Still basking in the happy glow of Vanuatu, I landed in one of my favorite cities in the world – Auckland, New Zealand. But on this trip Auckland is merely an idyllic stopover on the way to my true destination, Queenstown New Zealand. I have one night in Auckland on each end of my Queenstown stop to enjoy my favorite restaurants and the summer energy of this great city. With only a one night stopover, my usual apartment rental was not an option and unfortunately the Westin I’ve stayed at before is no longer a Westin so I had to resort to the hotel I stayed at on my first visit to New Zealand, the Hilton Auckland.
Located right at the end of Princes Wharf with marvelous harbor views, the Hilton is beautiful but usually pretty expensive so I’ve avoided it on my last few trips. But thanks to Hilton’s new cash and points redemption option (borrowed liberally from one of my favorite features of the Starwood program) I was able to get a decent deal on a room.
It was a perfect, sunny day and after checking in and dropping my bags in the room I headed right back out to the Viaduct to enjoy the afternoon. I stopped for dinner at my favorite restaurant (Buffalo) for what just might be the best New Zealand green-lipped mussels on the planet – paired, of course, with a deliciously fruity Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Heaven on earth and the best meal I’d had since Thailand.
The next morning I lightened my load a bit by leaving a bag with the bell desk to be retrieved on my last night in Auckland and headed back to the airport for the short hop down to the South Island and the charming lakeside town of Queenstown.
Queenstown New Zealand – Alpine Paradise
From the happiest country in the world (Vanuatu) to the town voted as the friendliest in the world by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine it seemed I’d just traded island bliss for alpine paradise. From the minute I stepped out of the airport, the clean air and the fragrant aroma of pine engulfed me. It was just a short ride to my hotel, the Kawarau Hilton, situated right on Lake Wakatipu just across from Queenstown. The hotel had just opened a few months prior and everything about it was shiny and new. But the best part was definitely the lake and mountain views from my room.
Originally a gold mining town in the 1860’s and surrounded by a mountain range so remarkable it is actually called The Remarkables, today’s Queenstown is widely considered the adventure capital of the world. The colorful downtown area is bordered by the bay of sparkling-blue Lake Wakatipu on one side and snow-capped mountains on the other making it one of the most visually stunning towns I have ever laid eyes on in all of my travels.
Since it was overcast and cool when I landed, I decided to spend the afternoon planning out my adventures for the next day (when the forecast called for sunny weather). Queenstown offers all sorts of adrenaline-inducing activities that I, as a reasonable adult, would likely never attempt: bungee jumping, sky diving, hang-gliding, canyoning and even something called the world’s highest sky swing (whatever that is).
There are also less life-threatening, yet still exciting, activities like jetboating, luge rides and river cruises. Both bungee jumping (1988) and jetboating (1970) were invented in New Zealand and they are the two most iconic activities to do while you’re here.
So, since I’d ruled out bungee jumping a long time ago, a jetboat ride was definitely on my to-do list. As well as a ride up the mountain on a gondola to take in the panoramic views over Queenstown. Other than that, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. So, I popped into the hotel’s activity center to check out my options. After talking with the helpful girl in the office and perusing some brochures, I decided to start my day exploring Queenstown with a gondola ride and luge ride at the top of the mountain, followed by an afternoon in the nearby town of Glenorchy to include a nature hike, jetboat ride down the scenic Dart River and a 4WD safari through the countryside that is considered New Zealand’s “Hollywood” due to the vast number of movies and commercials filmed there.
Alpine Paradise – Day 2
I awoke the next morning to much better weather than the day before and was excited to get out and see some of Queenstown. I took the hotel’s free shuttle into town at 8am and spent the morning walking around and enjoying the waterfront area along the amazingly clear lake. Next, I headed over to the Skyline gondola station for my ride up the mountain. It was a beautiful ride up and I was blown away by the panoramic views from the top. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better view anywhere in the world. I could have stayed up there all day.
