There is no better place to appraise Queenstown than from your perch aboard one of the gondolas of the Skyline Queenstown (tel. 03/441-0101; www.skyline.co.nz), which takes you up to Bob’s Peak. The view is well worth the effort. You can stay for lunch or dinner at the buffet restaurant or cafe. The gondola operates daily from 9am until the restaurant closes around midnight. The round-trip fare is NZ$25 for adults, NZ$14 for children ages 5 to 14, and NZ$64 for a family. The complex includes a very good souvenir shop and a nearly 1km (1/2-mile) luge for the brave-hearted. From the top of the gondola you can then take a free chairlift another 100m (330 ft.) higher for even better views, and then walk the short distance down to the complex to enjoy the 30-minute Maori cultural performance by Kiwi Haka. The combo ticket for both the gondola and the performance costs NZ$59 for adults, NZ$32 for children, and NZ$148 for a family. Haka performances run daily at 5:15pm, 6pm, 7:15pm and 8pm. Numerous other combos include restaurant meals and luge rides, for a variety of prices.
The Kiwi & Birdlife Park, Brecon Street (tel. 03/442-8059; www.kiwibird.co.nz), is in tranquil 3-hectare (8-acre) surroundings near the base of the gondola. Allow 30 to 40 minutes to see the bird life and reptiles close at hand. Along with daily conservation shows (11am and 3pm), they have several rare birds that can’t be seen anywhere else. Daily kiwi feeding sessions are at 10am, noon, 1:30, and 4:30pm. You can also watch Maori dance performances at 11am and 3pm at the early Maori hunting village within the park. Admission (including shows) is NZ$38 for adults and NZ$19 for children 5 to 15. The park is open 9am to 6pm in summer (until 5pm in winter).
Goldfields Mining Centre, in Kawarau Gorge (tel. 03/445-1038; www.goldfieldsmining.co.nz), is open daily from 9am to 5pm. The gold fields of this region were among the richest in the world in the early 19th century, and Goldfields is the official gold-mining demonstration site. It’s a 40-minute drive through the Kawarau Gorge on the way to Cromwell, so if you’re on your way to Wanaka or Dunedin, stop in. You have to walk over a narrow but stable bridge that crosses high above the river; and if you’ve got a fear of heights like me, you might shake in your boots a bit. But if I can do it, so can you. A self-guided tour costs NZ$20 for adults and NZ$8 for children 5 to 15 and includes gold-panning.
If you have an interest in the arts, take the self-drive Wakatipu Arts Trail, which takes you through the pretty back roads between Queenstown and Arrowtown, visiting eight well-known artists and craftspeople. Pick up the brochure from the visitor center and allow at least a morning to appreciate fine watercolors, oils, wood art, and jewelry.
If you’re not in the mood for paid adventures, there is always plenty to see by wandering around the compact center of Queenstown itself. You can sit on the little beach and have a picnic; on Saturdays you can visit the Queenstown Art & Craft Market at Earnslaw Park, which runs near Steamer Wharf from 9am to 4:30pm; and you can explore the Steamer Wharf complex itself. Designed by a local architect, Michael Wyatt, Steamer Wharf is home to restaurants, cafes, and TSS Earnslaw, one of the last remaining coal-fired passenger-carrying vessels operating in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s always fun to take a seat on the wharf and watch the Earnslaw and other boats coming and going.
In Nearby Arrowtown
For an enjoyable outing and a less hectic pace, drive out to the once-thriving gold-mining town of Arrowtown. It sprang up on the banks of the Arrow River when gold was discovered here in 1862. Many of the quaint original buildings remain, along with stunning avenues of trees planted in 1867. In autumn, the whole town glows with colorful foliage. To get a better understanding of the town’s history, go to the Lakes District Museum, 49 Buckingham St. (tel. 03/442-1824; www.museumqueenstown.com). Admission is NZ$7 for adults, NZ$1 for children ages 5 to 14, and NZ$14 per family; it’s open daily from 8:30am to 5pm.
Although there is no longer a Chinese community in Arrowtown, you can take a stroll in the restored Chinese Camp, on Bush Creek at the northern end of town. The camp was once occupied by the Chinese gold-mining community in the late 19th century. Look out for Ah Lum’s General Store and the tiny dwellings tucked under rocky outcrops.
Other places to explore include the Royal Oak Hotel, 47 Buckingham St. (tel. 03/442-1700), one of the oldest licensed hotels in Central Otago, where you can still enjoy a drink and a hearty round of pub food; the Old Gaol, on Cardigan Street; and St. John’s Presbyterian Church, which dates back to 1873, at Durham and Berkshire streets. Overall, Arrowtown is very pretty, but in peak tourist season it’s about as "touristy" as touristy gets. It’s much better in autumn when the crowds have dissipated and the leaves are falling. If you have time on your hands, catch a movie at Dorothy Brown’s Boutique Cinema, 144 Buckingham St. (tel. 03/442-1964; www.dorothybrowns.com), which is a fabulous little den of art-house movies with a bar, bookstore, and lounge. It’s open 11am to 11pm; reservations are recommended.