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I may be a North Island girl but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the incredible landscapes of the South Island too, and there are some Otago Towns in particular that I love visiting.
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.
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.
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.
Otago is an amazing destination to add to any South Island Road Trip itinerary.
My Dad and I did a ten-day road trip starting in Queenstown and ending in Christchurch and my favorite part of the trip was the time we spent in Otago. Here are the Otago towns we visited and loved on our trip.
Beautiful Otago Towns To Visit
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, snowboard and ski, paraglide, heli ski, hike and mountain bike.
As well as being a hot spot for adventurous activities, Queenstown is also incredibly picturesque, and there are so many things to do in Queenstown, whether you are an adventure junkie or not.
Set on the clean and sparkling waters of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is surrounded by the dramatic Southern Alps. Despite having a population of just over 15,000, Queenstown has 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 exciting 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 in Queenstown 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-motorized go-karts) for a few runs down the mountainside – the best thing about it? Getting air over some of the hills. SO fun!
After lunch at the quirky and fabulous The World Bar, it was time for some jet-boating. I had already been on the Shotover Jet, probably the most well-known in the area when I visited Queenstown in the winter of 2009 so we decided to do the K2 jet.
The jet starts downtown on Lake Wakatipu and 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.
Queenstown is the most popular Otago town to visit for a reason.
Stay in one of these fabulous Queenstown Airbnbs to complete your perfect stay.
Where To Stay in Queenstown
If you are camping, stay at Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park right in town. There are numerous hostels in town but the best are the Adventure Queenstown Hostel, and the Absoloot Hostel Queenstown.
For hotels, my top picks are the eco-friendly Sherwood Hotel, the luxurious Hulbert House Luxurious Boutique Lodge, Platinum Queenstown, and the Sudima Queenstown Five Mile.
For vacation rentals, stay at the Shemara Quaint Cottage Close to Town, this Four Bedroom Holiday Home With Incredible Views, or the Terrace Retreat Studio Unit With Mountain and Lake Views.
I have heard Wanaka being described as being like Queenstown was fifteen years ago. I hadn’t been to either fifteen 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 mesmerizing views from the 775-meter 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, colorful 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 to watch a movie with some craft beer and pizza. It’s a great way to spend an evening.
Wanaka – I will be back.
Where To Stay in Wanaka
If you wanted to camp, stay at Wanaka Top 10 Holiday Park or Glendhu Bay Motor Camp. For hostels, the best picks are Wanaka Bakpaka and Mountain View Backpackers Wanaka.
Popular hotel options include Te Wanaka Lodge, Fairway Motel and Apartments, Wanaka Heights Motel, and ASURE Brookvale Motel.
For vacation rentals, my top picks are this Cute One Bedroom Mudbrick Cottage, this French Farmhouse Inspired One Bedroom Apartment, and this Pet-Friendly Studio Cabin in Lovely Garden.
Cute little Arrowtown is one of the most adorable Otago towns and is located only a short drive from Queenstown. But despite being so close, they 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 favorite things to do there are to wander the riverside path that is lined with graceful willow trees, as well as explore 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 Arrowtown 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.
Where To Stay in Arrowtown
Arrowtown is a great alternative accommodation option for Queenstown, especially if you prefer peace and quiet.
If you are camping, stay at the centrally located Arrowtown Holiday Park. There are no hostels in Arrowtown.
My top hotel picks are the Kinross Boutique Vineyard Hotel, Arrowtown House Boutique Hotel, Arrowtown Lodge, and Arrowtown Motel.
The best vacation rentals in Arrowtown are this renovated private sleepout near town, this luxuriously modernized heritage cottage, and this comfortable cottage in the heart of Arrowtown.
Cardrona is the tiniest of the Otago towns on this list and it 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 favorite 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 dominate 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.
Where To Stay in Cardrona
As Cardrona is only tiny, there are no camping grounds or hostels here. If you are going to stay in town, I would highly recommend staying at the Cardona Hotel. Alternatively, there are a couple of highly-rated vacation rentals – this Cardrona Townhouse, and this Cardrona Studio Retreat.
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 these gorgeous Otago towns? Writing this I have convinced myself to go back there very soon!
If you liked this post, check out some of my other South Island and New Zealand hiking content:
- Pushing Myself to the Limit on the Kepler Track
- In the Shadow of a Giant: Hiking the Hooker Valley Track to Mount Cook
- Hiking to Rob Roy Glacier in Mount Aspiring National Park
- Hiking the Hillary Trail on Auckland’s Wild West Coast
- Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit: One of New Zealand’s Great Walks