I may be a North Island girl (and proud of it) but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the incredible landscapes of the South Island too. While the North Island is all about the Maori and Pacific Island culture, volcanoes, natural hot springs and beautiful stretches of white and black sand beaches, the South Island does mountains and lakes like nobody’s business.
In recent years my love for the mountains has only grown so the South Island has begun to appeal to me more and more. I’m even thinking about living down there for a bit.
And where I would live in the South Island?
Located in the central South Island, Otago didn’t have a lot of settlers living there until the Otago Gold Rush of the 1860s when aspiring prospectors flooded in from around the world, including one branch of my family who settled in Wanaka and later owned a hotel in Cardrona. No wonder I feel an affinity for the region.
Visiting last Spring reaffirmed it to me even more that this is a part of New Zealand that I want to know better. Otago has it all. Majestic mountains perfect for snowboarding in winter and hiking in summer, more outdoor adventures than you can shake a stick at, wineries, stunning lakes, world class cuisine, beautiful cities with gorgeous architecture, loads of wildlife, buzzing nightlife, lively festivals – there is just so much on offer there.
My Dad and I did a ten day road trip starting in Queenstown and ending in Christchurch and my favourite part of the trip was the time we spent in Otago. Here’s the highlights from our trip:
The Adventure capital of New Zealand, Queenstown is a Resort Town and the place to bungy jump, jet boat, white water raft, rock climb, luge, skydive, snow board, paraglide, Heli ski, hike and mountain bike. As well as being a hot spot for adventurous activities, Queenstown is also incredibly picturesque.
Set on the clean and sparkling waters of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is surrounded by the dramatic Southern Alps. Despite having a population just over 30,000, there are so many incredible bars and restaurants, and the town has a buzz comparable to a much larger city.
Queenstown attracts visitors from all over the world and it is very popular with backpackers, a lot of who choose to stay a while to work and live.
I am hoping to join them one day soon.
I have been to Queenstown in both winter and spring now and it is beautiful any time of year. On my last visit we only had two days there but we packed it with fun and adventure.
The first day was devoted to walking around in the spring sunshine. Queenstown was packed with tourists but instead of being annoying, it only lent to the excited vibe that the town gives off.
After one of the best pizzas I have ever had at Winnie’s, we wandered along the waterfront and through the botanical gardens which were full of the burgeoning signs of spring. Cherry trees were in blossom and tiny ducklings stuck close to their Mums on the garden pond. I felt happy and alive, completely in the moment. There was no place else I wanted to be.
Our second day was slightly more adventurous. We started off the day with a massive breakfast at Red Rock Bar and Café then took the gondola up to the top of Bob’s Peak where we were treated to unreal views from the top over town and the lake. We then hopped into luges (like non-motorised go-karts) for a few runs down the mountain side – the best thing about it? Getting air over some of the hills. SO fun!
After lunch at the quirky and fabulous World Bar, it was time for some jetboating. I had already been on the Shotover Jet, probably the most well-known in the area, when I visited in winter 2009 so we decided to do the K2 jet that starts downtown on Lake Wakatipu then travels up the Kawarau and Shotover rivers, doing some 360s along the way. The setting was stunning and the surrounding scenery was right out of Lord of the Rings.
Yes, I could definitely live here!
I have heard Wanaka being described as being like Queenstown ten years ago. I hadn’t been to either ten years ago but I can see how that comparison can be made. Wanaka is basically a smaller, quieter, less touristy Queenstown.
Like Queenstown, stunning Wanaka is situated on a gorgeous lake, Lake Wanaka, and is backed by the lofty Crown Range of mountains. Wanaka is also the gateway to the pristine wilderness that is Mount Aspiring National Park. I did one of the day hikes in the park during my time in Wanaka and it was just incredible but if you don’t have a vehicle or aren’t keen on driving through the numerous fords to reach the prime hiking spots, there are some amazing trails closer to town as well.
I tackled the Rocky Mountain Trail via peaceful Diamond Lake, a short but steep return hike that took me up above Lake Wanaka for mesmerising views from the 775 metre summit.
The Rippon Vineyard on the way out to the trail also offers some first class views over the lake and the wine wasn’t half bad either.
In spring colourful lupines are in bloom down by the lake and that Wanaka tree, a tree growing directly out of the lake itself, is great for photo ops.
In town, Cinema Paradiso is a Wanaka institution. Dad and I went there one evening for some craft beer and pizza while watching Rock the Casbah. Bill Murray, beer and pizza – you can’t go wrong with that combo.
Wanaka – I will be back.
Cute little Arrowtown is located only a short drive from Queenstown but it couldn’t be more different. While Queenstown buzzes with life and energy, sleepy little Arrowtown is the place to come for some peace and quiet.
My favourite things to do there is to wander the riverside path that is lined with graceful willow trees, as well as exploring the boutique shops and excellent cafes and restaurants that are housed in beautifully restored historic buildings along the main street.
Also worth a visit is the Chinese Settlement, a partially restored area that was once home to the many Chinese Miners that came to New Zealand during the Otago Gold Rush. The interpretive panels and restored miners huts give you an insight into what a hard life it was for them and the prejudices they faced.
Arrowtown is a great alternative accommodation option for Queenstown, especially if you prefer the quiet life.
Cardrona is a tiny alpine resort that consists of an iconic pub, the Cardrona Hotel, and a handful of accommodation options. That’s pretty much it.
The Cardrona Hotel is one of my favourite pubs in the world and I always stop here when I am passing through. In winter the roaring fireplace welcomes you into the pub’s historic interior. The walls are full of old photos from bygone days and worn leather and wood dominates the decor. Just the way I like it. When I first visited in winter, Cardrona was covered in a fresh layer of virgin snow. On my last visit the pub garden was in full bloom and a great spot to soak up some spring sunshine.
Getting to Cardrona is all part of the fun. Driving over the Crown Range from Queenstown will bring out the wannabe rally driver in anyone. I convinced Dad to let me drive and I loved the steep switchbacks and sharp corners as we climbed into the mountains. And the viewpoints along the way offered stunning vistas over the surrounding countryside and Queenstown in the distance.
Little Cardrona is definitely worth a stop.
These are just the highlights of my most recent trip but there are so many other amazing spots in Otago to visit including the student city of Dunedin, the small historic towns of Cromwell and Clyde and the incredibly beautiful Otago Peninsula, one of the best places to spot wildlife in New Zealand.
So have I convinced you to visit Otago? Writing this I have convinced myself to go back there very soon!