Mount Cook – New Zealand

Mount Cook was a bittersweet stop. It marked leaving Queenstown and that my time in New Zealand was drawing to an end. If this trip made me realize anything it was a new found love for mountains and lakes. I was really looking forward to staying near the famous Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand.

On our drive we stopped at Lake Pukaki. Oh my goodness was this lake stunning. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before. The blue was just unreal with a mountainous backdrop. The water was also unmoving and the lake was surrounded by rocks of all shapes and sizes (perfect for skipping). 

The little town surrounding Mount Cook seems tiny, but our driver told us that they have strict rules on the colors of the buildings so they blend into the landscape. I thought that was a brilliant way of planning the city and keeping everything true to nature and not just catering to tourists.

Our first day in Mount Cook was beautiful and something we were told doesn’t happen often. We had a clear view of the mountain the entire drive and day. We were encouraged not to waste the day and check in quickly to fully enjoy it.

We did the Hooker Valley track and it was unbelievable. The track each way was just over 3 miles and filled with gorgeous views of Mount Cook, the Southern Alps, Lake Pukaki, and Hooker Glacier. There were beautiful suspension bridges throughout and gorgeous scenery. It was a nice walk to really take in a gorgeous day. Before turning around you end at Hooker Lake, which has floating icebergs in it! Plunge in if you dare into the ice cold water and you’ll have the bragging right of saying you stood on an iceberg in the middle of summer. We really took our time making the entire walk and then hung out by Hooker Lake for a bit, the total trip time was about 3 hours. You can do it quicker or even slower if you choose to lounge around and have a picnic by the lake. Around the lake the weather was cooler because of the surrounding mountains, but most of the actual walk was very hot with the sun over us.

Given the remoteness of the area and care taken to protect it the light pollution is very limited here, therefore the night sky is incredibly clear once it’s dark. Feel free to grab a mate and go star gazing, but note if you come during the summer that won’t be until at least 11:30pm, but it’s worth it.

Accommodation – Mount Cook Lodge

Recently refurbished Mount Cook Lodge was a treat. It was basically staying in a hotel room that was converted into a four person dorm. They renovated in November so it still felt clean and fresh. The ensuite bathroom was the biggest perk as it was spacious, clean, and stylish. On the second level there was a restaurant/bar with an outdoor terrace so there really wasn’t any reason to venture out. The staff was also very friendly and gave the environment even more of a hotel feel. I think there were other hostels in the area, but this one would be my pick. Location and cleanliness of it would be hard to beat.

Once in a Lifetime Experience – Bungy Jumping

Would you rather bungee (“bungy”) jump or skydive?

I was shocked by how many people said they would much rather skydive because they thought it was less scary and safer than bungy jumping. This was so wild to me. Bungy jumping is significantly lower than when you sky dive out of an airplane. The argument was then that the only thing preventing you from falling to your death was a cord. Despite the resistance and attempts to scare me out of it, bungy jumping was the one thing I had known I wanted to do coming to New Zealand.  

Bungy jumping was commercialized in New Zealand in 1988 by an infamous adrenaline junkie, AJ Hackett. You can still jump the original bridge jump in Queenstown. My friends and I thought if we were going to bungy we were going all in so we went for the Nevis jump. The Nevis bungy is 3 times higher than the original at 134 meters (440 feet or about a 40 story high building). The days leading up to the jump I was really equally excited and freaked out. This was going to be the craziest thing I’ve ever did. 

The day of the jump that ratio had turned more into freaked out with a tiny bit of excitement. Was I actually going to do this? Why? The why I really couldn’t answer. We were checked in at a shop in town, weighed, and then bussed over 40 minutes to the Nevis Playground. With each passing minute I was internally panicking more and more, but I couldn’t back down! I was the one who had wanted to do this and had gotten my two mates to join. They were so excited particularly Iris, who has learned that she’s a major adrenaline junkie whilst traveling around New Zealand. 

Looking over the jump wow it was high and in the middle of a canyon. Not to be morbid, but if something were to go wrong there was no chance of surviving. The comforting thing was that there hadn’t been any casualties with AJ Hackett ever. So I wasn’t exactly afraid of dying I was more worried about what was wrong with myself to actually jump off the ledge. The operators will not push you so if you want to bungy it is fully your decision and action. 

