All Roads Lead to Queenstown!

Looking up the Gibbston Valley

Every trip through New Zealand is a real voyage of discovery and this part of the country is often called the jewel in the crown. Expect high rugged mountains, charging jet boats through deep river gorges, vineyards with wines to put a tilt in yer kilt, people leaping off things, first class shopping, ohistoric buildings with stories seeping from their rock coatings, world class golfing and skiing opportunities and locals as vibrant and busy as you’ll find anywhere. Destination is Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. Hold onto your frillies and get set for the ride of your life.

The Cloudy Bay Shed near Queenstown

Read on to find out what to expect on the scenic drives from Wanaka to Queenstown and beyond – on your self drive holiday of New Zealand's South Island. Dotted along the route are the townships of Glenorchy, Frankton, Kingston, and Arrowtown - all worthy of more than a fleeting glance, in this stunning Central Otago region boasting lakeside resorts galore. Read here for the Part 1 of this scenic journey to Queenstown.


Leaving Wanaka calls for a momento and what better way to remember your stay, than a visit to the lavender and honey farm there. Bathed in appropriate fragrance will relax you as you make your choice as to which route to take to get to Queenstown. You've two to choose from, via the highest public road in New Zealand, the Crown Range, or through Luggate, Cromwell and the Kawarau Gorge.

Option 1 To Queenstown over the Crown Range

The Crown Range road is well signposted and leaves Wanaka through the Cardrona valley, with the Cardrona mountain range on your right hand side and the Pisa range on your left. The area is farmland with a strong focus on tourism. 

The focal point being the Cardrona settlement itself, with its historic pub, craft shop, bike surgery, village development and world famous bra fence.

Rumour has it, near 25 years ago, a bunch of local women decided to unload their bras on a fence on the main road. Unfortunately there was some outrage with anti bra fence antagonists claiming it offensive and an eyesore and attempted to remove them. This only brought more bras to the  rescue and hanging on the fence, challenging the do gooders. Again they were removed, amid arguments of them being a traffic hazard and the local authorities agreed. Ultimately after more back and forth, some common sense prevailed and the fence was relocated on private land and rebranded as 'Bradona'.

Now thousands of coloured bras, of all shapes and sizes, adorn the fence. From early days, there was always an association with the fence highlighting breast cancer and these days the donation box for that very cause has raised thousands of dollars.

Just as your donation is always appreciated, so is your garment and shyness is not an option round these parts..

Wanaka Bra Fence


Cardrona is busy all year round. The summer months are popular with mountain bikers, while the winter snow sports action here is huge. Cardrona ski area is one of the busiest in the country and the opposing Pisa range is a genuine cross country skiing destination and snow park.

The historic pub is just as famous, offering stunning meals, wine selection and accommodation. The Lee family have farmed around here forever and much of Cardrona's evolution is their legacy.

How far is Cardrona from Queenstown?

Queenstown is about 50 minutes away though you're now climbing to the top of the Crown range. The road is sealed yet can seem quite narrow as you wind your way towards the summit. Remember the road can be icy or snow covered in winter and obviously you'll need to have tyre chains in the vehicle just in case.

Is there a viewing point at the top ?

You bet there is ! Viola in fact ! At 1121 metres above sea level (or 3677 feet) you're above the flight path of the commercial passenger jets flying above the Gibbston valley on approach to Queenstown airport. You can just above wave to them.

In the distance is the sprawl of Queenstown, the Remarkables mountains and Lake Wakitipu. Out of sight and tucked under the bottom of the range summit, is one of the gems of the area, Arrowtown.

Heading down the switch backs on Queenstown side of the Crown Range.

There're a number of switch backs as your descend the Crown range road. It's junction is on the main road to Queenstown to your right, or the Gibbston wine valley on the left. 

My old mate Claver Esmond always says of difficult decisions 'if it's a day with a y in it, why not a vino..' and at this point, tis a fair call, 'cos the Gibbston Wine Valley is a Central Otago icon.


Gibbston's proximity to Queenstown is one big advantage, as it's only 20 minutes away. Home to the regions oldest vineyards with a variety of wines, tastings and bike tours. Pinot Noir abounds, as well as varietal whites (Chardonnay & Riesling), roses and sparkling wines. The vineyards generally operate 7 days.

Is the bungy jumping near here?

