Queenstown Travel Guide

Why should you hire a car in Queenstown?

Let's face it, while it's famous for its nightlife, no one visits Queentown to spend their entire vacation in the city. The main draw of the town is the surrounding nature and its opportunities for all sorts of outdoor activities. Of course, the only way to experience as much as possible of it is to have a car.

Top ways to enter Queenstown

Most travelers will enter Queenstown either via a direct flight from abroad or via a connection with one of the three main cities of New Zealand. The Queenstown Airport is relatively small, with just one terminal serving both international and domestic flights. It is located about 7km east of the city in the town of Frankton. How you will pick-up your hired car at the airport will depend on which provider you have chosen. The largest suppliers have service desk at the terminal, while others can be found a short walk away. Finally, some suppliers may meet you at the airport and provide you with a shuttle service to their location.

As there is no train service to Queenstown, the only other way those that haven't already picked up a car elsewhere can reach the city is via bus. Most buses arrive and depart from Athol Street car park in the city centre. Offices of various car hire companies can be easily reached from there.

Top destinations and activities

  • Skyline - Visitors can ride in a gondola up to the top of Bob's Peak overlooking the town. Views to the surrounding mountains and across the lake are not all that awaits those at the top. A restaurant, for those that are hungry, and a cafe, for those not as hungry, sit at the top with panoramic views. Children and those young at heart can choose between the luge tracks (scenic and advanced) and ride their way down the mountain before taking a chairlift to the top and going again. Perhaps the most unique opportunity is that of stargazing. For an hour after sunset, visitors can look through telescopes at the top of the mountain. This is also available in winter with down jackets and hot chocolate awaiting those that brave the cold.
  • Nightlife - Queenstown is a travel destination that is known for its party scene. The nightlife usually goes all week long. From dive bars popular with backpackers to finer wine and cocktail joints for the older folks, there is a night-time spot for any visitor. Most of the 150 or more licensed establishments can be found in the Central Business District. If you are not the party type and are looking for a more peaceful getaway, it is highly suggested that you consider staying outside of the CBD.
  • Skiing - With four world class ski areas and resorts nearby, the closest of which is only a 20 minute drive from the city, skiers and snowboarders of all experience levels will find a slope fit for them.
  • Outdoor Activities - Queenstown is set among some of the greatest outdoors around. Both from the city itself and in the surrounding area, there are numerous tracks (or trails) for walking. These include short, easy tracks to lengthy, advanced tracks. There are also many bike trails. Fishing and hunting can be enjoyed in the area, too. And, of course, in the nearby National Parks, climbers can summit stunning peaks.
  • Adventure Sports - In addition to the standard outdoor activities, Queenstown offers many adventure sports, having become the adventure tourism capital of the world. A story of the first European to tour the area includes him being lead on an extreme whitewater rafting trip, which is now extremely popular around the city. Ziplines, snowboarding, skiing, and bungee jumping are also offered in the city.
  • Arrowtown - Just to the east of Queenstown, Arrowtown is a former mining colony that was home to many Chinese miners. A historic display of the huts from these times can be walked around for free. Participating in panning for gold is also possible in the town. For the more adventurous, a trip via a 4WD vehicle or mountain bike can be made to Macetown, an abandoned mining settlement further into the mountains. The "road" follows the old wagon trail and offers incredible scenery and crosses multiple streams.
  • Golf - With seven different courses within an hour's drive of the city, Queenstown can certainly be considered a golf destination. Millbrook Resort in nearby Arrowtown is perhaps the most famous of the courses having hosted multiple tournaments of the New Zealand Open. It's possible to play on the courses during every season. Of course, the area also offers a wealth of opportunities for drinks or a meal after golfers complete their rounds.