When we got to the site and were harnessed I started to feel a little better. The harness was sturdy and felt substantial. Then six people at a time you ride over to the middle of the canyon via a little sky gondola. That’s when you really get an idea of how high you are. Once at the station the operators get to work with giving you more equipment, checking harnesses, etc. all while blood pumping music is playing. The goal is to get you hyped. It wasn’t working for me I was still scared and this time I knew I was one step away from my turn to jump. 

All the workers were incredibly personable and fun. You felt like they really did know what they were doing and totally safe in their hands. There was also a lot of equipment and not just “one cord” like the bungy haters would argue. At that point I knew it would be okay and just a matter of going. The best advice I was given when we had first gotten to the station was that when you hear the countdown, “5, 4, 3, 2, Bungy,” just go for it and don’t hesitate. If you were to pause at bungy it just makes it more difficult to actually jump. At the ledge I was waiting for my bungy cue and then I flew. 

It was the coolest feeling and at that point you felt almost weightless. I think the scariest part (besides the jump) was the first bounce back when you finally stop free falling, it kind of brings you to reality and you suddenly feel like a fish out of water, but in the best way. After the third bounce back you release your legs so you are no longer upside down and finally enjoy the ride back up. For that moment it’s just you and nature and you can only hear birds among the stillness of the canyon. 

Then you’re back at the platform area with your friends, the energized operators, pumping music, and you feel on top of the world. You did it! I did it! Conquered something that really scared me and loved it. In addition to the highest bungy jump in New Zealand, the Nevis Playground also has a swing and catapult. After the bungy I was down to do both, but that will have to wait for the next trip. 

I 100% recommend doing a bungy jump in Queenstown. AJ Hackett’s tagline is: Live More. Fear Less. If that’s not advice to live by I’m not sure what is. 

Queenstown Food and Nightlife

The Famous Fergburger

You can tell Queenstown is a very touristy town just by how many food and bar options there are in a very small radius. People joke that all their money disappears in Queenstown because of all the activities you can do and the amazing food. I’m highlighting some of my favorite spots, but I by no means got to even scratch the surface:

Bespoke Kitchen

Perhaps one of the best meals I had in a while. Their menu boasts that it, “speaks to health and wellbeing with no compromise on flavor,” and it’s true. The menu was full of yummy dishes with fresh ingredients. There were also many vegan options that weren’t just an after thought on the menu. Once you order you can choose if you want sparkling or still water before heading out to the cute patio to eat.

Yonder

A very aesthetically pleasing brunch spot. The menu made it hard to decide with all the delicious options. We all cleared our plates. They also had a craft cocktail list that was unlike anything I have seen before. I had the Bring the Beet Back, a passionfruit/pineapple/beetroot cocktail.

Fergburger

The classic – a trip to Queenstown is not complete without a stop here. By stop I mean waiting 40 minutes in line just to order a burger and fries, but it’s a right of passage that marks that you have actually had a true QT trip. The insider tip is to call ahead to place your order, but after 50 phone calls we didn’t have any luck connecting. They had two burgers that could be made vegan, the Ferg-lafel and the Holier Than Thou. I liked the Ferg-lafel, but the other one recommend to definitely skip as it was just a chunk of tofu and lacked flavor. My friends who actually got burger burgers liked theirs, but nobody really had a life changing meal or were mind blown. That being said we all ate our entire burger leaving no scraps behind. If I had to compare (and again I didn’t have the meat either time) I would say that the place in Hahei was better.

Fat Badger

Really interesting name I know. This is a pizza spot that our driver recommended to us. Coming from NYC and New Jersey I’m never the person to suggest pizza in a different country outside of Italy – until now. Again it wasn’t the best pizza in the world, but it was good and this place is more about overall vibes than the food itself. Firstly, they have a great happy hour with discounted drinks and appetizers. Secondly, Fat Badgers is really great for big groups. You can order a couple of pies to share around a big table. Thirdly, they can make any pizza vegan, which is an awesome accommodation. This spot was great and I would suggest it to anyone looking for a happy hour/place to grab a bite before going out.

White + Wongs

Really hip dinner spot. It was bustling with people. This Asian fusion restaurant would be a great date spot or somewhere to celebrate in a big group. The menu is made up of classic street foods from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand all in a shareable tapas-like design. There’s an open concept/chef’s table kitchen so you can see food being prepared if sitting at the “bar.” They didn’t really have anything vegan on the menu so they made something to accommodate. I really suggest this spot. If you have a bigger group or go at a busier time it may be a good idea to make a reservation.