Yes, famous bungy jumping is also on this part of the highway. The experience itself was invented in New Zealand and has become a world wide phenomenon, with this the site of the original A J Hackett bungy.  

The Crown Range


From the Gibbston valley you've two options to Queenstown. Back track and continue on the main road or just after the Crown range junction, take the signposted route on your right via Arrowtown. 

Arrowtown is a pretty place, especially in Autumn, when the trees are turning. Sitting near 20kms to the east of Queenstown, Arrowtown is an historic gold rush village and some of the old restored buildings in the main street are testimony to that.

There are good eateries, a pub, quirky shopping, a supermarket, camping ground and full facilities here and the town is a delightful alternative to the bigger and busier Queenstown.

What is there to do and see from here to Queenstown ?

Millbrook Resort is a stones throw away and offers luxury accommodation and dining, spa facilities and a world renowned golf course. 

Call in or carry onto Queenstown. Passing through farmland, the route hangs under the hill, passing a para sailing park and below the famous Coronet Peak ski resort. Once rated among the top 25 resorts in the world, Coronet is the traditionally local field for people from Queenstown. You can take the sealed road to the top anytime and if the chairlifts are running a trip to the top is a must.

Virtually across the valley, you look straight into the Remarkables ski area, also popular with locals though not as old as Coronet.

You can also venture into the Skippers' Gorge from here, though the road is narrow, with a deathly plunge and definitely NOT for the inexperienced or faint hearted.

Option 2 Queenstown via Cromwell 

Ok, so let's back up the truck. Imagine we're back at the Wanaka lavender and honey farm and rather than opting for the Cardrona valley road to Queenstown, we're going to leave Wanaka along the road we first came here on.

Not a long way out of Wanaka you take the turnoff, pointing to Luggate. There's a camping ground here, houses on the hills and yet another historic pub. Only 15 kms out of Wanaka, Luggate sits slightly above the mighty Clutha river and from here the highway skirts around the eastern base of the Pisa range and what becomes the western side of the man made Lake Dunstan.


At the southern end of Lake Dunstan, which is part of the Clyde dam construction, lies the town of Cromwell. Established in the gold rush days, it's now also part of a well known wine region, as well as being a real fruit bowl for New Zealand. Roadside stalls are a feature in season, producing some of the finest stone fruits you'll find anywhere. 

Cromwell is also home to the Highlands motorsport park. It offers everything from go kart riding, to the Porsche taxi ride for the family, to sports cars and a super cars fast dash. Make sure you've a change of under garments..and check out the motorsport museum while you're there.

The Gibbston Valley

Cromwell to Queenstown

You'll be there in less than an hour depending on whether you stop or not. Traveling south out of Cromwell takes you into the Kawarau gorge and more of the schist rock formations. From time to time old tin sheds appear on the opposite of the river. These are remnants of the old mining days when scores of Chinese came to these rugged valleys and built shelters in search of gold. It was a harsh environment and their stories of endurance are well recorded. 

The river carves a rough and ready course and names like 'Roaring Meg' are famous landmarks. Soon enough the Gibbston valley wine region is upon us and then the Kawarau bungy bridge. I should've mentioned that a naked leap will likely get you a free ticket..

Either way, we love that you're here in New Zealand and now we'll enjoy throwing you off things. From here it's a simple enough run through the front door into Queenstown and Lake Wakitipu, passing the ever growing Frankton township and International Airport area. 

Welcome to Queenstown!

Continue past the Coronet Peak road junction and the road rolls down in Queenstown. Some say this is entry via the back door, yet you'll be at the epi centre of the town likely quicker than the more conventional route.  

Is this the adventure capital of the world?

Yes, Queenstown readily lays claim to being the adventure capital of the world! Given what's going on here, it's fair to say they can back that up. Just about every imaginable outdoor pursuit is available with easy favourites being jet boating on the Kawarau and Shotover rivers, riding the gondola to the luge track above the town and sailing on the 'TSS Earnslaw', the 'Lady' of the lake.

What are the must do things here?

Among the 'must dos' is a burger from Fergburger. You might have to queue, though it's worth it. The burgers are high end and inventive, using beef, chicken and also sorts of other exotics.

Is it expensive?

Queenstown is as inexpensive or expensive as you want to make it. Obviously it costs a pretty penny to try everything, so shopping around is the key.