Ideas for a day-trip

  • Otago Central Rail Trail - Queenstown is on the west side of the Otago Region. Not far away is the Otago Central Rail Trail, a former railroad turned bicycle bath and the original Great Ride. The 153km trail follows the former route of the Otago Central Railway. The ends of the trail are located in Ranfurly and Clyde. The trail also passes through other small towns, where dining and accommodation are available. It's possible to complete a section of the train or arrange for return transportation to pick up your car where you started.
  • Glenorchy - This tiny town located at the north end of Lake Wakatipu might not seem as a great destination in an of itself, but the road there is the reason it makes this list. The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is one of the most scenic roads in New Zealand, and therefore the world. The road travels along the eastern side of the lake with views of the mountains on the west side. The drive can take anywhere from 25 minutes to a couple of hours or more depending on how many times one stops to take in the scenery, picnic, or walk in the bush. The road conditions should generally be favorable in winter with no chains needed, though checking ahead of time is never a bad idea.
  • Wine Tour - Queenstown and the neighboring Central Otago region probably form the southernmost area of wine production in the world. Some 200 wineries can be found less than an hour's drive from Queenstown. Driving east on Highway 6, one can find many vineyards around Gibbston and further in an around Cromwell. The region is known for its Pinot Noir, but various white varieties of grapes are also grown. Many wineries have tasting rooms and some have restaurants serving gourmet food paired with their wine. Driving around for the day and visiting various cellars just could be the highlight of your trip; just make sure someone serves as the designated driver.
  • Mount Aspiring National Park - Just north of Fiordland, Mount Aspiring National Park can not be missed by outdoor enthusiasts, especially mountaineers. The park sits on the southern end of the Southern Alps and has an extensive remote wilderness. It also has high mountains, the highest among them being Mount Aspiring at over 3,000 meters. Visitors might also recognize a portion of the park from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy as Dan's Paddock was the filming location for Isengard. The Rees-Dart Track brings walkers through that area. Lake Wanaka nearby is also worth adding to your route.

Further destinations

  • Christchurch - The unofficial capital of the South Island lies 500 kilometers northeast of Queenstown. The third-largest city in New Zealand, Christchurch often serves as the gateway to the South Island and its natural attractions. The city is, however, also a destination in its own right for its museums, culture, dining, and nightlife. With not quite half of the residents of the South Island inhabiting the greater Christchurch area, any visitor wanting to see what New Zealand life is about shouldn't miss the city.
  • Dunedin - Around 300 km east of Queenstown, Dunedin is the second-largest city on the South Island. The oft-photographed Victorian-era railway station, which is possible the steepest street in the world, and the area's surrounding beaches are all good reasons for tourists to include this city in their itinerary. In addition, taking a ride on the Taieri Gorge Railway, a scenic tourist train to Middlemarch is something railway fans can not miss. The train passes over many bridges and aqueducts, includes guided commentary, and passes through scenery that can't be seen from your car. The train even stops or slows down for riders to take pictures.
  • Fiordland - Located on the southwestern corner of the island, Fiordland is a large area full of, you guessed it, fjords. Most of the area is encompassed by the Fiordland National Park, the largest in New Zealand. The most accessible part of the park is the section between Te Anau and Milford Sound, the latter of which is a great place to enjoy on a boat tour or cruise.
  • Mount Cook National Park - Home to the highest mountain in New Zealand, Mt Cook, this national park mostly consists of high alpine terrain. A town of the same name sits just outside of the park and serves as a center for tourist activities and a base camp for climbers. While no permits are needed to climb Mt. Cook, fees are required to overnight in the huts. Do not let the mountain's height fool you, the routes to the summit are very technical, requiring both rock climbing and glacial climbing experience. If you do not have the proper skills, guides and lessons are available along with mountains that provide an easier introduction.
  • Glacier Country - Centered around Westland National Park, State Highway 6 brings travelers through the heart of the area. Of the many glaciers, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are the most famous. The Franz Josef Glacier is perhaps the most accessible glacier in the world and thus sees a large number of tourists every year. The Fox Glacier is not as impressive but also less crowded. Guided tours are available, but it is also permitted to walk to the glaciers on your own. Ice axes and crampons are required to actually walk on the glaciers.
  • Kahurangi National Park - New Zealand's second-largest national park, Kahurangi is located in the Northwest corner of the South Island. Parts of the park are wilderness while other parts have a network of trails on which hikers visit high plateaus, scenic rivers, and coastal forests. The park is the most tropical park in the country.
  • Stewart Island - The southernmost island of New Zealand, Stewart Island is a nature lovers paradise. The island, while much smaller than the North and South Islands, has 700km of coastline. Ferries to the island depart from Bluff, near Invercargill. Since there are very few roads on the island anyway, one shouldn't worry whether cars are allowed on the ferry or not. Outside of the town of Oban, where most of the small population live, the best way to get around is by walking on one of the numerous paths.

Traffic and parking tips

Though there are many gravel roads and off-road tracks that could make for great adventures, car hire companies, in most cases, prohibit travel on unsealed roads, off-road, and above the snow line.

It is often difficult to find a parking space in the CBD of Queenstown. On-street parking is free, but limited to two hours during daytime. All but one of the car parks in the city are paid parking. The free lot is located on Park Street. It is also worth noting that many hotels in the city charge for parking.

The New Zealand Transport Agency has a map with current traffic conditions and road closure

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