Queenstown, Fiordland, Arrowtown
The drive from Franz Josef which is approximately 400 kilometres took us a little over 5 hours to reach Queenstown. The view along the way traversing along the West Coast past spectacular mountain ranges, native forests and lakes to the Haast Pass and then following the shores of Lake Hawea and Wanaka was simply spectacular and was an extension to the stunning views that we got to see on the Tranzalpine. There were several places where you could stop and take postcard pictures, however being on the coach, it was not possible to halt on the way except for refreshments and short toilet breaks. Hence, I would strongly recommend visitors travelling to South Island to rent a car and do a self drive as you can stop along the way where you feel to appreciate the fine beauty of the region.
Queenstown which has a population of around 11000 with a floating population going up to 30000 in winter as it is famous for skiing and is built around a long thin lake known as Lake Wakatipu. Also referred to as the Vegas by the Lake, the town probably got its name from a local gold digger who exclaimed that the town was fit for Queen Victoria. The town has year round appeal and boasts of a wide range of adventure and leisure activities to complement its breathtaking scenery. Nestled on the shores of the majestic Lake Wakatipu, the town overlooks the spectacular Remarkables mountain range. An ideal place for those who require an adrenalin rush, Queenstown is where you will find the first commercial bungy site in the world. Besides bungy, you can ski in winter, go white water rafting, do tandem hang-gliding, paragliding and even skydiving or jetboat down canyons. In the evening you can take a relaxing steamboat cruise, a gondola ride or stroll along one of the area’s scenic hiking tracks. You can even do a 4 x 4 or quad bike safari, try gold panning at the historic Arrowtown or visit the nearby Lake Wanaka which is just over 100 kilometres from Queenstown.
As the place is full of activities and extremely popular throughout the year it is advisable to pre-book most of your activities with your travel consulant in India especially during peak periods so that you can make most of your stay . A minimum duration of stay recommended is atleast 5 days in this region of Central Otago. Besides adventure, you can go wine tasting to try out some fine Pinot Noir in nearby Arrowtown and in winter along the Mount Ruapehu, you can ski from one of the four main mountain skifields – the Cadrona Alpine Resort, Coronet Peak, the Remarkables or the Treble Cone, all within short driving distances from Queenstown. The town also has a vibrant nightlife and some fine dining experiences along the lake front. And who can forget the famous trilogy of the Lord of the Rings which was filmed in several locations around this region and there are special tours that take you to the locations of where the film was shot.
After checking in at the hotel, I took a walk to the town centre known as the Queenstown Mall and thereafter I walked towards the Skyline Gondola which is just a 5 minutes walk from the downtown area of Queenstown. I boarded the gondola which in quick time took me upto the height of 450 metres which is almost 1500 feet from where you get the most spectacular view of Queenstown. The 220 degree panorama from the top offers stunning views of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables as well as the surrounding mountains. No wonder, the Skyline is one of the most popular sites of Queenstown and has attracted over 10 million visitors since it started its operation in 1967. The Skyline infact is reputed to be one of the steepest lifts in the Southern Hemisphere and has various observation decks up at Bob’s Peak offering awe-inspiring and breathtaking views. There is plenty on offer once you are at the altitude of 790 metres which is where the top terminal is located.
You can go down an 800 metre fast paced path on the Skyline luge and be taken back up again on a chairlift or tread your way back on a walking track. There is also a live performance of Maori Culture offered thru the Haka Experience, fine cuisine in exclusive dining restaurants or for adrenalin junkies there is mountain biking, para gliding as well as bungy jumping on offer. After doing loads of adventure stuff in Rotorua, I preferred to dine at one of the restaurants – a perfect place to be on a clear day, fine cuisine with stunning views of the region. It was a long day for me starting off from the Glacier Region and into the region of the Southern Lakes and after a fine meal I headed back to the hotel as I was looking forward to the next day to explore the region of Milford Sound.
Milford Sound is a 5 hours drive from Queenstown and the best option would be to do a seat-in-coach from Queenstown and then take a flight back the same day. However, the flight is subject to weather conditions. Milford Sound is located in the south west of the South Island and is a fiord which is situated within the Fiordland National Park which is part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site. The Te Wahipounamu which means the “place of greenstone” in Maori incorporates several national parks including Aoraki or Mount Cook, Fiordland, Mount Aspiring and the Westland.
Also known as the eight wonder of the world, a name given by Rudyard Kipling, Milford Sound takes its name from Milford Haven in Wales and the Cleddau River which flows into it is similarly named for its Welsh namesake. The Maori name for the sound is Piopiotahi which means the first native thrush. The region enjoys over 300 days of rainfall and is the wettest place in New Zealand and probably one of the wettest places in the world. Milford Sound runs 15 kilometres inland from the Tasman Sea and is surrounded by rock faces which rises over a thousand metres on either side. Nowhere in Fiordland do the mountains stand as tall, straight out of the sea. In the foreground stands Mitre Peak, a remarkable presence dominating the skyline.
I was booked on a Real Journeys scenic cruise and after the pick up from my hotel at around 8.30 am the coach went along the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu to Lumsden and onward to lake Te Anau. Along the way the scenery changed dramatically from tussock covered grasslands with flocks of sheep along the way to glacier hewn valleys closer to the Eglinton Valley and thru the breathtaking Hower Tunnel into Milford Sound. Along the way we stopped at the Fiordland National Park which is synonymous with waterfalls and fiords. Especially after a heavy rainfall, here you can see a multitude of small waterfalls cascading down rock mountain sides. We halted to take a walk to the Chasm – a place where the Cleddau River is squeezed through a narrow “chasm” dropping several metres. We made another halt at the spectacular mirror lakes and it didn’t surprise me that nature lovers come here to walk the Milford Track – one of New Zealand’s popular walks and there are over 14000 people who walk this track every year, most of them between late October and April.
