Queenstown in winter is Queenstown ne plus ultra. The Remarkables, always impressive, are even more imposing when their arrowhead peaks are dipped in white. Lake Wakatipu tends to be glassy, and the alpine air is at its keenest. Exit the airport terminal and you’ll feel like you’ve been plugged into a new power source.
The town’s famous nightlife takes on a cosier hue in the colder months. The après-ski crowd huddle over mulled wines, and every bar and eatery seems to have a roaring fire at its heart. It’s the apogee of slow-cooked lamb and Central Otago pinot, the high-water mark of the warming whisky cocktail.
You’ll work for your pleasures, though. The skiing can be either invigorating or leg-shreddingly intense, depending on your fitness – although if you’re new to Queenstown, you might spend much of your day wonderstruck by the views. If you don’t ski, there are some terrific short walks and biking trails to set you up nicely for a big night out.
Skiing Queenstown the conventional way means either a day up The Remarkables or Coronet Peak. The former is younger, laidback – the ‘Relaxables’ – and a little more learner-friendly, while also being popular with the terrain-park set. Coronet is just a 25-minute drive from town up a sealed road and offers a little more for advanced skiers, with good backcountry and more diverse terrain to explore. It can get busy, but the modern chairlifts whip people through quickly. It’s also the only commercial New Zealand field to offer night skiing. Both fields have excellent contemporary base facilities. If you want to go further afield, Cardrona is over the Crown Range, while Treble Cone, 90 minutes distant, offers New Zealand’s largest vertical.
Queenstown is the base for several excellent heli-skiing operators. The largest, Harris Mountains Heli-ski, can get you to where the powder is deep and untracked and the terrain suits your ability level. Packages include guided four, seven- or 10-run days, or you can opt for a private charter where you get to set the pace, perhaps stopping for some lunch at a mountain tarn or flying over to the West Coast to dip a toe in the sea between runs. Soho Basin is also about backcountry skiing, but using snowcats, not choppers, and with a gourmet twist. Covering 730 hectares in the Cardrona Valley, the privately owned ski area has a nice tie-in with Amisfield Winery and Bistro. Ski the powder, then enjoy a three-course Amisfield lunch with wine pairings, served in the snow.
Luxury guided tours
When Black ZQN was launched 10 years ago, it was Queenstown’s first luxury tour operator, offering tailored experiences for well-heeled international and domestic travellers. It’s still the yardstick at that premium end of the market. The guides all know the Southern Lakes intimately; the fleet includes Range Rover Vogues, Land Rover Defenders and Mercedes GLs; and the company enjoys great ‘backstage’ access to local winemakers, artists and private scenic locations and farmland. Among the 14-odd private tours are options focused on wine, art, skiing and photography, or you could head off-road into the glorious Central Otago high country.
The only way to travel
Over the Top helicopters was founded by industry pioneer Louisa ‘Choppy’ Patterson in 1986 – she’s still chief pilot and ceo – and has carved out a niche at the premium end, bringing into Queenstown the first luxury Eurocopters – bigger and quieter – and sparing no expense when it comes to maintaining that edge. Witness the line’s newish nine-seater, twin-engined BK117 chopper, which comes with a cocktail bar in the back. All of this top-line gear is matched by expert but down-to-earth service, and a menu of excursions that ranges from dog sledding, to golf at 4500 feet, to memorable scenic flights into Fiordland.
On yer bike
The gondola-assisted Queenstown Bike Park closes for winter, allowing gentler cycling pleasures to come into their own. Around the Basin specialises in bike tours of the Queenstown Trail, a 140-kilometre network of hard-packed tracks linking Queenstown, Jack’s Point, Arrowtown and the Gibbston Valley. A popular winter option is the easy 15-kilometre Arrow River Bridges trail between Arrowtown and Gibbston that takes in five bridges, including a trio of suspension bridges over the Kawarau River. Around the Basin provides well-maintained Merida and Avanti bikes and e-bikes, and a shuttle service, plus mobile rental bike delivery during winter.
There are a handful of day spas in Queenstown, but you can’t go wrong with the Hilton’s high-end eforea spa, which also includes use of the swimming pool, sauna and spa. Skiers coming down from a full-on day at Coronet, meanwhile, should soak in one of Onsen’s cedar-lined hot tubs overlooking the Shotover River at Arthurs Point.
Wine and dine
Whatever the season, eating and drinking are a big part of Queenstown’s pitch. At the higher end, Rātā is a piece of airy modernity wedged between historic stone buildings in a central Queenstown alleyway. The food is inventive and delicious, the service reliably good and the vibe more relaxed than you might expect given Rātā’s stellar rep.
Boardwalk, which opened last winter, already starts from pole position by virtue of its upstairs Steamer Wharf setting, with views of Queenstown Bay and The Remarkables. Boardwalk’s strengths are fresh seafood and premium steaks, along with a lengthy cocktail and wine list. There’s a walkup champagne and oyster bar downstairs.
At Lake Hayes, Amisfield Bistro inhabits a building that is all Central Otago schist and steeply pitched roofs. Executive chef Vaughan Mabee is at the helm, and Tony Stewart, former owner of Auckland’s Clooney, is food and beverage director. Skiers should note the après-ski opportunity for cocktails and more casual food at Amisfield’s cellar door bar.
Akarua Wines & Kitchen by Artisan is a collaboration between the family-owned winery and Artisan Catering, based in a smartly refurbished 150-year-old cottage near Arrowtown with plenty of outdoor dining space. On the strength of excellent food and a characterful setting, Akarua has become Queenstown’s go-to for brunch and lunch.
Aosta restaurant, which opened in Arrowtown last winter, was inspired by owner Ben Bayly’s experiences visiting the Italian valley of Aosta as a young chef. The food is steeped in the cooking techniques and flavours of northern Italy and the fresh bounty of Central and Southland.
The progressive dinner tour run by Alpine Wine Tours was a first for the region when launched last year. Knowledgeable local guides take small groups in Mercedes Sprinter vans for a wine tasting and entrée at Amisfield, followed by a main matched with wine at Aosta and concluding with dessert and a fireside digestif at Eichardt’s Private Hotel.
Where to stay
Eichardt’s is the 1860s lakefront boutique hotel that has only got better with age. A penthouse suite and bistro-style restaurant were added as part of a $6 million redevelopment a few years ago, along with two apartments and a three-bedroom residence. Since the covid-19 lockdown ended, there have been other changes. Dinner is now included in all packages, served in newly created private dining suites, and a small in-house spa is operating in the Vault suite. The hotel’s 24-metre super-yacht, Pacific Jemm, is available for charter.
Opened last Christmas, Gibbston Valley Lodge & Spa is sited near the first block planted by Alan Brady, the ‘Godfather’ of wine in the Gibbston. The new establishment is a stunning addition to Queenstown’s premium accommodation market, with 24 secluded vineyard villas, a central lodge with a wine-tasting cellar, a boutique standalone spa offering luxurious ‘vinotherapy’ treatments, a sauna, gym and outdoor hot tubs. Gibbston Valley Winery head chef Anthony Gradiska leads the food offering.