I wrapped up my trip along the West Coast, coming from Franz Josef Glacier to Queenstown in a drive that ended up taking over six hours as I kept stopping to take photos of the scenic drive (scroll to the bottom if you haven't seen it yet).
I arrived in Queenstown on a warm evening on March 6th and checked into a nearby Novotel for the first two nights before heading out for a bite. While New Zealanders consider the first of March to be the end of summer, this lakeside resort town was far from sleepy. Everything was booked, every restaurant and cafe packed. Queenstown was especially full of life for a town with a district population of only 35,000.
Vudu Cafe & Larder
Queenstown is a small town and I was able to walk around most of it in one day. I had wanted to take a slower pace on my trip and Queenstown would be where I would really relax. I found a few restaurants I ended up frequenting several times during my stay. One of those was a cafe with a great cappuccino and spicy bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich called Bobs Weigh.
The other was a lively spot near the water called Vudu Cafe & Larder.
My first full day in Queenstown was overcast and a bit rainy so I spent the day lazily roaming around and eating (only to repeat the next day when the sun returned) and signing up for things I wanted to do later: a jet boat ride as well as helicopter and boat tours of Milford Sound.
One sunny afternoon I walked to the edge of town to make my way up to the Skyline luge and gondola for a great view of Queenstown (like I had done in Rotorua). I ended up visiting twice: once with my camera gear and on another day with just my GoPro so I could ride the luge.
The gondola ride at Skyline Queenstown holds the record for the steepest gondola lift in the Southern Hemisphere, rising to 450 meters above sea level.
I went back the next day with just my GoPro and rode the luge a few times. It's basically a little cart you navigate down a fun little winding course.
Upon returning back to the town centre I had a late lunch at a gourmet pizza spot called Winnies. I had checked out of my hotel that morning and moved to an Airbnb I had rented for the bulk of my stay. It was a huge flat with 6 beds (well, four were bunk beds, intended for traveling families with kids) in a great location.
The owner was super friendly and owned the bar below and ended up giving me a card to get drinks downstairs whenever I wanted. I took him up on the offer after a long day in the sun.
With no plans and a lovely setting sun I went for a leisurely stroll a bit further out towards the edge of Queenstown for a few hours before meeting up for drinks with a friend of a friend that happened to be in town as well.
Queenstown is surrounded by the The Remarkables, a beautiful mountain range that can be seen from just about anywhere in Queenstown. It makes for a remarkable backdrop.
The next day was particularly chilly and overcast. I relaxed indoors a bit (I liked one particular music television station that reminded me of what MTV and VH1 were in their prime) and wandered around the Queenstown Gardens before grabbing dinner at Public.
After having eaten at Vudu Larder and Bobs Weigh way too many times, I decided to try Joe's Garage for brunch the next morning.
New Zealand is known for its outdoor adventures with a myriad of national parks and great walks (their term for nine popular multi-day hiking tracks). Not to mention that commercial bungy jumping (that's the New Zealand spelling) was even made popular by a New Zealander.
Queenstown is by far the center of this kind of adventure tourism. Everywhere you go you see some kind of zipline, canyon swing, helicopter ride, bungy jump, skydive, jet boat or something else extreme being advertised.
I signed up for a ride on the Shotover Jet: a ride where they carve narrow and shallow canyons in a 700-horsepower boat that can go up to 85kph and do 360's. Needless to say, I had a blast.
Later that day I ventured just outside of Queenstown to neighboring Glenorchy. The scenic 46km drive to Glenorchy along Lake Wakatipu starts with more views of The Remarkables and then the small uninhabited Pig and Pigeon islands within Lake Wakatipu. It was one of the most beautiful drives I have been on.
After returning famished in the evening, I went to a nearby pizza place called Hell. I rather fittingly enjoyed a spicy jalapeno pizza along with a Steinlager beer.
I woke up early the next morning. I had booked a 3-stop helicopter tour with Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters. They're the same company used by Peter Jackson to film aerials for The Lord of The Rings and Hobbit movies. It was my first time in a helicopter so I wanted to make sure I picked a company that knew what they were doing.
The weather could not have been more perfect for flying. We first flew to the West Coast and landed on a remote beach. Then we flew to the main attraction — Milford Sound inside Fiordland National Park — and got out and walked around. Finally, we attempted to land on a glacier on the top of Mount Tutoko. The conditions were not ideal for a glacier landing so we instead just landed on the mountain itself.
I had done some cursory research about shooting from inside a doors-on helicopter and it sounded like I needed to shoot without a polarizer. The helicopter's windows are plexiglas and the stress lines in the window can create strange striations in photos, especially if the window has any scratches.
Though while trying to pack light I didn't even bring my polarizer.. which I should have had on hand for when we were able to get outside the helicopter for a few shots.
Despite stellar weather, the ride was not perfectly smooth. While we were hopping over various mountain peaks there was always a gust of wind waiting for us. Given that it was a relatively small aircraft, we were pushed around a good bit at times.
At one point we instantly dropped some altitude and rotated a bit before control was regained. Of course the pilot was super calm and would just casually comment on the breeze we were experiencing. On the upside, I now have absolutely no complaints about any airplane turbulence compared to this.
We then landed at Milford Sound, lining up behind a bunch of other helicopters during this busy season. When I first began researching my New Zealand trip, Milford Sound was one of the must-see natural attractions I kept coming across. Despite the remote location, the 15km long Milford Sound fiord can see up to a million visitors per year.
However, I was still a tad miffed I didn't have my polarizer on me. The colors and detail here don't do it justice.
We landed on Mt Tutoko on the return home and got out to walk around and take in some great views and brisk weather. While the plan was to actually land on a glacier in the area, the pilot did not like the current conditions.
After making my way back to Queenstown, I made a stop at Vudu Cafe & Larder for some coffee, eggs and pancakes. I spent the rest of the day relaxing indoors, doing laundry, then strolling around during sunset.
Bright and early at 8:20am the next morning I was picked up outside by the folks at Real Journeys. I had booked an overnight Milford Sound cruise with them. Despite having just flown to Milford Sound, I wanted to really explore the area up close on the water.
After weeks of driving everywhere, I was more than happy to let someone else do the driving for me this time. We took a bus there, passing through Te Anau and stopping at some attractions like The Chasm Walkway and Mirror Lakes, before making it to Milford Sound.
Upon making it to the boat with the other folks in the group, we dropped our stuff off in our rooms before getting familiarized with the agenda for the evening and morning. There were a few options for activities and I went to hike part of the Milford Track with one group.
We returned to the ship after a hiking for about an hour. We enjoyed dinner and then went out on the deck as we cruised through the fiord before anchoring for the night. I stayed up late to chat and play cards with some of the younger folks on the boat.
We received an early wake up call around 6am to let us know that we would begin sailing out to the sea and turn around for a full tour of the fiord. It was frigid, overcast and misty in the morning but I enjoyed seeing Milford Sound draped in low clouds and abundant fog.
I had a return flight to Queenstown scheduled but due to inclement weather it was cancelled and I returned via bus instead. In hindsight I should have driven as the bus ride ended up taking some 6-7 hours due to frequent stops instead of the 4 hours it would have taken me alone.
I arrived at around 3:30pm and checked into the Crowne Plaza Hotel I had reserved for my last night in Queenstown. I made a reservation at one of the nicer restaurants along the Queenstown waterfront — Botswana Butchery — for dinner that evening.
The friendly staff at the bar took great care of me, inquiring about my travels and asking to see photos of things I had done.
I slowly made my way back to the hotel after dinner, with some slight detours for a few long exposure shots.