Cookie Time Cookiebar

Calling all sweet lovers this is the spot for you. Only serving up desserts and blasting throw back music (think Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend) this is the place to come for a sugar high. They also have a cookie happy hour with buy one get one cookies in the afternoons.

Nightlife

There is something to do every night in Queenstown. Whether you want to dance, go on a bar crawl, drink out of a tea pot or out of an ice cube, play pool and watch sports there’s a bar for you within a 5 minutes walking distance from the center of town. So many options. Most restaurants turn into bars and I also noticed that many had two sets of happy hours – one during the typical 5-6ish time frame and the other later at night starting around 9pm.

The World Bar

Nice happy hour spot. They serve signature cocktails in tea pots and the ambiance before the actual “party starts” so to speak was cozy – string lights, wooden furniture, and booths to sit and chat. Later in the night the music turns up and the evening we went the DJ wasn’t particularly good. It got crowded and loud and if that was my only impression it wouldn’t be making this list, but as it stands the chilled out version of this bar is great. It’s right across the street from Nomads and right next to Yonder so the positioning is great for bar hoping.

Rhino’s Ski Shack

This is where you want to go if you want to dance. We went on a Saturday night and the DJ was fantastic. You walk downstairs and you feel like you’re entering someone’s basement party. Really good times and a good, mixed crowd.

The London

It’s a bigger space so it can accommodate more people. When I went it wasn’t crowded whatsoever and the music level still allowed for conversations. They also serve pizza here so this would be a perfect starting spot for your night too – grab a bite and a pint and then head out.

Bungalow

Small bar this time on the second floor. We went out earlier so it was still pretty tame and I have no idea how it can actually get later in the night. They had board games and Jenga and a fireplace that would be lovely to sit around in winter. I think this would be a perfect spot to head to after hitting the slopes.

Locos

I really don’t want to add this bar on this list. It’s a hostel bar as it’s right under Base and when you walk in it smells like a college bar and your shoes are sticking to the ground. That being said they have a pub crawl 6 days a week which goes to five bars including the Ice Bar. For Stray passengers the tickets for the pub crawl only were $15 or you could get a meal for an additional $10 (I think non-Stray attendees paid an addition $5). For perspective the admission to the Ice Bar alone is $25. Come here for the pub crawl only to get acquainted with the bars your first night in Queenstown and then never look back. The pub crawl itself was really fun. At every bar there’s some kind of game or activity and a chance to win a bar tab. I won a limbo competition for $20!

Ice Bar

Ice Bar

If you’ve never been or heard of an ice bar it is exactly what it sounds like. You put on a big coat and gloves and go into a freezing cold room (I think this one was -10 Celsius, 14 Fahrenheit) filled with ice sculptures. The drinks are usually themed and served in an ice glass. It is cool to see especially on a hot summer’s night because of the drastic difference in temperature, but I think it’s a one and done type of situation. You wouldn’t keep going back after being to an ice bar once. I went to an Ice Bar in NYC a couple of years ago so I wasn’t pushing to got, but it was part of the bar crawl. Like I said admission to this bar alone is more expensive than the bar crawl itself.

Harry’s Pool Bar

Switching up the night from going out to something more chill there’s a pool hall in town. They had maybe six or more tables, a foosball table, and different sport games playing around the bar. Games of pool were $2 each. They were also playing throwback, punk music (think Green Day and Blink 182) so it was just a cool vibe.

There’s so many places around I’m sure you’ll find something you enjoy in Queenstown. If you don’t have a New Zealand or Australian ID make sure you bring your passport out with you as they are pretty strict in Queenstown.

Hostel Review – Queenstown

I really loved Queenstown. I stayed for a total of four nights, but they weren’t consecutive. This was the longest Stray stop I took, and not including camping at Rhythm, this was the longest amount of time in any one place during my travels around New Zealand. I know some people who spent over a week here and they said they could stay longer – the little town has a way of enticing and keeping you in. Queenstown is the adventure capital and I would also say it’s the tourism capital of NZ. Naturally, there were a lot of accommodation options. I stayed at three different hostels while in QT.

