With excellent flight connections and the Britz depot at the airport, exploring New Zealand’s deep south from Queenstown couldn’t be easier. Tourist-town buzz, adrenaline activities, national park hikes, cross-country cycle trails, world-class wineries and restaurants – this itinerary packs in all this and more in under a week.
Queenstown to Queenstown
Best Time of the Year
All year round
- Aspiring National Park
- Central Otago produce
Frequently lauded as one of the world’s best mountain resorts, Queenstown lives up to the hype with its staggeringly beautiful lakeside setting, buzzy vibe and awesome ski scene in winter. The TSS Earnslaw lake cruise and Skyline Gondola ride are the town’s must-dos, but leave plenty of time for shopping, dining and a wander through the gardens. Stacks of activity booking offices make it easy to go skydiving, parasailing, paragliding, jet boating, bungy jumping, heli-skiing, whitewater rafting, canyoning, mountain biking, golfing… the list goes on. Restore your equilibrium in one of Queenstown’s excellent holiday parks such as Creeksyde, an easy amble to town.
Side Trip: Glenorchy
Drive through Queenstown and out the other side and you’ll hit the sublime drive to Glenorchy, 45 minutes away at the northern head of Lake Wakatipu. Sitting between Fiordland and Mount Aspiring national parks, this small settlement is a major hiking hub; see DOC’s walking brochure for day walks including forays on to the Routeburn Track. Amongst many other activities are High Country Horse Treks and the Dart River Jet, one of New Zealand’s most scenic jet boat rides. There are several DOC campsites on the road to, and around, Glenorchy.
Queenstown to Arrowtown
Take the quieter Gorge/Malaghans Road route through to Arrowtown, a bonny old dear shining brightly off the back of rich gold mining history, preserved in the museum and heritage trails. While a much quieter base for adventures in the Queenstown area, it’s still very tourist-friendly with lots to eat, drink, buy and see. And it’s especially handy to Lake Hayes, Amisfield Winery and the Arrow River Bridges Trail. Arrowtown Holiday Park is a spruce, modern affair.
Arrowtown to Wanaka
Distance 100km - Driving Time 1 hour 20 mins
Head south, following signs for Wanaka. Call in at the atmospheric Cardrona Hotel for refreshments on the way through. With lake and mountain surrounds the equal of Queenstown, Wanaka is an energetic town with an insatiable appetite for outdoor adventure. It’s a major hub for scenic flights over Milford Sound and Mount Aspiring National Park; you can venture into the park on day hikes up the Matukituki Valley. Mt Iron is a shorter hike, closer to town and handy to Puzzling World, a fun place to exercise your brain. Three of Wanaka’s five holiday parks are within 3km of town.
Wanaka to Cromwell
Distance 54km - Driving Time 45 mins
Take SH6 to join SH8a to cross into Central Otago, famed for its vast, treeless landscape as embodied in the Pisa Range seen to the southwest. At SH8, detour north to Tarras, a one-horse town with tearooms and a merino wool store. Buy socks, or a hat. Return south, following SH8, which soon meets Lake Dunstan – formed when the mighty Clutha River was dammed in the early 1990s – along which are several picnic spots and two turn-offs to Loop Road, leading to the fascinating Bendigo Historic Reserve. At the southern end of Lake Dunstan is Cromwell, a modern town founded near the old one when the dam was constructed. The Old Cromwell Town precinct is a gathering of rescued heritage buildings. See the Central Otago Camping Guide for holiday parks and other camps throughout the region.
Side Trip: Wine Country
Eyeball Cromwell’s voluptuous Fruit Sculpture and you’d be forgiven for thinking Central Otago is all about apples, apricots, pears and nectarines, but in recent years these juicy giants have been outgunned by grapes. Central Otago’s unique climate and terroir have created a hotbed of world-class pinot noir, the majority of which is grown in the Cromwell Basin. Just out of town, Bannockburn and the Gibbston Valley are home to some big-name wineries with cellar doors and tastings; read more at Central Otago Winegrowers.
Cromwell to Clyde
Distance 24km - Driving Time 20 mins
SH8 skirts Lake Dunstan’s narrows southern end towards the Clyde Dam; pull over at the signposted lookout to take it in. Just down the road its powerful presence is elbowed out of the picture by Clyde township’s stone buildings, thick with goldrush-era charm. Enjoy the museum displays and cafes, and visit the folks at Trail Journeys if you fancy a cycle ride on the legendary Otago Central Rail Trail, which starts (or finishes) at Clyde.
Clyde to Alexandra
Distance 11km - Driving Time 15 mins
The Otago Central Rail Trail carries on through to Alexandra, the largest town in ‘Central’ with a population of just 4800. It has all essential services including a terraced, grassy holiday park on the banks of the Manuherikia River. For grand views around this part of the country, walk up Flat Top Hill from Butchers Dam, on the way to Roxburgh.
Side Trip: Roxburgh
It’s just half an hour’s drive south on SH8 to Central’s stonefruit capital, Roxburgh, but the scenery, fruit stalls and other sights of the Teviot Valley may slow you down considerably. The alternative route is even slower – the Roxburgh Gorge Trail – which can be walked or cycled between Alexandra and Roxburgh, with a jet boat ride in the middle. To walk a short way, check out historic Horseshoe Bend.
Alexandra to Queenstown
Distance 94km - Driving Time 1 hour 20 mins
The shortest route back to Queenstown is to retrace the route to Cromwell, then cut through to the Wakatipu through the wine-soaked Gibbston Valley. On the way, visit historic Gibbston Tavern or another winery or two, and call in AJ Hackett’s original Kawarau Bridge Bungy Centre to knock the big bounce off your bucket list.