journey. Perhaps we can even complete the three day backpacking trek through the sound- look for a bright side.
As we walked to the car, we diverged to a pit stop at Fergburger. Knowing we would now be leaving Queenstown, we needed to know what this place was all about. The line was fortunately the least crowded we had seen it and the five minute wait got us to order and another ten for our burgers. I ordered the Sweet Bambi (wild fiordland deer, brie cheese, boysenberry and caramelized onion chutney, aioli) and Kevin order the classic Fergburger featuring prime NZ beef. Neither of us were hungry so these would be snacks for later. The final verdict would have to wait!
Insider tip: The line is almost always enormous, but you do not need to wait in it and can order ahead of time. Call in your order and you will be given a number. When your number appears on the screen, that means your order is ready. I am not sure why so many people wait in the traditional line as they do not try and keep this a secret.
It was sad to say good bye to Queenstown so quickly. We both really loved the vibe of Queenstown. Everyone is young and from somewhere else- in search of a new home or just dropping. This constant turnover keeps everything new, fresh, and exciting for locals and visitors alike.
There are so many things to do in this area and we know we barely scratched the surface. Things we missed include a proper jet boating experience, summitting Ben Lomond, hiking Queenstown Hill, all the activities at the Skyline, conquering the Nevis bungy/swing, trying all the different food offerings, and going to Mildford Sound.
It is important to know your limits, itinerary and travel goals. We had to adjust several times in Queenstown and with each one it was due to things beyond our control but we were still able to compensate. Having an eye on the weather for those dependent activities is critical to make change ahead of time. Knowing what is in and around the area can help fill gaps you may not have anticipated. Since we now had two major shifts in the itinerary, I am curious what our total number will be by the end of the trip!
Continue reading about Mt Cook and the South Island!