Arguably the adventure capital of New Zealand, visitors to Queenstown fall in love with its stunning mountain ranges, crystal clear lakes and endless adventure activities. No wonder then that it is one of the most highly sought after tourist destinations in the world. Winter is the best time to see Queenstown, when the surrounding mountains are blanketed in snow and the skifields are in full swing. However, the area is equally picturesque during the other seasons, especially autumn when the trees turn various shades of yellow, red and brown.
Temperatures range from daytime highs of 10 degrees Celcius in winter (50 degrees Farenheit) to 22 degrees (72 degrees Farenheit) in summer. However, the weather in Queenstown - as elsewhere in the South Island - can change rapidly, so it is advisable to wear layers of clothing that can be taken off or put on, as temperatures change. Never venture into the New Zealand bush without warm clothing - and having done your homework! The bush may look pretty, but if something goes wrong you need to be fully prepared.
Queenstown is the kind of place where there is plenty to do - no matter what your interests. For those who like to watch the world go by, there are many, many cafes, restaurants and bars where you can relax, put your feet up and let others do all the hard work. Fans of snow can choose from skiing, snow boarding, snow shoeing, ice skating, snowmobiling and the spectacular heli-skiing or boarding; water-lovers can try canyoning, jetboating, river surfing, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, rafting hot pools, sailing and cruising. For those who like to look down on the world, there’s parapenting, para sailing, hot air ballooning, sky diving, abseiling, aerobatics, scenic flights, gliding, hang gliding and scenic flights. Sports-oriented visitors can try their hand at clay target shooting, mountain biking, tennis, climbing, hunting and horse treking. There are numerous guided tours which take in the wildlife, scenery, historic sites, cultural landmarks, gardens, wineries and the many other attractions the region has to offer. In fact, no matter how long you stay in Queenstown, you couldn’t possibly do or see everything.
Here are some of our favourite activities:
- Bungy jumping: The AJ Hackett Ledge Bungy above Queenstown itself
- Hollyford Track: a guided walk through 1000-year old forests
- The Milford Sound Fly/Drive: be driven over magificent alpine roads to spectacular Milford Sound, then fly back across the same rugged mountain ranges.
- Skyline Luge: fun for all the family
- Lake Wakatipu: cruise the lake on board the veteran steamship Earnslaw to Walter Peak High Country Farm, where you can take a farm tour or go horse trekking.
While Queenstown is the major drawcard of the area, don’t make the mistake of thinking it is the only place to see in this part of Otago. Far from it.
Lakes Wanaka, Hayes, Te Anau, Benmore, Hawea and Dunstan between them cover a huge area, and each has its own character. Some are the natural result of volcanic action over the millennia while others are manmade. Some can be driven alongside for miles, others can be glimpsed briefly through the native bush. There is something indefinable about this area which touches each person who visits in a different way. Some people are awed by the majesty of the mountains, some that such beauty can even exist, while others fall in love with the native bush in all its resplendent colours, textures and variety.
The South Island lakes are riddled with paths, tracks and walkways for visitors to enjoy the pristine pleasures of the bush. But take care when venturing away from paved areas. It is very easy to become disoriented or even lost, and weather conditions here change rapidly. Never go into the bush without adequate food and clothing, enough for all eventualities. And make sure somone knows where you have gone and when you plan to be back. The New Zealand bush may look benign, but it can be a terrifying place when you’re lost, alone, cold, hungry, and with no means of contacting the outside world because there is no cell phone service. Preparation is the key.
Much of Dunedin’s prosperity and heritage can be directly attributed to gold. The discovery of a major gold field near Lawrence in 1861 set the settlement of Dunedin alight. As word of the find spread, immigrants poured in by the thousands. The town expaned exponentially in all directions which resulted in a variety of problems caused by a lack of the services and facilities that we take for granted. But the wealth provided by the gold also had huge benefits, resulting in New Zealand’s finest architecture, its first daily newspaper and other trappings of civilisation.
Today, that architecture - with its distinctly Scottish feel - is a tourist drawcard. From cathedrals, churches and civic buildings to private homes, early stone and wooden buildings abound throughout the city giving it an aura of bygone England. Buildings of this age, style and quality of preservation are not found anywhere else in New Zealand.
Where there are beautifully restored buildings, there are often stunning gardens, and Dunedin is no exception. The Dunedin Botanic Gardens is famous for its rhododendron dell, where in spring the variety of colours astonish visitors. In autumn the maples are resplendent in their stunning reds, yellows and browns. There are many plant collections including the alpine house, arboretum, herb garden, camellias and a geographic plant collection and the Winter Garden Glasshouse. The Gardens are also home to a large aviary which houses 200 exotic birds. Another garden well worth a visit is Glenfalloch, a woodland garden on the Otago Peninsula.
