Coordinates Queenstown: The Real Middle Earth

June 06, 2016

  • by
  • Annika Hipple

Destination name: Queenstown, New Zealand

Common nickname: Adventure Capital of New Zealand

Location: On the shore of Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand's third-largest lake, in the Otago region of the South Island

Primary Active Pursuits

With gorgeous Lake Wakatipu at its doorstep and dozens of other lakes and rivers a stone's throw away, Queenstown is simply made for water-related activities. Canoeing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, jet boating, parasailing, waterskiing, canyoning, and windsurfing are among the wet and wild adventures available. Swimmers can enjoy a dip in the lake, but be prepared for a chilly shock – water temperatures generally don't rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. There's also excellent trout and salmon fishing on local lakes and rivers.

Image via Annika Hipple

Mountain ranges surround Queenstown, providing abundant hiking trails, many with spectacular views of Lake Wakatipu and beyond. Other land-based activities include road and mountain biking, horseback riding, and four-wheel-drive excursions into the backcountry.

Airborne activities are also popular, from bungy jumping to paragliding, skydiving, and hang-gliding. For less adventurous soaring, helicopter and small-plane flightseeing provide panoramic access to spectacular remote landscapes.

Key Microdestinations

AJ Hackett opened the world's first commercial bungy jumping site in 1988 at the Kawarau Bridge east of Queenstown – the beginning of the area's transformation into an adventure mecca. This original site is now one of several bungy jumping operations in the area. 

The Kawarau River, which passes under the bungy bridge, is popular for gentle (Class II-III) rafting trips. Lord of the Rings fans may recognize the Kawarau as the Anduin River, on which the Fellowship paddled as it left Lothlórien and passed through the Argonath (Pillars of the Kings). Closer to Queenstown, the Class III-V Shotover River is popular for more thrilling whitewater rafting, as well as jetboating.

Hikers are spoiled for choice in Queenstown. For a full-day outing, take the Ben Lomond Track to the 4,350-foot saddle or continue up through increasingly steep terrain to the summit at 5,735 feet. On a clear day, the sweeping views reach as far as the towering peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park. Other popular hikes include the old bridle trails between Queenstown and the village of Glenorchy, 26 miles further up the lake.

The Glenorchy area offers horseback riding, kayaking, and exhilarating jetboat tours on the Dart River rapids. The town is also a jumping-off point for Mount Aspiring National Park and the Routeburn Track, a four-day backpacking trail that's officially designated one of New Zealand's Great Walks.

Best Season

Queenstown bustles with activity all year long. Summer (December through February) has long, hot days with plenty of sunshine for outdoor activities. Autumn brings cooler nights and changing leaves, but the days remain warm enough for hiking, biking, and boating. In winter, the surrounding mountains receive abundant snow, making the area a popular one for skiing, snowboarding, and other slopeside activities. Four ski resorts are within a 30- to 90-minute drive. Spring brings the return of long days, with late-season skiing as well as swelling rivers that make this an ideal time for rafting and jetboating.

Other Recreational and Cultural Gems

Fans of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie trilogies will find numerous filming locations in the Queenstown area, and themed day tours are available from several agencies in town. Other blockbusters filmed in part in the Queenstown area include Wolverine and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Image via Annika Hipple

Twelve miles from Queenstown lies pretty little Arrowtown, the best-preserved gold mining settlement in the area. With its tree-lined main street, quaint shops, and stone miner's cottages dating back to the mid-19th century gold rush days, it's worth a stop on a driving tour.

Queenstown is also a gateway for trips to Milford Sound, the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, and other locations in the Fiordland region, including the famous Milford Track hiking route.

Lodging and Dining

Accommodations run the gamut from budget hostels to self-catering apartments to luxury hotels. Queenstown has a wide array of restaurants serving everything from Asian food to gourmet pasta to classic pub fare. There are also several fine-dining restaurants highlighting fresh local ingredients such as lamb, cheese, and fruit. 

Central Otago is one of New Zealand's most famous wine regions. With more than 200 vineyards within a 90-minute drive from Queenstown, don't miss the chance to sample some of the area's renowned Pinot Noir at a tasting room or on a wine tour.

Best Single Reason to Visit

Sa-nguansak Supong /

Middle Earth. Queentown's setting epitomizes the stunning scenery that has made New Zealand such a success on the big screen. Even if you're not a fan of hobbits, dwarves, and magical rings, the combination of mountains, lakes, and rivers means you won't have to travel far to find just about any outdoor activity you can imagine. 

Getting Equipped

The regional tourism association's website,, provides detailed information about activities, lodging, and dining in the area.

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