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How to spend a magical winter in Queenstown

Drop off a cliff or simply enjoy the mountainous views with a mulled wine – there's plenty of choice at this spectacular NZ destination

By Time Out in association with Destination Queenstown |
View from the Boat Shed, Queenstown
Photograph: Supplied

Ask anyone about Queenstown and they will most likely mention the experience of flying in.  And rightly so: as the plane drops through the clouds, prepare to be met by jaw-dropping misty mountain views. Gliding past the snowy peaks and swooping down on the tiny town huddled around the deep emerald Lake Wakatipu, you’ll want the plane to take off and land all over again. Never fear: everywhere you go in Queenstown is stunning if you’re a glutton for mystical scenery.

Though small, Queenstown has a whole lotta action packed in. The busy urban centre is your launch point for booking a bevy of extreme sport excitement and once-in-a-lifetime snowy adventure. More of a leisure seeker? Winter means fantastic seasonal seafood, daring hot cocktails, local craft boozeries and the annual Real Journeys Queenstown Winter Festival in late June.

Plan your trip to Queenstown

Sherwood Hotel room interior, Queenstown
Photograph: Vaughan Brookfield

Settle in at a hill top hideaway

A mock-Tudor motel back in the '80s, Sherwood has been given a liberal lashings of Wes Anderson school camp aesthetic and a complete sustainability overhaul. Perched on three acres of alpine hillside, the hotel's every room has a peek of the Remarkables mountain range and slices of the lake. With its on-site sauna, yoga studio, walking track and buffet breakfast of champions, it's the perfect base for your Queenstown adventure.

Each room has been thoughtfully refreshed and replenished with upcycled materials and local tidbits. From old army blanket curtains to the manuka honey all-purpose wash in the shower, Sherwood wears its environmental impact on its recycled cork sleeve. Relying mostly on their own solar power and passionately catering from the on-grounds garden or close-by producers, this is a carbon tip-toe that doesn't scrimp on welcoming warmth and beauty. 

An enclosed chondola goes up the mountain at Cardrona Resort
Photograph: Supplied

Hit the slopes

Queenstown boasts at least four ski areas all between 25 and 90 minutes' drive from town. Head to Cardrona Alpine Resort for a leisurely chondola (a hybrid chairlift-gondola) ride to the top of some varied-skill ski fields. There's a tiny kiosk at the top for piping hot chocolate ganache – with an optional Baileys hit if you're feeling confident – and 360 degree views of frosty wilderness. Cardrona contains eight different places to eat and drink dotted around the mountain, but if you want to rest your ski legs in style secure a chic booth at the Mezz, the à la carte restaurant upstairs. Replenish your energy stores with a bacon-laden Brunch Mary, a local Otago wine, or a hearty porchetta sandwich with hazelnut gremolata and tangy pickles.

Cardrona is also the site for a lot of fun Winter Festival action – don't miss the annual dog race down the mountain or the ski tug 'o' war.

A couple dangles over the river at Shotover Canyon Fox Queenstown
Photograph: Supplied

Spike your trip with adrenaline

Not satisfied with just admiring beautiful scenery, the locals of Queenstown want you crash through it on a rope. The Shotover Canyon Swing is where you are given a menu of ways to fall off a 109 metre cliff into a beautiful gorge. On a plastic chair, strapped to a loved one, or solo, you can get your blood pumping with a 60-metre free fall then swing over a teal river screaming your lungs out.

If you prefer a more gravity-obeying adrenaline hit try the Shotover Jet in the same canyon. Here you'll be whipped through the rapids at an intense speed with enough pause for discerning the staggering rock faces and azure water from the exciting blur.

Plates of food at Sherwood Hotel restaurant
Photograph: Supplied

Feast on local produce

Try the bounty of fresh seafood, vegetables, meat and wines the fertile Queenstown area has to provide at one of the area's many fantastic eateries. For the best of the South Island's oceans head to Fishbone for casual dining with inventive seafood dishes. The tasting menu is your best bet, with a staggering of highlights like local green-lipped mussels, Fiordland crayfish tortellini in an intensely vivid and delicious bisque, and the meaty Bluff oysters found only in the Foveaux Strait on the southernmost tip of the island.

Eat your way through the land with a Malaysian street food twist at Hawker and Roll. Feast on fast and fresh snacks like a roast duck stuffed roti, which buckles under the generous hunks of caramelised meat, crunchy cabbage, coriander and chilli.

For hyper-local dining, make sure you book a table at Sherwood's on-site restaurant to try chard from the garden mere metres away or locally sourced paua (a blue tinged abalone native to New Zealand) in a rich pork consommé. Sherwood is naturally all about nose-to-tail cooking and minimal waste so expect to try delicious side surprises as well. 


Reds bar duck interior, Queenstown
Photograph: Stephen Goodenough

Mix it up at cocktail hour

To enjoy a delightfully peculiar drink by a mountain-praising window head to Reds cocktail bar. Lead by mixologist Gethin Curtis, Reds pride themselves on creativity and individuality – you'll be hard pressed to find a cocktail quite like theirs anywhere else in Queenstown. Settle in with a popcorn-infused rum tipple or learn from Gethin himself with a masterclass for $75 per person. The class is a great way to try your hand at wielding the shakers or taking a blowtorch to some sugary egg whites. 

To warm your tum against the icy winds try some of the area's signature hot booze. We recommend the Between the Peaks, an updated luxe version of a hot toddy with chestnut inflections from the Lodge Bar, or a generous mug of steaming and fragrant mulled wine from the waterfront Bathhouse.

Brewery tour at canyon Food & Brew
Photograph: Kate Roberge

Go behind the brew

Right on the rapids (near the Shotover Jet) is the woody micro-brewery Canyon Food and Brew. Pull up a pew and try a tasting menu with matched snacks for each of the brewed on-site beers, from a refreshing pale ale to a hearty, chocolatey porter. Then, go behind the taps and see Jonathan Kauri in action with an informative tour. Well, it's more of a stand and chat than a tour as the beer is brewed entirely in one room. Find out about New Zealand's distinct hops and how the glacial water of Queenstown effects the beer quality (positively). Robust flavours are pumping out of this tiny brewery and you'll want to spend an afternoon trying them all.

Fireworks at Winter Festival, Queenstown
Photograph: Colm Keating

Get festive around town

The Real Journeys Winter Festival is the jewel in Queenstown's frozen crown. It all kicks off with a Matariki Torchlight Hikoi – a participatory fire walk through town that nods to the Māori traditional honouring of the change of season. This is followed by a packed weekend of live music, comedy, novelty races and challenges, and celebratory fireworks over the lake. The line-up is diverse, with introspective folk singers performing in a log cabin one day and scantily costumed brave souls jumping into the glacial water in a "splash for cash" the next. No matter where you wander in Queenstown, Cardrona, or surrounding pop-up venues the Winter Festival provides cheeky spectator fun or surprisingly moving entertainment at every turn. Be sure to align your next snow-hunting jaunt to Queenstown with the unbeatable atmosphere of festival time.