In the Corner of the World: Queenstown

Queenstown is a seemingly quaint town that resides in the shadow of the Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island. Walking its streets, one could easily mistake it for Boulder, Colorado. But like the American town that it resembles, Queenstown’s quiet appearance belies an adventurous spirit that pervades the people and activities that make this hamlet a popular tourist destination all year round. I spent roughly 36 hours in Queenstown and was consistently amazed by its natural beauty and friendly population.

How does a town of 10,000 people become a mecca for tourists? The proximity to some of New Zealand’s best ski fields certainly helps. But Queenstown is also the self-proclaimed “jet boat capital of the world” and the birthplace of commercial bungee jumping operations. For adrenaline junkies, Queenstown is a playground for the imagination.


Queenstown experienced its initial boom after a gold rush in the area during the 1800s. When the region had been picked clean of the precious metal, the population dipped below one thousand. The residents, in need of income to survive, capitalized on the local geography and turned Queenstown into a tourist hot spot. Now, Queenstown relies almost solely on tourism to survive and does so quite well.

So, how can you enjoy the the great outdoors and scare yourself silly while in Queenstown? Simply get out of bed and you can’t help but stumble upon any number of activities.

Million Dollar CruiseQueenstown borders Lake Wakatipu, which is a boater’s paradise. For an entertaining lesson on Queenstown’s history and stunning views of both the town and the mountains that dominate the horizon, Million Dollar Cruise offers 90-minute sightseeing tours that provide a wonderful introduction to Queenstown. Owned and operated by Wayne & Betty Perkins, the cruise feels more like a day spent with friends telling you about their hometown than a commercial tour. That, by the way, is a good thing. Bundle up, though. I was there in the Spring and it was blustery out on the deck where the best photo ops are found.

Shotover JetQueenstown’s winding rivers through steep canyons made it the perfect place to become the “jet boat capital of the world.” Jet boats have flat bottoms which allow them to spin 360 degrees and seemingly move laterally. Shotover Jet operates in the Shotover River and has an office right in town, making bookings quite convenient. At $109NZ for adults and $69NZ for children, it’s a tad overpriced. But they have to pay for the 40 liters of petrol they burn every 30 minutes somehow. If you need a good family friendly activity that will impress your kids, go for it. Otherwise, I wasn’t convinced that it’s worth the money.

A.J. Hackett BungyQueenstown’s most famous adventure activity is also the world’s first of its kind. A.J. Hackett opened the first commercial bungee jumping enterprise on Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown in 1988 and it still operates today. A.J. Hackett now has other jump locations and Kawarau Bridge is by no means the highest, but it’s the original and that’s a draw for tourists. While the boldest of visitors may opt to jump off A.J. Hackett’s gondola 439 feet above the Nevis River, first-time jumpers will want to start at Kawarau and it’s 141-foot jump. That’s what I did and their friendly staff helped me overcome my fears and take the plunge. Would I bungee again? I’m not sure. But I am glad that I did it at the birthplace of commercial bungee.

Skiiing – You can get from Queenstown to a ski field in under 20 minutes. Coronet Peak and the Remarkables are the two closest ski fields and require nothing more than a short drive. Cardrona is only 40 minutes out of town and Treble Cone is a mere 90 minute drive. All four ski fields offer an abundance of ski and snowboard trails that draw visitors in hordes from June through October.

Whether you want to walk Queenstown’s quiet streets and window shop or trick your brain into thinking that you’re plummeting to your death, Queenstown has something for everyone (assuming you like the outdoors). After a whirlwind tour of the town, I was a tad disoriented but no worse for wear. Queenstown may have traded its gold rush for head rushes, but it’s absolutely worth a visit. Just try to have better form than I did when you leap off Karawau Bridge.

Mike Barish traveled to New Zealand on a trip sponsored by Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand. No editorial content was guaranteed and Mike was free to report openly on his experiences. He never spit out the wine and managed not to cry during any of the death-defying activities that Kiwis love. At least not in public. Read more of Gadling’s In the Corner of the World series here.