Dunedin’s location at the end of a long inlet on one side, and open sea on another side, sheltered in the lee of mountains at the rear, means the ocean and its environs paly a large part in life here - and not just for humans. A wide variety of creatures use the sea as a source of food, nest in the dunes, live their lives and nurture their families in the sand, cliffs, trees, tussocks and grasses of the Otago Peninsula. There are many ways to get up close and personal with these creatures through organised tours which balance the needs of tourists with maintaining the habitat in which the wildlife live and breed. The main tour companies are Monarch Wildlife Cruises and Tours, the Royal Albatross Centre, Nature’s Wonders, Orokonui Ecosanctuary, Sea Breeze Otago Wildlife & Fishing Tours and the New Zealand Marine Studies Centre (which houses a large aquarium).
However, Dunedin is not all scenery and wildlife. Its large student population mean it has a strong cafe and restaurant culture. So much so that you will not be short of choice for eating out: Thai, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Asian, Italian, American (yes, there’s McDonalds!), and other international cuisines vie with ale houses, pubs, cafes and formal European-style restaurants. Just a tip about tipping: in New Zealand it is not necessary to tip customer service staff, including waitstaff. If the service was excellent, by all means do so, but there is no formal tipping culture here.
Tourism activities based around food are not uncommon in Dunedin. Two immediately spring the mind: Cadbury World and Speights Brewery. Cadbury World is a sensation of sight, sense and sound where you can visit a working chocolate factory and sample the products made there. The Visitors Centre is a colourful and educational environment with chocolate themed displays where you can learn about the history of Cadbury and chocolate through the ages.
Across town is Speights Brewery, still on the same site it has occupied since 1876. Speight’s has become one of Otago’s biggest icons with its “Pride of the South” marketing mantra, and is one of New Zealand’s most loved beers. The Speight’s Brewery Tour is an award winning interactive and informative guided tour through an historic working brewery. You’ll see, smell, touch and taste the ingredients which go into making Speight’s beers and discover how Speight’s became a legend in the south. You can sample the fine product and visit the Speight’s Brewery shop, where you will find genuine Speight’s beer gear for sale.
The towns of Alexandra, Clyde, Cromwell, Roxburgh and Ranfurly are ideal bases from which to explore the surrounding historic countryside.
Alexandra bills itself as the hottest town in New Zealand and it might just be right! Certainly it is one of extremes in temperature: it can reach the high 30s (celsius) during the day and head down below zero at night. This makes it a great place to grow fruit, vegetables and grapes that struggle elsewhere in Otago. In fact, grapes grown in Central and turned into Pinot Noir have gained international recognition as being among the best in the world. You can check out this claim by visiting any of the many wineries open to the public, and tasting their offerings for yourself. If you are a wine aficionado this is something you will not want to miss.
New Zealand’s smallest post office can be found just north of Alexandra, at Chatto Creek. Although officially closed in 1975, it has been reopened, complete with ancient typewriter, wooden telephone and old post boxes.
The road to the small town of Clyde runs along one side of a huge gorge, which winds backs up behind the Clyde Dam, a concrete hydro-electricity dam. It is a dramatic entrance to the town, where many historic buildings from early settler days still survive.
At the other end of the gorge, where the river opens out to form Lake Dunstan, lies Cromwell. Also a fruit-growing hub, it is an easy drive from here to Central’s other tourist towns. The winter ski fields of The Remarkables, Coronet Peak, Treble Cone, Cardrona, and Waiorau Snow Farm are all within a comfortable driving distance. Perhaps one of the oddest attractions here is the 80-hectare Cromwell Chafer Bettle Reserve. This beetle is rare and endangered and the reserve makes up almost its entire habitat. However, even if you visit the reserve it is unlikely you will see the beetles, as they live underground. But, on the plus side, the reserve offers a rare glimpse into what the area around Cromwell once looked like.
The tiny town of Roxburgh lies in Teviot Valley, on the banks of the Clutha River, 40 km south of Alexandra. An important centre during the 1860s goldrush, it now relies on livestock and stone fruit production for its economic survival. Five kilometres to the north of Roxburg is the Roxburgh Dam, the earliest of the major hydroelectric dams built on the Clutha. The area’s best preserved stone cottage, Mitchells Cottage, can be found just north of Roxburgh and is worth a visit even if just to marvel at the surrounding scenery.