Not surprisingly, the last few kilometers into Milford Sound, it rained heavily as expected thus creating dozens of waterfalls cascading down the cliffs, some of them running down thousands of metres. A view that attracts over 550000 tourists each year to this region making it one of New Zealand’s most visited tourist spots inspite of its remote location. Accumulated rainwater can at times cause portions of the rain forest to lose their grip on the sheer cliff faces, resulting in tree avalanches into the Sound. The regrowth of the rain forest after these avalanches can be seen in several locations along the Sound and hence this is one segment where we do not recommend you to take your own vehicle. Rather it is advisable to do a seat-in-coach tour and in case you find the day too long to travel to and fro from Queenstown, you could do an overnight cruise at Milford Sound – a truly romantic experience of the fiords especially for honeymooners. The day return coach would cost you around 215 NZD (Rs 6500 approx) , however the overnight cruise inclusive of the coach can cost you around 35 to 135 NZD more than a day return depending on which time of the year you are travelling. You also have option of doing one way scenic flight and one way coach and that would cost you around 564 NZD (Rs 17000 approx).
The boat tour ranges from a duration of 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on the departure times of the cruise and the company which operates the cruise. Besides spectacular scenery and stunning views, you can buy snacks and refreshments on board and you could even pre-order lunches with the cruise company. After a 2 hour view where we could see a few dolphins and several waterfalls including the famous three sisters rock formation where you see three waterfalls that come cascading down from the steep rocks, we headed back to the harbour. Unfortunately, the weather was not suited for the flights to operate and we had to return back by coach which was a long drive back to Queenstown – an opportunity to take a nap after a wonderful trip to Milford Sound.
The next morning, I had booked myself for the Queenstown Highlight Tour – a half day city tour which is highly recommended as this extensive tour starts with a visit to the Queenstown Hill where you get view points of the town, Lake Wakatipu down below and the Remarkables Mountain Range. The tour thereafter follows the route along the Frankton Arm and into the Wakatipu Basin, past stunning Lake Hayes, which is the home of several protected bird species. Thereafter, we had a halt at the mouth of the Kawarau Gorge, one of the many filming locations of the Lord of the Rings and on crossing the Kawarau river there are great views en route until we reach the next stop – the world famous AJ Hackett Bungy Bridge – the birthplace of bungy jumping. Here we did a short tour of 20 minutes known as the Secrets of Bungy which started with an 8 minute multi-media show at the Bungy Dome. The Bungy Centre is a state of the art facility which offers great viewing of the Kawarau suspension Bridge and the Bungy jumping platform.
As I had already done my Bungy jump at Rotorua a week ago, I was all geared up to take the Secrets of Bungy tour which is highly recommended to get an overview of behind the scenes look at how bungy jumping started, the technology used as well as restricted access to the live bungy jumping site. At the end you are handed over a certificate known as “the secrets of bungy tour confidentiality agreement” with your name printed – a good souvenir to take home from the birth place of bungy, especially for those who do not want to take a leap from the world’s first bungy site which was established in 1988. You also get a part of a bungy cord which is harnessed onto the jumper as a souvenir and it was surprising to know that the material used for the cord at some of the bungy sites come from Kochi, India!
Our next stop was a short drive up to the Gibbston Valley Winery – one of pioneering vineyards in the region which has gone to win several awards for its fine wine produce. After visiting the winery and doing some wine tasting, we had the opportunity to visit the Gibbston Valley Cheesery which is located on the site itself, probably the only place in New Zealand where you can get cheese and wine at the same place. The Gibbston Valley vineyard is nestled in the heart of Central Otago frequently hosts a series of wine tasting events at the winery and organizes private and public wine tours for those wishing to truly experience of the magic that this stunning wine growing region offers.
Located in one the most picturesque regions, it’s an ideal place to have an afternoon meal in the courtyard along with some fine wine and cheese to go in tow.. You could easily be spending a couple of hours at the Gibbston Valley especially if you visit the wine caves, do the cellar tour, along with wine tasting and have lunch. It was time for us to move on to our next stop which is the gold mining settlement of Arrowtown and the tour was so enjoyable that we did not realize that we had travelled over 21 kilometres from Queenstown to reach Arrowtown. I would highly recommend this tour to anyone who visits Queenstown as in one tour you get to experience spectacular views, do wine tasting and appreciate fine colourful history and colonial style architecture in Arrowtown.
This picturesque town retains its old world charm thru careful preservation of it’s colourful history and architecture. The Lakes District Museum is worth a visit and besides the museum, the town has fine restaurants, cafes and tracks for walking and mountain biking besides fishing, horse riding and gold panning experiences. This artistic town has on exhibit several galleries and exhibits fine displays of the European Settlement and the gold rush era of the 1800s. An excellent place to walk around and a visit to the “Remarkables Sweet Shop” is a must. Like many regions in and around Queenstown, Arrowtown too was one of the places where the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed and the gushing Arrow River and its bush-clad walkways is an internationally preferred site for location filming of movies and commercials and a delight for photographers as well. Our 3 hour tour concluded at Arrowtown and we headed on our way back to Queenstown via the world famous Shotover Canyons where I got off for a spectacular jet boat ride experience on the Shotover Jet which I had pre-booked for on the first day of my arrival in Queenstown.