As I wrote in my last post about our South Island road trip, this post comes out of order. My friend Sharon and I spent three nights in Queenstown, our longest stay of the whole trip, in the second week of our South Island travels. While we were farther away from Milford Sound than we’d realized (in the future I’d stay in Te Anau or even camp in Milford) we were glad to park the car across the road from our hostel and leave it there for a few days. As Sharon said, expertly guiding me into a parallel parking spot that I could only dream about without her, I deserved a break from all the driving. (And I did all the driving.)
After a brief stop in adorable Arrowtown for lunch, we drove up and down a few large hills and entered Queenstown. Somehow, it didn’t register to me that the “town” in Queenstown was literal – I was expecting a city for no other reason than I’d actually heard of Queenstown but it’s really small and very walkable. Quite a lovely place to be for a few days!
Queenstown is located right on the water and surrounded by mountains. I spent some time sitting under a tree looking out at Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s longest lake.
I also went on a very short walk up a hill just behind where we were staying (the YHA Queenstown Lakefront exceeded all expectations) and enjoyed breathing the air and listening to the wind.
Queenstown was the busiest place we’d stayed since Nelson and it was larger than Nelson, too. But even at its busiest, New Zealand is so sparsely populated that it didn’t feel crowded at all. Out of four million people across the country, only a million live on the South Island. There are about 1.6 million in Auckland and Christchurch, the next largest city, has about 380,000. So again, nothing feels crowded.
We met another friend who was also travelling in New Zealand at Atlas Beer Cafe, a wonderful bar that we frequented more than once. It was fun to catch up and hear about her trip. It was also fun to return to Atlas two nights later to find that the bartenders and servers remembered us! We treated our first night in Queenstown as our “going out night” and had a really fun time, including live Irish music. We accidentally went to one crowded bar and left after one drink – we’d gotten used to having space to ourselves. And besides, we had a hike to go on in the morning.
The next morning was hot and beautiful. We had a lovely brunch down by the water where a craft market was setting up. I love seeing what people make and do and create. You can learn so much about people by looking at the personal joys that are important to them and craft markets are a beautiful opportunity to talk to artists, which we did. (More on this in the Christchurch post!)
Our goal for the day was to hike Queenstown Hill, one of New Zealand’s iconic short walks. Queenstown is a starting point for some of the Great Walks, too, which I would absolutely love to do if I get the chance to go back. It would require packing and preparing very differently but like camping in Abel Tasman National Park, it’s an experience I’d love to have.
All that to say, I loved hiking Queenstown Hill. It was challenging in parts because it gets rocky and steep but the sun was shining and we met so many friendly people along the way. We experienced that on every hike and walk in New Zealand – everyone says hi as they pass.
And it was so, so beautiful at the top. The view down to Lake Wakatipu was stunning, but even more so the view towards the mountains. It stretched as far as the eye could see and the wind was incredible. Twice we actually had to sit down because of how it roared and swept up the dust all around. And then when the wind stopped, it grew so quiet and still and the world felt empty of life for just a moment.
As Sharon pointed out, we’d climbed plenty “Mount Something” while in New Zealand and this one, the most mountain-like of all, was called a hill. I guess that’s the only reasonable name to give it when it’s nestled among the Southern Alps, which are very real mountains.
We were happy for an early evening because we had an early morning and big day ahead of us – it was my birthday and we were going to Milford Sound! We had had beautiful weather and hoped the next day would be similar but, as luck would have it, it rained. Considering Fiordland National Park gets 200 days of rain per year, this shouldn’t have been surprising. We actually took an organized tour to Milford because Queenstown was four and a half hours away by car (again, this is why I’d stay in Te Anau or camp in Milford in the future). But the coach bus was really comfortable and we got lucky with seats right in the front. Greg, the driver, told us all about the flora and landscape and the drive passed really quickly. It also helped that we stopped twice to walk and look around. Just like Lisa at Franz Josef Glacier, Greg said we were lucky because the rain let us see the waterfalls and hear the roar of the water.
When we arrived at the boat terminal, the rain hadn’t let up at all. We’d really hoped to kayak and were promised that we’d still be able to go as long as it didn’t get any worse. As it happened, the fact that it was raining gave us the chance to make friends who we ended up spending the day with! Had it been nice enough to stand outside for the duration of the cruise, I definitely would have done so. Since it wasn’t, though, Sharon struck up a conversation with Michele and Alice from the US and UK, respectively, and invited them to share our table. They were looking forward to kayaking, too, and the four of us found much to talk about beyond what we’d experienced in New Zealand so far.
But as good as the company was, feeling the rain and the spray while looking out at Milford Sound was what took my breath away.
And we did get to kayak! Much to our relief, the kayak company had proper wet gear and this time, I gratefully accepted it. Appropriately donned in completely unflattering but very visible yellow, orange, and red, we headed out onto the water. It was a short guided tour just around the cove but the view looking up at the mountains from the water gave a real sense of how dynamic the landscape is. It was even relaxing to just bask in the rain and look at everything towering over us. It’s a beautiful world in all of its forms.
The sun came out on our drive back to Queenstown and I didn’t even mind. It felt like a totally different landscape because the mist dispersed and left the world looking fresh and clean and awake again. And I’m glad I got to see Fiordland like that, too.
Sharon told Michele and Alice that it was my birthday and they were only too happy to join us back at Atlas for flights of beer. I had vegetarian poutine, too! It was so enjoyable chatting with people who I actually felt like I clicked with, which is something I do love about travellers. Spending the day in a beautiful landscape in a beautiful world with lovely people by my side was the best birthday I could have hoped for. I am so lucky to be part of it all.
And the next day we were back on the road for the final stop of our South Island road trip. As promised, I’ll write about Christchurch in a separate post – coming soon!