Lovers of art deco architecture won’t want to miss Ranfurly, the largest settlement in the Maniototo district, which is renowned for its art deco buildings. Located 110 kilometres north of Dunedin, it lies in dry, rough country and is a service town for the local farming community. Nearby is the village of Naseby, home of the country’s oldest national sporting trophy, the Baxter Cup, awarded for the ingenious sport of curling. This is where rocks are slid across ice along paths created by witch-like brooms. Originally played in winter, it is now a year-round sport with both an indoor and outdoor rink open to the public at Naseby.Also here is the not-to-be-missed Museum of Fashion which houses an enormous collection of women’s couture dating from the 1960s, plus more than 500 Jim Beam ceramic decanters.
The entire Central Otago area has a history dating back to the earliest settlers, much of which is still in evidence today. The picturesque ruins of the Bendigo Goldfields have been preserved by the high altitude climate, and the settlement of Welshtown has some of the best-preserved miner’s huts in Central Otago.
The largest town in North Otago is Oamaru. Many of its historic buildings are made from the white marble-like stone, for which this part of Otago is famous. Drive down the main boulevard to see how this stone was used to excellent effect in days gone by. Continue round to the port area and the vibrant historic precinct which features a working 19th century streetscape, with businesses that match the era. During November’s Victorian Week, locals and visitors alike don period costume and celebrate the town’s heritage.
One of this country’s best known novellists is Janet Frame, who lived part of her life in Oamaru. The house she lived in between 1931 and 1943 is open daily to visitors, and contains memorabilia of her time there. By contrast, the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, up the coast a ways, where Janet Frame was incarcerated for a time has long gone. All that remains are the concrete foundations and an eerie feeling, possibly the ghosts of the 37 women inmates who perished when the complex caught fire one night in 1942.
As with other parts of Otago, wildlife is central to tourism activities here and Oamaru boasts a world famous eco-tourism facility at the Blue Penguin Colony. This is New Zealand’s largest scientifically monitored blue penguin colony, yet is only two minutes from the centre of town. You can take a guided tour or, if you prefer to go it alone, there are several other places along the coast where penguins can be seen. There are free public viewing hides at Bushy Beach, 10 minutes from Oamaru, at Katiki Point, Moeraki 35km south, and at Shag Point, 50km south of Oamaru. The best time to see penguins is at sunrise when they enter the water, and at dusk, when they return home from their day’s fishing.
Moeraki is well worth a visit. First, there are the famous Moeraki Boulders, the origins of which are unclear. These huge round mounds litter the beach and are quite unlike any rock formations you will see anywhere else. Moeraki itself is a tiny fishing village set in a sheltered bay, and one of the few of its type remaining in this part of the world. Here, on a promontory overlooking the bay is one of Otago’s, if not New Zealand’s, best restaurants, Fleur’s Place. Specialising in - not surpringly - seafood that is locally caught, you can enjoy watching the boats come and go, and if you are very lucky enjoy a visit from a wild seal waiting for his lunch to be thrown from the pier. Walk off your meal at the nearby Katiki Point lighthouse where you can wander among seals if the tide is high, or watch them frolicking on the rocky shore below. Many people miss this gem of a spot with its historic 19th century wooden lighthouse, great coastal views, old Maori pa site and wildlife-watching hide, which is a great pity.
That Otago was the centre of the gold boom in the early days is common knowledge; what is not so well known is that there is still a working goldmine in the region, albeit on an entirely different scale. Macraes Gold Mine is the country’s largest, producing more than half of New Zealand’s annual gold haul. Macraes is goldmining on a huge scale with enormous dump trucks each capable of carrying 40-tonnes and excavators chewing through 250-litres of diesel an hour. But such excavation comes at a cost to the environment. Fortunately, the local wetlands and heritage areas have been restored by the mining company. The two-hour tour of this extraordinary site is worthwhile if time permits.
Back on the coast, and further south is another historic site well worth stopping to look at. Signposted from the township of Waikouaiti, Matanaka is New Zealand’s oldest farm, settled by Aussie businessman, Johnny Jones in the 1840s. All the original buildings are still here, and in good repair. There’s a school house, stables, barn, granary and a three-seat toilet. Information about this era is well set out on big boards inside the school house. Access to this clifftop site, is across a large field - in that typically understated way that New Zealand does so well. Most people miss this well hidden attraction, so it is most likely you will have the complex to yourself.