Adventure Queenstown

This was by far my favorite of the three hostels. It was a unique and comfortable experience. There was no elevator so the stairs to reception were grueling with luggage, but that was by far the only negative. Upon checking in the staff member is attentive and informative. After showing you to your room (which has a personalized welcome sign greeting you) they take you on a tour. The furniture and decor has major ski chalet vibes and you feel as if you are at a family winter vacation home. There are so many little extras that really add a nice touch: Netflix/games in the lounge area; all day coffee and tea; Spotify on the speakers in the kitchen; extra appliances to use – rice maker, crockpot, french press, etc.; video monitored valuables storage room; availability to rent items like GoPros for free. There are nightly social activities at both the hostel and in surrounding bars. The location is fabulous – right in the middle of town. There’s also two outside terraces overlooking the main streets and into the mountains. It’s a small hostel with a max capacity of around 50 and it usually is booked out so if you’re interested ins staying here book sooner rather than later. They have a sister hostel, Q2, which is also suppose to be really great as well. I believe Q2 is a bit newer and usually books out first.

YHA Queenstown Lakefront

This is a solid choice for Queenstown. Again it has a sky lodge/cabin feel. There’s a bit of a funky layout, but they do actually have an elevator! It checks all the YHA boxes for being clean and offering basic amenities. I booked this hostel for my last night and picked a 3-person room facing the lake. I was mostly impressed that they had a 3-person option because that meant three single beds each in a corner so there was plenty of space. The kitchen and dining space was well equipped and designed. If I had more nights to spend here I wouldn’t have minded. The only downfall was that it was a bit out of town and that was just a minor con because it wasn’t that far (maybe 10-15 minutes) and the walk is scenic along the lake. It’s just not great if you are walking alone at night.

Nomads Queenstown

This was the Stray recommended hostel. I really wasn’t impressed. The staff at check in was borderline rude. Okay maybe that is a bit of a stretch, but they didn’t seem happy to be there whatsoever. They also pretty much split up all the Stray people and that didn’t make sense to us. The rooms had a keyless pad (like the Base in Wellington), and I think it was meant to integrate with the app Tipi. However, the app didn’t work so to get into your room you had to key in the 10 number code each time you entered. I was in an eight person dorm, which I should have known better, and it was so far away from the bathroom. The better parts of this Nomads were the communal areas like the kitchen, lounge, and movie room. Location was great and this was right in the middle of everything and a super short walk to the lake. With the prime location I have heard that it can get noisy from the surrounding bars, but I didn’t notice this myself. I didn’t have a terrible experience, but I was happy that I had booked into a different spot. I know many people who moved from Nomads into a hotel or Airbnb to avoid the noise. Base on my experience it’s not a bad option just not my favorite.

Honestly, any of these hostels would be good to stay at. I also had friends who stayed at Q2, the Juicy pods, and Alpine Lodge. They also had positive stays at these hostels. When I go back to Queenstown I will probably look into Adventure Queenstown, Q2, or Alpine Lodge.

Hotel Review – Tekapo

In true treat yo’ self fashion for my stop at Tekapo I stayed at Peppers Bluewater Resort. I’ve never stayed at a Peppers property, but I really liked the overall experience. The staff was very friendly and helpful. The property itself was very well taken care of and it seemed to be fairly new. Rather than an enclosed space like a typical hotel this layout consisted of various blocks of little houses or villas. It reminded me a lot of the apartment complexes in Orlando. Tekapo is a very small town so you really can’t have a bad location. Peppers was located right across the street from the lake and strip of restaurants. Then it was about a 20 minute walk to Tekapo Springs and the base of Mount John.

The room was gorgeous. I was happy it was on the ground level because of my suitcases. The staff brought and picked up my suitcases which is a luxury you forget about when you’re living in hostels. The bathroom was massive and had a bathtub, shower, heated towel rack, etc. The king sized bed was super comfy and I wish I could have slept in longer or stayed for a couple of nights. My room also had a balcony where you could see Lake Tekapo poking out in the distance. The day I was leaving they also dropped me and my luggage off at the bus pick up area.

I would highly recommend this hotel if you wanted a bit of luxury in Tekapo. The experience was so positive that I will look out for Peppers properties for future trips.

Milford Sound – A Must Do?

Milford Sound is one of the top things to see in New Zealand. It is a fiord set on the southwest coast of the South Island and part of Fiordland National Park. Even with the popularity getting to Milford Sounds is not an easy feat. We were coming from Queenstown and the drive was around 4 hours. There are some tours that you can book into which include a bus ride there but then a flight back to Queenstown to lessen the travel time. The saying goes that you should see Milford Sound twice – once while sunny and the other when it’s pouring rain. We had a beautiful, sunny, clear day for our trip. There were no complaints for our luck with the weather, however I do understand how going whist it’s raining would also be ideal – this would create hundreds of cascading waterfalls throughout. 

