Chilling in the Adrenaline Capital

The mountain town of Queenstown on the South Island is the adventure capital of New Zealand. Want to jump out of an airplane, leap off a bridge with a bungy cord tied to your ankles, careen through a forest on a zip line at a zillion miles per hour, or swing on a giant rope out over a canyon? You can do that around Queenstown, if you’re willing to spend big bucks. You can also race across Queenstown’s lake in an enclosed jet ski that looks like a shark, or run river rapids in a wetsuit while lying on a boogie board.

Shark-shaped jet skis for rent in Queenstown

We spent three days in Queenstown. But because it poured rain for two of those days—and because we’d had our expensive adventures taking boat trips on Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound—we didn’t do any of those heart-stopping things. Instead, we spent our time catching up on photo sorting and web work, doing laundry, and enjoying a greater diversity of food options than we’d had since leaving the cities of the eastern coast.

The best parts of Queenstown for us were getting there and leaving. Not because the town is a hellhole (though it’s overcrowded, and parking is a pain), but because the roads leading to Queenstown have such dramatic scenery. Approaching the town on Highway 6 from the south, we kept pulling off the road to take in the beautiful views of Lake Wakatipu and its surrounding mountains.

On our last day in Queenstown, when the sun reappeared, we drove along the rest of the lake to the village of Glenorchy (the setting for the BBC detective show Top of the Lake). The marshy area at the head of Lake Wakatipu has a boardwalk trail whose stillness, mountain views, and birdsong make you dream of staying there forever. (We looked into staying in Glenorchy, but the infrastructure is pretty limited.)

Wharf at the end of Lake Wakatipu in Glenorchy
Autumn color and stillness at Glenorchy Lagoon

Leaving Queenstown in a third direction (for our next destination, Mount Cook Village), we drove through more wonderful scenery. After passing mirrorlike Lake Hayes, the road wound along the dramatic gorge of the Kawarau River. There, a man named AJ Hackett started the world’s first commercial bungy jumping center 35 years ago on an old railway bridge. You can stand on the bridge, or at a viewing area below, and watch people leap 140 feet down toward the river and then spring back up with a yell of triumph. Looking down from the bridge, it was hard to imagine I would ever be brave enough to take that plunge. But I did run off the side of a mountain in Slovenia, so you never know.

Lake Hayes looking like a mirror
Someone getting ready to bungy jump off an old railway bridge at the Kawarau River Gorge
A bystander who’d done it before said the bounce at the end was smoother than they’d expected

A travel tip: If you’re tempted to stay in Queenstown because of its central location but you want somewhere less congested, try the town of Wanaka an hour away. It too has a pretty lakeside setting and mountain views, opportunities for adventure activities, and plenty of restaurants and hotels (a shout-out to Big Fig and the Archway Motel). But it’s much quieter and easier to walk and drive around. And for the wine lovers out there, it has the bonus of being close to lots of vineyards.

Related Gallery:

New Zealand
Photo Galleries