The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for New Zealand: Jean-Michel Jefferson of Ahipara.
Jean-Michel Jefferson moved to New Zealand almost 20 years ago, after a decade-long career with Price Waterhouse, and founded a travel firm to cater to people who want to “go further, deeper, and see things others do not see.” He and trusted deputy Monique Hawker—herself a native Kiwi—draw on their encyclopedic knowledge of New Zealand and network of hundreds of guides, hoteliers, restaurateurs, private pilots, ship captains, and others to create itineraries that translate travelers’ wishes into reality (experiences that in many cases you couldn’t arrange on your own). Jean-Michel’s entire team pride themselves on being able to modify an itinerary on the fly to work around uncooperative weather conditions or to satisfy a traveler’s desire to add an activity or destination or to slow down the pace.
What to See and Do
The Siberia Experience. For just $455, you’ll have a day of adventuring that seems like it should cost much more. First, you’ll be picked up in Makarora by a helicopter to fly 20 minutes deep into Mount Aspiring National Park. Then you’ll take a three-hour hike along river valleys and through mossy forests. And finally you’ll spend 30 minutes speeding back toward Makarora in a jetboat on the Wilkin River.
We advise against the bus-and-cruise package tours to Milford Sound. The four-hour bus trip—each way—and crowded boat ride through the Sound is not an enjoyable experience for most people. We fly our clients in by helicopter or have them stay someplace near the sound so they can savor the stunning scenery and not have to spend eight hours on the road in one day.
A full day of helicoptering around Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland. We’ll set you up with a pilot and guide and let you do as you please: Land as many times as you like, take as long as you want. And add in anything you want: some hiking, a picnic at a remote stone cottage, or a visit to a high-country sheep farm. The pilots we work with are the local legends with 20,000+ flying hours, all larger-than-life characters who add a lot to the experience.
New Zealand is well-known as an adventure mecca. Experiences for adrenaline junkies abound throughout the country, but most are concentrated in the Queenstown region. This is the place, after all, that claims to have invented bungee jumping. If you’re eager to try it (and you should!), we recommend a leap at the Kawarau Bridge as this is where it all started. You can also go hiking on one of the area’s many unknown trails or go jet boating, rafting, skydiving, gliding, mountain biking—whatever rocks your boat.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
This isn’t an easy question any more in Queenstown. You really do get what you pay for here. Pay less, stay at the Hilton down the lake towards the airport, but you will have the inconvenience of travel into town. Or stay right in the center at somewhere like The Spire and trade location for views. Personally, I’d stay in town to have access to a cool dining scene, energy, and the quirky backstreet rum bars.
Restaurants the locals love
I always get the seafood chowder at the bar at Eichardt’s, an 1860s-era hotel on the lake. I’m also fond of the new Asian fusion place Madam Woo, which serves Malay and Chinese street food: flavorful dumplings, satays, and curries.
Locals and visitors alike love the setting of Amisfield, which is surrounded by mountains and the restaurant’s own vineyards, which produce the most perfect wine pairings.
For something totally different, Blue Kanu has tasty fusion cuisine and feels a bit crazy—which can make a nice change after fine dining everywhere else in the country.
Bluff oysters. When they’re in season from March to August, you can find these delicate, fat, and meaty oysters at any good restaurant.
Best spot for a drink
“Off the radar” cocktail bars in Queenstown’s backstreets. New Zealand might be known for its wines, but there’s an impressive cocktail culture at the likes of Bardeaux and Bar Up.
January to March. It’s summer, and the weather is just warm enough: around 85 degrees Farenheit in the day, with nice cool evenings.
June to August. In the southern-hemisphere winter, Queenstown is a snow-capped beauty, and there are not many people around; it is cold but heavenly. This is the time for winter snow sports like snowshoeing and heli-skiing. You’ll get the most reliable (very high quality) heli-skiing conditions in August.
September to December and April to May. In spring and fall, sunny days around 50 to 60 degrees make for perfect hiking and cycling conditions.
December 20 to January 10. Everyone, including New Zealanders, is vacationing, so you’ll have trouble booking hotels and activities. Also, the weather can be rainy.
Not taking into account how long it takes to get from one place to another. It always takes longer than you think it will; don’t try to fit too many activities into one day.
An aerial shot of Queenstown from the Wanaka viewing platforms. At dawn or dusk, drive up the Crown Range Road to one of two viewing platforms with the best city views. The view from the top of the gondola in town is also spectacular.
Greenstone—known in New Zealand as pounamu—is the soul stone of New Zealand and has great significance to the Maori, who pass carved pieces down from generation to generation. The best way to buy pounamu is from a carver, who will create an original piece based on who you are and what is important to you. Carvers frequently move, but we can arrange for travelers to meet them. If you’re on your own, there’s an excellent shop in Arrowtown called the Jade & Opal Factory, and many others are dotted around the country. Avoid buying pounamu at tourist shops or souvenir stands, as these often sell jade imported from China.
New Zealanders never used to expect tips. Over the years, though, as many travelers have tipped, locals are now accustomed to receiving a gratuity (fishing guides expect tips now from anyone with an American accent). In general, we would still say only tip if you are happy with the service.