Away from the bright lights and tacky trinkets, it is still possible to experience the lakes, bush and mountains that were the original draw for visitors to the area.
New Zealand is an ideal place to visit to escape the Northern Winter. Queenstown, located in the lower half of New Zealand's South Island, claims to be an adventure capital. And opportunities to Bungy Jump, White Water Raft and Heliski are there an abundance. However, it is the natural attractions that put Queenstown on the map, and with just a little local knowledge you can escape the crass commercialism and chaotic traffic of the downtown area. In fact, within just a few minutes, your car can become the only one in the carpark and you can be striding along paths leading to some amazing scenery and enjoying the best views of the region for free.
I can't hope to cover all the walks here but here are a few that I've found to be amongst the best.
This is on SH6 between Cromwell and Queenstown. The most obvious sign is the powerhouse on the bank of the Kawarau Gorge that extracts energy from the Roaring Meg creek. The powerhouse has been modernised over the years and probably doesn't have too much heritage value left, but is still worth a look, and the path around the powerhouse gives a good view of the gorge, water gushing from the powerhouse and the “machine hall” where the turbines are situated. Across the road is where the walk really starts. It is initially moderately steep as it follows the stream and pipeline, gradually deviating away to join a well formed private access road. The view just gets better and better as the route winds its way away from the state highway, briefly passing through a grove of trees before re-emerging into tussocklands. The hydro-electric system is quite old and it is interesting to look across the gully to the pipelines weaving their way through the mountainous terrain to the powerhouse, at one point crossing over a pipe suspension bridge. Eventually the track and pipeline converge, surprisingly at another powerhouse. This one is a bit more rustic and contains two quite elderly turbines, one of which was in full swing during my visit. While most of the equipment is probably imported, the whole scheme seems like an iconic New Zealand“No. 8 wire” solution to sourcing energy.
The walking track continues, winding ever higher, until it reaches the dam and “Lake”. This catchment has reasonably low rainfall which presumably explains the modest size of the lake, but the altitude means the turbines have quite a high “head” and can therefore extract quite a lot of energy from modest flows. From here, the track continues in the form of a proper hiking trail toward Cardrona and requires all the proper preparations for a tramp into remote high country.
If you're after a side-trip on your way back to Queenstown, Chard Farm Vineyard is well worth a look. It is accessed from the steep road to your left just before the bungy bridge. An authentic looking yellow sign states “Cars fit parachutes here”. But before long, the road flattens out to become a nice flat gently weaving single lane ledge with a soaring schist bouldered mountain above you and the swift rocky Kawarau River below. It really is very scenic although keep an eye on the road as there isn't much between you and the scenery. The wines have the distinctive fruity Central Otago flavour but aren't cheap as yields in this region are low due to the cooler climate but are of high quality. Well worth a second round of samples.
Lake Hayes Walking Track
Lake Hayes has been portrayed in calendars around the world for decades, with it's fantastic 360 degree vistas, reflectiveness and natural setting all making it a memorable location. Sadly, housing developments and roading have spoiled many of the usual vantage points. Fortunately, there is a relatively new walkway around the lake that allows you to view the lake from a new perspective, normally with the overpriced real estate behind you and the natural setting visible in most directions. The trail can be accessed from several places, the easiest of which is to follow the short access road just past the Arrowtown Junction marked by a green Department of Conservation sign.
The track initially makes its way across a pebbly beach and through some willows before cutting across the hillside on the far side of the lake. From here, great views in all directions can be enjoyed, from the Crown Terrace to Cecil Peak in the far horizon. Near the outlet, a lengthy boardwalk takes walkers over the boggy area and past a stream that often has bird or fish life visible. The final stretch takes you past a small vineyard, and in case this catches your interest, nearby is the Amisfield Winery which has tastings as well as a sizable cafe. A glass of their Arcadia is probably an ideal way to finish the Lake Hayes experience, provided you still fit their dress code.
Lake Dispute / Mount Crighton Loop
These tracks are accessed off the Queenstown – Glenorchy Road near Wilson's Bay. Initially, a reasonably enthusiastic climb is required up the well formed track to reach Lake Dispute, high above Lake Wakitipu. Lying in its own glacial valley, the lake is certainly attractive but to get the best views, it is necessary to climb further, branching onto the Mt Crighton loop track. After exhausting the photographic possibilities of the lake, this track plunges into particularly attractive native bush. The track weaves around a stream and has a few quite creditable bridges. One of the gems is a spectacular waterfall. Nearby is an old stone hut which is a contrast to the mansions presumably owned by movie stars just visible in the distance. However, the site of the stone hut, just metres from the waterfall makes the mansions location look second rate, and the hut can be rented for just a few dollars a night, surely Queenstowns cheapest and most picturesque accommodation. A side-track takes you through a natural narrow tunnel through the rock.
Other interesting walks in the region include Lake Sylvan in the Routeburn Valley, Sawpit Gully and Macetown tracks accessed from Arrowtown and the Moonlight / Ben Lomond / Moke Lake network which are all fantastic. Be warned that it is a culture shock returning to the traffic, americanised bars and general sprawl that has overtaken Queenstown's former frontier town atmosphere.