The next town up the coast, Karitane, is another fishing village. It sits astride a small peninsula, with open sea on one side and a tidal estuary on the other. The peninsula was once a fortified Maori pa, and today a track wanders along the top, offering majestic 360-degree views. One of the key tourist attractions here is not for the slothful. It involves kayaking to semi-underwater caves, the entrance to which is only passable on favourable tides. Should you survive this experience and need fortification, the Evandsale Cheese Factory is not far away. Housed in a section of another former mental asylum (there were once three in this area!), it produces cheeses equal to anything with Made in France on the label. Tastings allow you to sample the various types on offer which run the gamut of very mild to very strong. Perfect accompaniment for a glass of Otago pinot noir.
Instead of returning to the main road after visiting Karitane, take the coast road which winds its way above the sea through Seacliff and Warrington, and back to the main road at Evandsale and Waitati. This is a very pretty drive, offering fabulous views over the Pacific to the entrance to Otago Harbour and Purakanui. If you time it right - the first Sunday of the month - you can even drop in on the little country market held at Seacliff and sample locally produced food.
Wildlife fans won’t want to miss the new Orokonui Eco-sanctuary, perched on the hills above Blueskin Bay, overlooking the township of Waitati.This 300-hectare reserve is home to many rare and endangered species of bird, insect and fish. A $2 million pest-proof fence has been erected around the perimeter, and all non-indigenous predators with an appetite for native creatures have been eradicated, allowing the gradual reintroduction of small populations of indigenous birds and insects. The ecosanctuary is also home to New Zealand’s tallest tree - and no, it’s not a native! - and a very informative visitor’s centre.
South Otago’s main centre, Balclutha, is located on the banks of the Clutha River, 50 miles south of Dunedin. The town services practically the whole of the lower Clutha basin, with its many sheep and dairy farms. It is also the gateway to the Catlins, one of New Zealand’s least known tourist areas. Now that the roads hereabouts have been improved, however, an increasing number of visitors are finding their way to this unspoiled, rugged piece of coastline.
A word of warning, however. This area is not full of cafes, restaurants and other man-made attractions, although there are sufficient to meet travellers’ needs. What you will find is unusual rock formations, long deserted beaches, a fossil forest and swathes of native bush. To get to Cathedral Caves, for instance, is a 30 minute forest and beach walk which leads to spectacular 30 metre high caves. However, these caves are accessible at low tide only. And, at Cannibal Bay is a small sheltered bay and beach, which was the site of early Maori encampments, New Zealand sea lions can often be seen. The sedimentary rock formations here are spectacular.
At Nugget Point is one of New Zealand’s oldest lighthouses, built in 1869. The area is a wildlife sanctuary for yellow-eyed penguins, fur seals, elephant seals and many sea birds. There is a spectacular 20 minute walk from the car park to the lighthouse. Nearby is a viewing hide from which the penguins can be observed coming and going from the water, usually at the beginning or end of the day. Nugget Point has an excellent restaurant and a number of quality accommodation options.
The principal town in the Catlins is Owaka. Here you will find an excellent museum, which details the area’s fascinating past. This section of coastline was notorious for shipwrecks, at a time when the principal form of transport was by sea, before roads were built through this difficult and arduous terrain. The museum is well worth a visit if you want to see how people lived here in the early days.
Other Otago Attractions
Otago’s i-SITE visitor centres will gladly help you with all your travel arrangements and information enquiries. These can usually be found in the main street of most towns.
The Otago Museum is Dunedin’s most visited attraction. It makes for a great introduction to the southern region. Explore, its richness and vibrancy through outstanding collections covering culture, nature and science. Entry to the main museum is free, although there is a charge to visit Discovery World, which is a stunning collection of butterflies roaming free through a tropical rainforest. Nature lovers should not miss it.
Otago Settlers Museum focuses on the social history of Otago. Learn about the early settlers and their stories through pictures, artifacts and even old vehicles. Entry is free.
The Otago Peninsula frames Dunedin’s harbour, providing a spectacular setting for unique and natural features. The peninsula is spectacular and visits to the area include the opportunity to view albatross, fur seals, penguins, nesting birds and dolphins.
Found on the Otago Peninsula are colonies of the world’s rarest penguin, the yellow-eyed penguin, sharing secluded beaches with New Zealand fur seals. Nesting grounds of other birds, including the white-fronted tern, and the blue penguin can also be found here. But visitors are asked to respect these areas as many are rare or endangered.
The Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head is the only mainland breeding colony of albatross in the world. There are guided tours and you will find the drive out from the city spectacular, with its views, attractions and eateries. Don’t miss Larnach Castle, and drop into some of the arts and crafts studios dotted along this lovely piece of coastline.