Travel Notes: Queenstown & Wanaka

Queenstown from above

Queenstown from above

Arriving in Queenstown, you are surrounded by impressive mountains and views of Lake Wakatipu.  It reminded me of landing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where you can't help but to stop and snap a photo as you exit the plane.  We spent our first eight days in New Zealand in a combination of Queenstown and Wanaka, both of which are hubs for hiking and exploring and set on lakes for water activities.  My parents joined us for this part of our adventure, and it was really nice for all of us to spend time together, plus Rob and I were able to be a bit more adventurous when we left Blythe with them.

In Queenstown, our airbnb had a stunning view of Lake Wakatipu and was actually located in Frankton, which is five minutes east and still on the lake.  Queenstown is a bustling town that is a hub for adventure sports (bungee jumping, hang gliding, parasailing, and a host of others I know nothing about, including a shark-shaped water toy that both glides on the water and dives beneath it called Hydro Attack) and is full of backpackers in their early 20s.  It would have been a fun place to hang out 10 years ago, but I was relieved we were staying in Frankton and could come into town if we wanted to go out to a meal, grab coffee (Starbucks!), or pop in a store, but enjoy peace and quiet at our home.  We cooked most of our meals at home because of the view from the deck:

And because Blythe really loved hanging out on said deck in a bucket of water.

Blythe's current favorite activity - sitting in buckets of water and periodically dumping them out and asking for a refill, thus ensuring mom is still nearby.

Blythe's current favorite activity - sitting in buckets of water and periodically dumping them out and asking for a refill, thus ensuring mom is still nearby.

Our favorite adventure from Queenstown was a day trip to run the Routeburn Track.  

Pausing for a photo op on the Routeburn Track

Pausing for a photo op on the Routeburn Track

This is normally done in 2-3 days, but we only had one (my parents were watching Blythe) and so we set out to do as much of it as we could in one day as an out-and-back trail run.  There are companies that will relocate your car from one end of the track to the other so you can go one-way, but we planned this excursion at the last minute so couldn't orchestrate that in time.  The track was incredibly well-maintained and the huts looked simple but nice.  We made it 8 miles out (to the top of Harris Saddle) and then turned around due to time and absolutely no visibility at the top of the saddle (you can see a photo below of Rob hiking into the fog).  In a few years, I'd love to hike (or "tramp" as they say here) one of the tracks with Blythe.  

After our long run, swimming in Lake Wakatipu was chilly but refreshing and the water was so clear and clean (it was a five-minute walk from our house in Frankton to the lake).  

Rob and I figured if we held hands and ran in, we'd both actually take the plunge into the chilly water.

Rob and I figured if we held hands and ran in, we'd both actually take the plunge into the chilly water.

We all took the Skyline Gondola up to a luge course that allowed young children and has two separate tracks (one for little kids and one that is steeper).  It sounded like an activity that would be touristy and not that fun, but Blythe took turns sitting between my legs and Rob's and we all went and loved it.  On a clear day, the view from the top of the gondola is awesome and they have ice cream.  

After a few days in Queenstown, we headed to Wanaka.  En route, we visited the pristine and charming town of Arrowtown.  It looked like it belonged in a film set in the English countryside.  We had a delicious lunch on the patio at The Fork and Tap (where they had a small tree house and toys for kiddos), poked in the cute shops, and headed out to ride bikes on the Queenstown Trail from Arrowtown to the Gibbston Valley Winery.  Arrowtown Bike Company rents bikes with child seats and has a trailer option if you have kids in tow.  We rode over a few high and long suspension bridges (much to my Mom's dismay), finished the ride with a glass of wine, and hitched a ride back to town with Arrowtown Bike Company.  

Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka

Wanaka is another lakeside town affording access to hiking, a beautiful lake for swimming, and decent restaurants.  It's much more low-key than Queenstown, the lake was warmer (when we were there) and they have a very cool playground that includes a stegosaurus slide. 

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Blythe and Gigi going down the slide

Blythe and Gigi going down the slide

The view of Lake Hawea (left) and Lake Wanaka (right) from the top of Isthmus Peak.

The view of Lake Hawea (left) and Lake Wanaka (right) from the top of Isthmus Peak.

My parents did a nice bike ride around the peninsula that they enjoyed and Rob and I snuck off one day sans Blythe to climb Isthmus Peak.  We planned to trail run, but I should have believed the trail description, which used the phrase "unrelenting uphill."  This hike was like climbing a 14er in Colorado minus the altitude, but our hard work paid off.  Every time I'd stop to take a photo, we'd hike a little farther and realize the view was even better.  We lucked out and could see in every direction from the top. 

We all enjoyed swimming in Lake Wanaka and checking out the nice downtown area.  It's a much sleepier town than Queenstown, but there are still plenty of shops and restaurants, a grocery store, and enough activities nearby that it would make for an excellent base for a week of adventuring in the region.  If we had it to do over again, we'd spent more time in Wanaka than in Queenstown.

Some additional observations about New Zealand:  

  • The beer is much, much better than in Australia, and affordable.  We've found a few good black IPAs and darker beers.

 

  • There are no screens on the windows and there are bugs.  It has been quite warm and none of the houses we have stayed in have screens even though they expect you will open the windows to keep the house cool. I asked some Europeans who are WWOOFing with us and they don't have screens on their windows either.  I'm perplexed.  
  • You can refill your water anywhere. If you are hiking and need more water, you just fill it in the stream.  After living in fear of giardia my whole life, it seems so wrong to just dip my Camelbak in a stream, but nevertheless I did it.  
  • Hitchhiking! People do it everywhere here to get around, particularly backpackers.  We picked up our first three after hiking Isthmus Peak (we had space in the our minivan without my parents and Blythe with us).  The conversation on the way home was fun with women from Germany and France to chat with -- Rob and I have plenty of time to make conversation between the two of us on this trip.
  • Our first airbnb did not have a coffee maker and when we asked where it might be, the owner seemed surprised.  There seems to be a lot more instant coffee and coffee that you make using a tea bag.  The only exception thus far was our airbnb in Wanaka, which had this contraption that revolutionized our mornings once we figured out how to use it.
  • Appliances take forever to run a cycle.  Our washing machine in Queenstown took 2:30 to run, as did the dishwasher.  The dryer (if you have one - most people don't seem to) takes a similar long time.  What am I missing?
  • We had our first lost bag between Sydney and Queenstown, which proved to be quite a hassle as we were in a place where we planed to hike and the lost bag included our running shoes and our hiking backpack in which we carry Blythe.  Lost bags are inevitable and we got it back five days later after it took a side trip to Phuket, Thailand.
Sometimes you just need to rest your feet and soak up the view.

Sometimes you just need to rest your feet and soak up the view.