How fit do I have to be to have fun here?

You'll need a moderate standard of well being just to masticate over a full Fergburger, though unless you're mountain biking or hiking the multitude of tracks, chasing fish around the lakes' edge or up the rivers, wind surfing or water skiing, skiing or snowboarding (in season), climbing or para ponting, then you'll cope with pretty much everything else. If in doubt just ask..and the locals don't bite.

Who is the Lady of the lake?

This old girl deserves a special mention. The 'Lady' is the steamship Earnslaw. Built in the same year as the Titanic, 1912 and at 51.2 metres long, she is the largest steamship built in New Zealand. For many years she transported sheep, cargo and passengers to the high country sheep stations surrounding the lake. She has a coal capacity of 14 tons, a crew of 11 and can carry 389 passengers, with a maximum speed of 13 knots.

She still travels the lake from Kingston in the south to Glenorchy in the north, with one of her signature trips being the sight seeing excursion across the lake to Walter Peak and the farm experience and afternoon tea. She has a special berth alongside in Queenstown harbour and there's no way you can miss seeing her.

Are there scenic flights ?

I've mentioned the bungy jump, the farm and winery tours and with Queenstown boasting an international airport at Frankton about 15 minutes out of the town centre, access to the hinterlands and beyond is effortless. 

Helicopter companies and fixed winged aircraft operate from here too and take you to Milford Sound in Fiordland or on a number of other scenic flights. Some of you may chose to end your time here in New Zealand in Queenstown. If so, it's no trouble to head home on an Air New Zealand commercial jet.

Earnslaw visiting the High Country Station

Kingston & Glenorchy

Easier drives from Queenstown are alongside the lake, either south to Kingston or north to Glenorchy. Kingston is about 45 minutes away and is home to the 'Kingston Flyer'.  The town was the rail head for the historic line from Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island, though the last commercial journey on the track was in 1957. 

Fast forward and the 'Flyer' has been fully restored and from September to December runs to nearby Fairlight on a 90 minute return journey. It's also a great fishing spot, with snow bike riding in winter, off road vehicle fun, mountain biking trails and farm visits.

Which is closest, Kingston or Glenorchy?

Both are about equidistant on sealed roads from Queesntown, though Glenorchy is possibly more well known for the iconic photograph of the red shed on the end of the local wharf.

The road here passes the exclusive Blanket Bay resort and if you're feeling very rich you might make inquiries about staying the night !

Glenorchy seems quiet, yet 350 people live here and there's plenty to do. Jetboating and kayaking on the Dart River is spectacular. The area is part of a world heritage expanse and naturally made a fantastic backdrop with the Lord of the Rings,the Hobbit and other movies that've had sets here.

Horse trekking is popular too and the town serves as base to the world renowned Routeburn track walk.If you want to get up to speed with happenings, just tune your radio along the FM band, cos Glenorchy has its own radio station.

Where can I hike near Queenstown?

Yes you can, as you can actually drive to the start of the Routeburn, that also links with the equally popular Greenstone and Caples tracks. Part of the area is known as Paradise, with the huge dramatic peaks of the Humbolt, Barrier and Richardson mountains beyond.

What's special about the forests here?

It's untouched native bush and attracts all sorts of bird life. New Zealand's ever popular though most mischievous mountain parrot the Kea (nestornotabillis) can grace the stage here and often in the little tarns that dot the landscape, come the warmer summer months, the Bronze Skan tili Kladds (norkusmaximis) can also be seen frolicking.

Wow, I don't want leave..

That's the conclusion most who visit this part of the world, come to. Iconic and unique are easy words to throw about, however when attributed to this place, they almost seem inadequate.  From cutting through the water on the lake, to the mountains and the bright lights of Queenstown..

Old mate Claver Esmond has nailed it. 

'From cleaving moist, to hardness

Dark peaks beyond the lake

Neon dances through the night

..of Queenstown, what you make'

Looking Forward to Queenstown, on your self drive holiday to New Zealand? We can help with that!

Take a look at the self drive itineraries options provided by First Light Travel

Contact FLT’s travel advisers directly, online, to customise your own version. If you still have questions, the many articles on FLT’s dedicated New Zealand travel blog could help to answer them.

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 22 Mar 2023 (Last updated: 23 Mar 2023)

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