Destination of the Week: Queenstown, New Zealand

Apr 13, 2012

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Queenstown at dusk with the Remarkables in the distance.

For today’s Destination of the Week, we head to the other side of the world to pump up the adrenaline with adventure sports like heli-skiing and whitewater rafting, savor some world-class Pinot Noirs, and maybe take the plunge with a bungy jump or two in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Right in the heart of New Zealand’s rugged South Island, Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand for good reason: this little town of 11,000 souls is packed to the brim with adrenaline junkies and the opportunity for visitors to do everything from zip-lining and mountain biking to heli-skiing and bungy jumping—though there are also a few more genteel pursuits to explore while you’re here such as wine-tasting in nearby Central Otago.

The gondola up to Skyline Queenstown after a fresh snowfall.

Get the lay of the land by taking a gondola up to the Skyline Queenstown complex for views of town and the surrounding snow-fringed mountains, then either grab a gondola back down, rent a mountain bike for a hair-raising careen down the mountainside, or take a series of zip-lines with Ziptrek Ecotours. You could also bungy jump from a platform up near the viewing platform and mall, but it’s more fun to head 30 minutes outside town to plunge from with Kawarau Bridge, the birthplace of bungy, over a scenic river gorge.

The Amisfield Winery 20 minutes outside Queenstown.

Reward yourself for bravery with a tour of the nearby Central Otago wineries along SH6 back into town—you could also take a tour with Appellation Central Wine Tours—but be sure to make time for a leisurely lunch with wine pairings at Amisfield Winery, where the new chef cut his teeth in the kitchen at Noma in Copenhagen (named San Pellegrino’s “Best Restaurant in the World”). On the way back to town, hit the quaint artists’ studios and shops of the restored mining town of Arrowtown for a gentrified version of New Zealand’s rough-and-tumble past.

Jetboating along the a river gorge.

Jetboating along a river gorge with Shotover Jet Boats is another favorite high-octane pastime here, and now that winter will be setting on, it’s ski season in the nearby Remarkables Range and Coronet Peak ski fields, while for the real extremists experts, Over The Top Helicopter Excursions offers heli-skiing adventures.

It’s expensive, but if your time is short and you want to make it out to the breathtaking scenery of Milford Sound along the desolate West Coast (and the notoriously fickle weather permits), consider a Fly-Cruise-Fly all-day tour with Milford Flights that includes a plane ride over the Southern Alps, and cruise along the sound to Mitre Peak and the Tasman Sea.

The town's trendiest eatery: the Botswana Butchery.

Back in town, stop for artisanal cocktails at The Spire hotel’s trendy bar before a hearty dinner at the trendy Botswana Butchery or maybe just a tray of oysters at chic Wai Waterfront Restaurant.

Set aside a little time to wander the streets and alleys of the main town radiating off the small waterfront, and for a stroll along the rose-lined pathways of the lovely Queenstown Gardens.

Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.

Queenstown is a small place, and so is its airport, which is just about a 15-minute drive from town. A taxi to town will cost you about $20 USD, but there are also a few shuttle services charging more like $5-10 per person.

Air New Zealand flies here from Auckland and Wellington on the North Island, and Christchurch on the South Island. Jetstar (part of Qantas) flies from Auckland, Christchurch and Rotorua in New Zealand, and Sydney, and Virgin Blue operates a flight here from Sydney as well. Qantas offers a direct flight from Queenstown-Sydney year round, with extra routes usually added during ski season to Melbourne and Brisbane.

One of the best uses of miles is US Airways’ 110,000 mile awards to Australia/New Zealand. US Airways recently sold miles for 1.8 cents a piece, so that’s like getting the roundtrip in business class for $1,980 plus taxes – not bad. Air New Zealand is a Star Alliance member, so you can redeem those US Airways miles for Air New Zealand awards. Air New Zealand availability is supported on ExpertFlyer so all you need to do is find space and then call US Airways to get the ticket booked. Check out this post for more information on maximizing US Airways miles.

Though one of the larger towns on New Zealand’s South Island, and a major tourism destination, Queenstown is actually quite small, so there are not a lot of hotels, and many of them are for the backpacker crowd. However, there are still some decent points options for you!