But of course, adventure called and I hopped on the chairlift even higher on the mountain to take the first of two luge rides I’d bought with my gondola ticket. The luge rides were super fun and got up to speeds that were more than enough adrenaline for me! By the time I finished at the luge, the paragliders had taken over the mountain and there were literally dozens of them flying around me near the top of the mountain. The billowing, colorful gliders managed to make an already spectacular view even more unbelievable. I didn’t want to leave this amazing scene but it was time to head back down the mountain to catch my ride to Glenorchy.
The Dart River
Though I don’t normally care for anything resembling a group tour, the girl in the hotel’s activity center had convinced me that the Dart River trip had enough of a small group feel that I wouldn’t mind it. I met up with a dozen or so others in town that were also on my trip and we got on the bus for the 45-minute scenic drive up to the village of Glenorchy, also known as the “Gateway to Paradise.” This tiny, historic town is the launch point for some of the best hiking in all of New Zealand. Glenorchy and the nearby town of Paradise also served as part of Middle-Earth during the filming of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
From Glenorchy, our large group was split up into smaller groups and we were on our way. Our group of 10 would first be doing a 4WD tour of Mount Aspiring National Park, followed by a nature hike through the forest and finally topping off our day with a jetboat ride down the Dart River.
Mount Aspiring National Park is a beautiful expanse of back-country where some of the first Maori people settled. This is the area known as New Zealand’s Hollywood and our guide rattled off a long list of movies and commercials that have been filmed here including the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Vertical Limit, the Chronicles of Narnia and many others. (Fun fact: those mountains in the Coors ads are in fact The Remarkables, not the Rockies.) Through much of the summer, this part of the park is rented out to film crews from all over the world. None were filming today though and we had the entire area all to ourselves.
Next up was the nature hike so we climbed out of the 4WD for an educational walk through ancient Beech forests made up of trees that are not actually Beech but were mistakenly labeled as such by British botanists during colonial times. We also learned that there are no native animals to New Zealand other than a few bird and lizard species. All other animals were introduced to the islands mostly by the British and these introductions have wreaked havoc on the environmental viability of the forests. Conservation efforts continue to try to save the Beech forests.
Finally, we hiked our way toward the Dart River to meet up with our jetboat. This was the part of the day I was most looking forward to and our hi-speed ride down the river did not disappoint. It was 90-minutes worth of thrilling twists, turns and 360° spins as we barreled our way through the mountains on our way back to Glenorchy. Yes, we did get pretty wet on the ride but thank goodness they give you rain gear, especially since that’s glacier runoff in the river (i.e. it’s freezing!). It was an action-packed day and I was beat by the time I made it back to the hotel that night.
Last Day in Queenstown
The next day, as predicted, I awoke to gray skies and thickening clouds. I didn’t have too much planned for the day and decided to just take it easy and relax. Besides, I’d spent a small fortune on all the activities the day before and it was time to cut back on the mass cash exodus. I slept in a bit and then took a late morning shuttle into town for lunch at Queenstown’s most famous burger joint, Fergberger.
Created 12 years ago by a young guy who was disappointed with the late night food options after a night out at the bars, Fergberger has morphed into a Queenstown institution and a must visit when you’re in town. The restaurant is open 21 hours a day and you’ll find lines spilling out on the street during most of those hours. The burgers are giant and delicious…and, by the way, that young guy is now a multi-millionaire. Just goes to show that sometimes even a drunk idea is a good idea. Rumor has it he will never expand so the only place in the world you’ll be able to try an authentic Fergberger is right here in Queenstown.
Despite the weather, I wandered around town a bit before returning to the hotel to be productive and get some work done with the rest of my day.
The next morning, it was again time to return to the airport for my flight back to Auckland. I had one last night in the city before my flight home to the U.S. When I landed in Auckland it was rainy and melancholy which sort of mirrored my mood now that this awesome trip is finally coming to an end. I returned to the Hilton to check-in before returning to my favorite restaurant for one last great meal. It seems unreal that tomorrow it will be time to get on that plane and make the long 2-flight haul back to Atlanta.
Tomorrow, a wrap-up of what has been a truly amazing trip.