Why autumn is a great time to visit Queenstown

The Earnslaw sweeps into Queenstown for docking, a manoeuvre fine-tuned over the 100 years the grand old steamer has called Lake Wakatipu home.

There’s no need to bungy-jump from a bridge or swing perilously close to  a cliff-face in a jet-boat to sample the delights of the country’s adventure capital. Autumn is a time for gentler, more mindful pursuits. 

Words and Photos: Guy Frederick

It’s quieter than usual on the boardwalks which flank the cold, deep waters that form a natural hub around which Queenstown revolves. Autumn is a time when the picturesque location that put adventure tourism on the world map is momentarily reclaimed by locals and travelers in the know.

A meander along the much-photographed lake can be invigorating, but the warming aromas of ginger and cardamom mix with the crisp, fresh air. A young Indian couple are bringing a fragrant measure of their culture to the town – one cup at a time – and their bright chai cart ties in well with the golden colours that are blanketing the backdrop.

This mellow, fruitful season brings the chance to avoid the madding crowds that will soon come to ski, snowboard and party.

Amble past the botanic gardens which have celebrated the arrival of autumn in an explosion of colour to the start of the 120km network of tracks that is the Queenstown cycle and walking trail.

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In this section, this easy-going, blissful track continues for several kilometres along a lakefront that reflects New Zealand’s archetypal southern landscape putting on its best show, as though dressed for the races.

Lunch with lake and mountain views; Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) from Tanoshi.

On the horizon a puff of smoke drifts upwards, a sign that the SS Earnslaw is steaming into port after her daily trip to Walter Peak station. As much a part of this landscape as the jagged schist peaks, the grand old lady fills the small bay with majestic presence, undertaking a broad turn with a peacock-like display before docking.

This romanticized version of Queenstown reminds me of the area’s history but in real time, the town, once a quiet summer-holiday destination for Southlanders, is now on the bucket list for adventurists around the globe.

Mrs Ferg’s mobile cart serves up flavours to savour such as salted caramel gelato or passionfruit sorbet.

They come to sample a taste of the lengthy list of activities on offer in the Wakatipu Basin – and  a surprisingly multi-cultural offering.

New Zealand’s equivalent of a pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal has to be a trip up the gondola to take in the town below, nestled within a cathedral of nature; it’s a scene from every tourism brochure but one that has to be snapped with one’s own eyes.

Botanical gardens provide a tranquil spot for a quiet wander or a more physical game of frisbee golf.

The day can also end with dinner at this altitude, the world-class vista the restaurant’s constantly changing wallpaper as the evening light kisses the mountains and welcomes the Milky Way to the ever-revolving scene.

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The influx of people ticking off a thirst for adrenaline has brought an intensity of growth and a buzz of energy to the town. But Queenstown has undergone a shift reaching beyond this quest for a quick fix, with a renewed focus on health and wellness.

Suiza Sevilla-Ferro, manager of So Spa at the Sofitel, holds the stones used for the locally inspired greenstone massage.

It’s a destination that now caters for those seeking nourishment of mind, body and soul, and these days, you’re just as likely to see a rolled-up yoga mat casually slung over the shoulder as a backpack; it may be just me, but these down-dog enthusiasts seem to wander about with very good posture.

The staggering number of yoga options on offer (hatha flow, power vinyasa, yoga nidra and honey flow) set the flexibility standards high. Yoga seems to be on the menu in every second café, and wellness and spa retreats have popped up everywhere.

Amanda Woolridge of Nadi Wellness Centre says living among the greens and blues swipes away the noise of life.

The Nadi Wellness Centre in the middle of town offers a full suite of such nourishing activities and therapies.

Amanda Woolridge, one of Nadi’s instructors and life coaches, made the 19,000km journey from London here 25 years ago and never left, but she suggests it’s the 30cm journey between the head and heart that for most is the biggest journey one can ever make.

Vesta design store is located in the oldest cottage in Queenstown – marks on the original wallpaper are a reminder of the height of historic flood events.

A prerequisite for a healthy head and heart is a healthy diet but if you’re not careful, any goal to leave Queenstown stronger and fitter, could easily turn into departing with an extra kilo or two under the belt.

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There’s a delicious variety; sourcing food locally and sustainably has moved mainstream, with ethical and environmental considerations a focal point. International influences augment this local food scene bringing yet another layer of flavour and colour to the town.

French crêpes are served from a small mobile stand on the waterfront by a young woman who looks very, well, French (I’m making a huge judgement call based on her classy style and her painted-red lips).

And then there’s the pop-up Chai Wala cart bringing a touch of India to  the town or the chocolate emporium, Patagonia, owned by an Argentinian couple who hankered for the cocoa-laced taste of  their homeland.


A still evening with a backdrop of autumnal colours.

But it’s that lakefront beach that keeps drawing me back. With a loud blast, the Earnslaw’s horn echoes through the streets and alleyways as it chugs off on its next journey.

As the ship fades into the distance, I can’t help but think it will probably ply the lake long after I’m gone.

It is certain what will remain: the deep lake and those towering mountains piercing the magnificent big sky for all to see and hopefully, in the process, to be nudged a little further along that 30cm journey from head to heart.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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