NEW ZEALAND: PART 2 – QUEENSTOWN & MILFORD SOUND (SOUTH ISLAND)

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I recently visited New Zealand, traveling extensively through the North and South Islands. Because there is so much that I want to share with you, I have broken up my trip report into different sections, to make it easier to follow my travels.

I began my New Zealand journey at the farthest point, then worked my way up. I flew from Los Angeles to Auckland (AKL) on Air New Zealand, which takes about 12 hours. After clearing immigration and customs, I transferred to the domestic terminal at AKL airport, and boarded a domestic flight to Queenstown (ZQN), in the southwest region of the South Island. Flight time from AKL to ZQN takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes. For most travelers, this will be the longest flight you will take in New Zealand.

Queenstown is located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, one of the deepest lakes (average depth 1000 feet) in New Zealand, shaped like a bolt of lightning. The clear, pure waters of the lake are surrounded by high mountains that are snow-capped most of the year. Queenstown is notable for several reasons: first, it is the center of many outdoor activities and has a magical setting; second, it is the gateway for Milford Sound, New Zealand’s top attraction; finally, it is a sophisticated destination in its own right, with the best shopping, dining, and accommodations in the region. The town is busy year-round, especially during high season (November to March) and ski season (June to August). Consider visiting March to May, fall in New Zealand, a time with fewer visitors, lower cost, and usually good weather.

Things to see & do: You could spend a week in Queenstown and not run out of outdoor activities, from the easy skyline gondola (with fantastic views at the top) or boat rides on Lake Wakatipu, to more challenging pursuits like ziplining, white water rafting, biking, hiking, ballooning, golfing, as well as skiing and snowboarding in winter. If you want a rush of adrenaline, fly over rivers in a jet boat, skydive, paraglide, or Bungy Jump in the place where it was invented over 30 years ago, at Kawarau Bridge, a short drive from downtown Queenstown. For the ultimate thrill, jump from the Nevis Bungy, a drop of 400 feet.

Milford Sound:Without a doubt, Milford Sound is THE top destination in this part of the world. Milford is the jewel in the crown of Fiordland National Park, New Zealand’s largest, impenetrable, forested wilderness, with landscapes we dream about — crystal clear waters, fiords, glaciers, and green cliffs with rushing waterfalls.

There are many ways to visit Milford. Here are 4 options, with pros/cons:

  • A day trip by motorcoach from Queenstown, which takes about 12-13 hours. This includes a 5 hour+ drive each way, as well as a two-hour cruise in Milford Sound. Pro: Affordable, easy, and runs every day, rain or shine. Con: Takes forever, and you travel with a group of 40+ other visitors.
  • Driving and overnighting in Milford Sound at the Milford Sound Lodge. This will involve the 5-hour drive each way, with a wide choice of options once in Milford – including hiking, kayaking, and boat rides. Pros: reliability, the privacy of your own car (or chauffeur driven vehicle) and overnight stay, range of options. Cons: renting a car and driver or arranging chauffeur-driven transportation, cost, long drives each way, time involved (2-3 days, typically) – which most travelers do not have. The lodge is modern but basic – do not expect 5-star accommodations and dining.
  • Driving and overnighting in Te Anau (on the way to Milford Sound, about two hours’ drive from Milford) and staying at the Fiordland Lodge. Pros: reliability, privacy, staying at a high-quality luxury lodge, seeing Te Anau area, shorter drives of 2/2.5 hours instead of 5 hours+, because you are staying in Te Anau, roughly the middle of the route. Cons: The cost, drives, time involved (at least 2-3 days, all told).
  • Helicopter flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound. Pros: Fast (flight from Queenstown to Milford takes less than 1-hour), spectacular scenery (you typically land at Milford and at a glacier for photos), and the flight is simply breathtaking. Cons: The cost, and the fact flights are weather-dependent. Milford Sound gets some rain more than 50% of the year and is notorious for cloud cover and unpredictable weather for helicopters. If you choose the helicopter, my advice is to book early during your Queenstown stay, in case of bad weather. If you leave it till the end, you risk missing Milford altogether.

Other options:  Visit Arrowtown, a charming 19th-century gold rush town just a short drive from Queenstown and now a hub for art galleries, restaurants, and shops. If you have time, explore Wanaka, a smaller version of Queenstown, set on the eponymous lake and gateway to the Mount Aspiring hiking trail.

Where to stay?

I visited Signature’s two partner properties in Queenstown. My notes:

Azur

Located 10 minutes’ drive from downtown Queenstown, in a residential area high above the lake. This luxury contemporary lodge consists of 9 private villas, each about 750 square feet with an open plan and fireplaces and large terraces overlooking the lake and mountains. The lodge is situated on the slope of a hill. Design is modern, comfortable, pared down. Highlights: complete privacy in the villas, space, views from the bedroom and bathtub, superb service, seclusion, a short drive to Queenstown, and breakfast and afternoon tea included in your rate and provided in the main reception house. Things to consider: Azur does not have a restaurant on property. Having said this, the hotel provides guests with a wide range of Queenstown restaurant menus to order from. Azur staff will deliver the meal to your villa and serve it properly on china, which I did when I did not feel like going into town.

Sofitel Queenstown

Situated in the heart of the city, Sofitel Queenstown offers 82 rooms and suites. This upscale hotel marries the French ‘art of living’ with Kiwi hospitality. The property is steps from the wharf, restaurants, shops, and Queenstown attractions, and near the ski shuttles (convenient for winter sports June to August). Highlights: The superb location, service, the So Spa (one of New Zealand’s best hotel spas), dining at the Left Bank Café, spacious rooms and suites (starting at 440 sq. feet of space), and two enormous penthouses with terraces & views.

Dining Recommendations: My favorite restaurant in Queenstown (and one of the hardest tables to get) is Botswana Butchery. I also recommend Rata or The Bunker for fine dining.

Look for New Zealand: Part 3 – Glenorchy and Blanket Bay Lodge (South Island)

Posted by Ignacio Maza from Signature Travel Network