What make the South Island of New Zealand so famous and loved by travellers are undoubtedly its gorgeous mountains. I told you about the beauty of Mount Cook in a previous article, but the most stunning mountain views you can find in the country will definitely be in the Queenstown-Wanaka area, the alpine paradise of New Zealand. Here’s a list of 10 great things to do if you’re travelling there during summer, including two fantastic free camp sites. Ready for a lot of fun and amazement?
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1. Walk the Kelvin Heights Peninsula Track
Let’s say it upfront: I didn’t like Queenstown. I didn’t like the huge traffic, the streets packed with tourists, the countless travel agencies and their garish signs and the fact that every backpacker or hotel gets fully booked weeks in advance (be very careful when you’re heading there!). But what you can’t take away from Queenstown is its incredible location.
Mountains, lake, hiking options, it has it all. To enjoy the sight at its best and away from the crowds, take the 15-20 minutes’ drive to Kelvin Heights, a peninsula facing the city across the Frankston Arm. You’ll be on your own there, or almost. There’s a 90 minutes track going around the Peninsula with amazing views over Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the summits of the Remarkables. You can also practice your swing on the beautiful golf course and last but not least, as Kelvin Heights isn’t directly set at the foot of the mountain, it gets quite a lot more sunshine than Queenstown. Enough to convince you?
2. Drive to Glenorchy
The 45 kilometers road between Queenstown and Glenorchy might be one of the most scenic drives of New Zealand. It’s really gorgeous with Lake Wakatipu on your left and mountains on your right, but don’t forget to focus on the road while driving! There are a few places to pull up for a quick picture, including Bennetts Bluff lookout where the image below was taken.
After Glenorchy, the road becomes quickly a gravel track in poor condition so unless you really want to go somewhere specific around the Mount Aspiring National Park I would recommend stopping at the end of the asphalted part. Another option to get there is by… walking via the Routeburn Track, a multi-day hike starting between Te Anau and Mildford Sound in the Fjordland National Park.
If you’re looking for a campsite close to Queenstown, the only option with a non-self-contained vehicle is 12 Mile Delta (a DOC campsite, 13$/night/person), also located near the Glenorchy Road. The free campsites listed below are closer to Wanaka.
3. Spend money in a special activity
Queenstown is the best place in New Zealand to spend money on something cool and unforgettable like a bungee jump, river rafting, skydiving or a flight over the mountains. Yes, all these activities are expensive but it’s a once in a lifetime experience and you might never come back to Queenstown! I myself did a helicopter tour, not there but at Fox Glacier on the West Coast. It was a last minute decision and my only regret is that I haven’t done it in an even more scenic location! It cost a lot of money but it’s something I’ll always remember. So even if you’re travelling on a budget, don’t forget to treat yourself if you can. You’re on holidays after all…
4. Climb up the Queenstown Hill
Don’t leave Queenstown until you’ve climbed up the Queenstown Hill and enjoyed the fantastic lookout at the summit. It’s a short and popular walk, quite steep but it can easily be done in 2 or 3 hours return. From the top, you’ll have the best possible view over Lake Wakatipu below and the mountains all around. You might even see a plane taking off from Queenstown airport and flying over the Remarkables on your left…
5. Camp next to Lake Dunstan
If you’re driving from Queenstown to Wanaka, you can either choose the mountain road via Cardrona (Crown Range Road, closed at the time I was there because of landslips) or follow State Highway 6. From Cromwell you can again choose between staying on the West side of Lake Dunstan or going on the East side via State Highway 8, in the direction of Christchurch (connecting again with State Highway 6 after the lake with a very short detour). The view is much better on the East side and that’s where you’ll find the Bendigo campsite, even accessible for non-self-contained vehicles. It’s free so it’s quite basic with only a few “portaloo” toilets, but the location above the lake is really amazing. It’s close to the road but there isn’t much traffic at night time so that’s not a problem. Don’t miss the stunning view at sunrise!
6. Hike to Roy’s Peak
One of the most arduous yet very popular day-walk of New Zealand (16kms return with an elevation gain of 1,258m) but probably the most beautiful view of the South Island. Hiking to Roy’s Peak is an absolute must-do! The higher you get, the better the view over Wanaka Lake will be and the 360° lookout from the summit is stunning, gorgeous, extraordinary… I’m missing words to describe it! Here are a few pictures instead:
Don’t mix up Roy’s Peak with Rob Roy track, also in the Wanaka area. This one leads to Rob Roy Glacier and is apparently another great day hike. I didn’t do it as it’s at the end of a 30km gravel road with many flooded creeks on the last part – I wasn’t sure my old rental car would make it alive…
7. Take a photo of #ThatWanakaTree
The most instagramed picture of Wanaka? The image of this lonely tree in the lake with the mountains in the background is iconic of the region, and the hashtag #ThatWanakaTree is the official one used by the instagram account of Wanaka. It’s located at the end of Wanaka, next to a small beach in the direction of Roy’s Peak (there’s a car park on the side of the road). Be aware that you won’t be the only tourist staring at it from the shore, but it’s still a very nice place anyway!
8. Walk to Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain
West of Wanaka, the 7km/2-3 hour return track to Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain is a great hike to get a different perspective over Lake Wanaka, with Roy’s Peak on your right. It’s a relatively easy walk with a gentler climb than the other hikes listed in this article so if you’re feeling tired after so many activities, at least you shouldn’t be too exhausted after this one.
9. Swim in Lake Hawea and camp on the beach
Along with the campsite next to Lake Pukaki that I mentioned in a previous article this one was my favourite of the South Island. You’re literally staying on the beach, directly on the shore of Lake Hawea! What a fantastic view when you wake up in the morning… And the best thing about it? It’s free and non-self-contained vehicles are allowed to stay! Just be prepared for dirty and smelly toilets, but the fact that you can swim in the lake (the water isn’t even cold in summer) makes it a great stay no matter what. Be careful if you’re driving a heavy vehicle as the soil is softer closer to the lake; I saw a big RV getting stuck and it took a while and the help of many people to get it out.
10. Hike to Isthmus Peak
Last but not least: Isthmus Peak. The “twin brother” to Roy’s Peak (same length: 16kms, slightly less elevation gain – still about 1,100m though) is less famous than its neighbour, but also less crowded and the views over Lake Hawea all along the way are absolutely stunning. Even if it’s a hard climb, don’t give up before the summit because once you’ll get there you’ll have the privilege to stare at Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka at the same time! I don’t know if the sheep living here realise how lucky they are…
And you, what’s your favourite thing to do between Queenstown and Wanaka? Share it in the comments!
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