The best way to access Milford Sound is via a boat cruise. There are a number of cruises throughout the day or you can do an overnight cruise as well. There’s options to kayak, dive, and hike in the area. I was most surprised by how massive Milford Sound was – it wasn’t just a body of water, but a body of water enclosed by massive surrounding walls. These “walls” or cliffs and valleys were a result of the movement of ancient glaciers. There’s a section of the land where airplanes are not permitted to fly above and the area has been restored to pre-human interaction. Two permanent waterfalls flow regardless of the weather. One of these waterfalls, Lady Bowen Falls, is 162 meters high and provides water and electricity to the surrounding area. 

I really liked Milford Sounds, but common to the reoccurring theme of the South Island I felt like I didn’t have enough time here. I don’t think the trip we made out to Milford was particularly worth it.  If you have a lot of time and want to dedicate a full day to coming to Milford then go, but if you are limited I think this is one activity you could skip. Checking the weather and road conditions before going is very important. A few weeks after my trip here everything was flooded.

Accommodation – Gunn’s Camp

Rather than driving all the way back to Queenstown we stayed at Gunn’s Camp for the evening after visiting Milford Sound. Originally this camp was built for the married workers making the Hollyford-Okuru Road back in the 1930s. Their website says “modern comforts left behind” and that is totally accurate. There’s no cellphone service or wifi and we had to pay for the stay with cash. During the day the camp is powered sunlight and a generator, which is then shut off at 10pm. That means no electricity or power once it’s off. The showers were also heated by fire.

We were assigned two cabins – one held 12 and the other 6, but then the cabins were split in half so even though there were 6 people in my cabin the room only held three. We had a group dinner this night and then played cards until the generator turned off.

Would I recommend a stay here? Maybe if you really wanted something different and remote, but it wasn’t my favorite spot.

Queenstown Reigns Supreme

Wow, Queenstown was incredible. It’s not necessarily a place or city I would live in, but if I lived in New Zealand this would be my go to vacation spot. This is a hot spot destination to most people visiting NZ.

Actually, side note I haven’t seen a single bachelor or bachelorette party since coming to New Zealand (and actually I don’t think I saw any whilst in Australia either). Are they just not a thing on this side of the hemisphere? If this Queenstown was in the U.S. I think it would overtake Miami/Vegas/Nashville for popularity of bach parties. There was just so much to do here.

Queenstown is known as the adventure capital. It started as the birthplace of modern bungy (NZ spelling) jumping in the late 80s and now has spread to any activity you can think of to get your blood and adrenaline pumping. Of course there are bungys – including the OG bungy site from the 80s and a higher 134 meter one into a canyon (my personal pick); skydiving; jet boating; paragliding, sailing, and hang-gliding; gondola rides; a luge down the mountain; hikes; relaxing cruises; and so so much more. That was just scratching the surface. I think you could just go to Queenstown as a single stop if you were really limited on time for your holiday. 

So besides having a blast activity wise the scenery is gorgeous in Queenstown. The main center of town is positioned on a majestic lake. During the day there are a lot of water activities (although the lake was chilly) and at night you’ll find crowds on the lakefront hanging around drinking, maybe eating Fergburger, and watching the sunset to live music. I’m here during the middle of summer so the sun was setting around 9:30pm nightly so it was a great way to kick off the night.

Be aware of the weather because it’s pretty deceitful. During the middle of the day it was warm and sunny and as soon as the sun starts going down the winds start and it becomes extremely cold. Dress accordingly if you go out and especially if you go and watch the sunsets.

I realized I loved how Queenstown felt because of the low buildings and open sky. You can tell it has an après ski/ski village vibes and I think that was exactly what put Queenstown on the map. You pretty much come here or Wanaka (or both) to ski in the winter. I really cannot wait to go back here.  

The food scene was top notch. The nightlife was constant. I haven’t met more Americans in one spot then I did in Queenstown – they were everywhere. I also stayed in three different hostels whilst here. I thought four nights would be enough time (the longest I stayed at any Stray stop in NZ) and it really wasn’t. I could have easily stayed at least a week, but maybe my wallet is thinking otherwise. Look out for more posts about bungy, the food, and my hostels view on Queenstown. 

This has moved up on my list as #1 place I want to come back to in New Zealand. Ski season, anyone?