A Mountainview King Room at the Crowne Plaza.

Crowne Plaza: This hotel is a few blocks from the center of town, just across the road from the lakeshore. Rooms have either lake or mountain views. The rooms here look somewhat bland with blond woods and gray carpeting, but they seem fairly spacious, with a king or two queen beds, an armchair and ottoman, small work desk, wall-mounted flat-screen TV’s, high-speed internet access, and bathrooms with shower-tub combos. There is a sort of 90’s-ish bar with beds where guests recline as they drink trendy cocktails called the Intimate Bed Bar, as well as the Threesixty Restaurant and Bar for gourmet seasonal food with views overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Rates in May start at $130 USD or 25,000 Priority Club points.

A King Guest Room at the new Hilton.

Hilton Queenstown: This Hilton is actually a pretty new property that only opened in November of 2011. It is actually across the lake from town, past the airport, but the hotel offers shuttle service, and the drive is only about 10-15 minutes. The hotel is set along the lake shore and the building’s have a sort of Craftsman-meets-US Northwest kind of feel to them with local schist stone and timber accents. The 178 guest rooms and suites all have private balconies or decks, fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as king-size beds (we couldn’t find any with more than one bed, so beware if you’re a family traveling here), high-speed internet access, LCD flat-screens, and big bathrooms with dual vanities and separate walk-in shower and soaking tubs. The signature restaurant is the Wakatipu Grill overlooking the lake, and the outdoor fire pit is one of the most popular places in Queenstown to meet for cocktails. For a more casual drink, have a glass of local wine at Cru Wine Bar & Lounge. The hotel also has a signature Hilton eforea Spa,  and there is a complex on the property with a convenience store and some casual restaurants. Rates in May start at $165 USD a night, or 35,000 Hilton HHonors points since this is a Category 5 property.

The fire pit at the Hilton's Wakatipu Grill is one of the most popular spots in town for drinks.

Sofitel: If you are a member of the Accor’s A-Club, your best bet in town might be the Sofitel. The hotel is actually right in the center of town just between the main drag of Shotover Street the road up to Skyline Queenstown, so it’s a good location to get everywhere.  The hotel prides itself on a sort of French-style sophistication which seems a little out of place in Queenstown, but still quite nice. There are just 82 rooms and suites with nice European touches like espresso machines and French bath products, as well as standard amenities including Sofitel MyBeds, surround-sound entertainment systems, WiFi access, and two-person spa tubs and separate rain showers plus underfloor heating in the bathrooms. The hotel also has a new café-tea room called Left Bank café, the upscale Vie Restaurant and Nue Lounge for evening cocktails, and a LeSpa. Rates in May start at $392 a night. There is also a Novotel nearby along the lakefront for A-Club members looking for a lower price point. A-Club members earn two points per euro spent on stays at Accor hotels and can redeem their points for hotel vouchers or transfer them to miles with the program’s airline partners in increments of 4,000 points, usually at a favorable 2:1 ratio.

A King Deluxe room at the European-style Sofitel.

The Spire: A stay at this 10-room luxury boutique hotel in the center of town is a real splurge, with all-inclusive bed-and-breakfast room rates starting at nearly $900 USD May-June, but once you’re there, they take care of everything, from arranging all your activities to parking your rental car, all the high-speed internet and free New Zealand calls you want, and little welcome amenities including champagne, fresh fruit, local artisanal chocolates and more.

Prices at The Spire are definitely OTT, but so are the rooms.

The bathrooms are gargantuan with dressing areas, enormous marble bathrooms with dual vanities, L’Occitaine products, deep soaking tubs and separate walk-in showers. The rooms themselves feature king-size or over-size twin beds, glass work desks, sliding glass doors out onto private balconies, multi-media entertainment systems with wall-mounted flat-screen TV’s, DVD players, satellite TV and iPod docks, free WiFi, and gas fireplaces. Rates also include a full breakfast in the small restaurant, and the hotel also has a hip cocktail bar where the town’s urbane crowd gravitates in the evening for artisanal, hand-made cocktails. Again, super expensive, so if you have a budget for a splurge night or two on your trip, this could be it.

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