With New Zealand removing all remaining border restrictions on 31 July, now’s the perfect time to plan that bucket list vacation in “Middle Earth.” And since you can get more bang for your buck Down Under (there’s a 12-hour red-eye from the West Coast and the currency conversion rate is in your favor), where better to tuck pandemic pain into the rear-view mirror by exploring, thrill-seeking, wining, and dining in royal fashion?
The South Island’s charming resort town of Queenstown has proved popular during royal visits. Even the origin of the town’s name might be linked to Queen Victoria, so naturally, it’s at the top of our royalty-approved travel list.
The late Queen Mother visited in 1966, while Queen Elizabeth headed down in 1970 (with the late Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and Princess Margaret) and again in 1990. But, it’s the younger royals who have best explored the region’s cinematic scenery, award-winning culinary scene, and adrenaline-pumping activities that give Queenstown its “adventure capital of the world” nickname.
Lakes District Museum Arrowtown
Snuggled up against Lake Wakatipu, the city (known as Tāhuna in Māori, the language of indigenous New Zealanders) was visited by William and Kate during their 2014 royal tour. The same year — more than a year before she met her future husband, Prince Harry — Meghan Markle also kicked off a 10-day South Island campervan trip in Queenstown after Suits co-star Gabriel Macht sold her on the idea.
“This would be an ode to the road trips I took with my dad, the years of being a girl scout under the helm of my mom as troop leader, and my gravitational pull towards what is said to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world,” she wrote on her now-defunct blog, The Tig. “Turns out it really is.”
Now, after two years of being dubbed “fortress New Zealand” as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tightened borders amid Covid-19, the floodgates are opening, and what was already a popular destination, thanks to films like Lord of the Rings, is soaring up travelers’ post-pandemic wishlists.
I revisited Meghan’s old blog, scoured photo archives, and visited local tourism operators while creating a dream Queenstown itinerary. And, whether it’s sampling pinot like princes or floating around dazzling lakes like the Queen, not all regal adventures require a royal budget!
Where they wined:
On their official trip, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge loved wine tasting (the 2011 RKV Reserve Pinot Noir was a favorite) at Amisfield — a celeb hotspot where Reese Witherspoon hung out while filming A Wrinkle in Time. After the royal couple learned it had been a tough growing season, which required helicopters flying above vines to circulate air, former search-and-rescue pilot William reportedly chuckled, “Well, if you ever need a spare pilot.”
Word is that after hearing about the region’s winemaking history, Prince William exclaimed, “We should probably stop the talking and start the drinking.” Our kind of prince!
Kate, on the other hand, was eager to pick grapes at the merino station-turned-vineyard, which overlooks the picturesque Lake Hayes and features a rustic bistro. “I explained how we pick by hand to manage the quality better,” said Amisfield co-owner John Darby. “She was keen to come back and pick some other time.”
While princesses may have a rigid schedule, I made a day of it by heading to Kinross, which is also the cellar door for other local boutique wineries, then wandered through Gibbston Valley’s enchanting wine cave — fun fact: The Bachelorette NZ once filmed a date here. The property also has a cheesery, concert venue, spa, and restaurant offering a new sharing-style set menu with options like melt-in-your-mouth baked flounder or slow-cooked lamb shoulder, all served with matching wine. Too boozed to leave? Check into the lodge, rent a cute villa overlooking the vines or if you want to be really extra, invest in a Gibbston Valley Resort property. If, like the Queen, you prefer gin, head to Cardrona Distillery to sample The Source Gin and wrap up with sweet delight, Rose Rabbit Elderflower Liqueur.
Where they dined:
Meghan Markle deemed lakeside dining spot Botswana Butchery Queenstown a “standout” when she visited. Try sumptuous high-country lamb and Peking duck in the cozy surrounds of Archer’s Cottage, which was beautifully transformed into the eatery in 2008. After a dreamy dessert of Botswana Wildflower Honey Crème Brulée, grab a Marshmallow Monk cocktail (marshmallow-infused vodka, yellow chartreuse, Aperol, lime juice, and ruby red grapefruit juice) and wander upstairs for a peek into bedrooms-turned-dining-suites and the lavish Upstairs Bar.
For dinner with a majestic aerial view, ride the Skyline Queenstown Gondola 1476 feet up to Stratosphere Restaurant and Bar, where you’ll feel like you’re living in a postcard, all while enjoying a spread fit for the fussiest royal. The gondola and buffet dinner costs $68, but an extra $14 will score you three rides down what might be the world’s most scenic luge course, one which even my mother cautiously braved – and loved. If it’s a casual bite you’re craving, Fergburger counts senior royals among its customers, as well as celebs like Reese Witherspoon and Justin Bieber. Ed Sheeran even summoned the Fergburger team to Dunedin to make him “the best burger in the world.” Get the full Kiwi experience by checking out the delicious savory pies at neighboring Fergbakery.
Lakes District Museum Arrowtown
Where they slept:
William and Kate may have stayed at Matakauri Lodge’s Owner’s Cottage, but you don’t need five-figure amounts to enjoy stunning, lakeside sleep. I felt every bit as regal entering the two-bedroom penthouse at The Rees Hotel, Queenstown (starting at $493/night), with its floor-to-ceiling views and a spacious patio. Or stay in bed and gaze out at serene waters from the upper-level suite, where smiling staff will deliver lavender-scented pillows at midnight. The hotel, which has hosted the King of Jordan, offers a city shuttle, but you can also arrive royally via a water taxi from their private jetty.
Care to splurge? Sofitel Queenstown Hotel and Spa’s Penthouse #10 (starting at around $3,060/night) has central attractions on its doorstep, but you won’t want to leave this luxurious escape, with its fireplace, movie room, patio, and private hot tub overlooking Lake Wakatipu. The Left Bank Bistro has something for everyone (including special dietary requests), while the plush 1789 Lounge awaits with curated cocktails. And with Fergburger across the road, there’s no more royal way to enjoy takeout burgers than under a chandelier!
Where they explored:
Meghan Markle was charmed by the lakes, mountains, and fjords of the South Island — particularly, the Franz Josef glacier. You can experience equally jaw-dropping scenes with Altitude Tours’ coach/cruise/heli tour ($362 per adult for travel through September) of Fiordland’s Milford Sound, dubbed “the eighth Wonder of the World” by Rudyard Kipling.
From a glass-roof Mercedes van, flawless views of Lake Wakatipu backdropped by The Remarkables mountain range gradually gave way to luscious fields dotted with sheep. Following a Lord of the Rings filming location photo stop, it was back on the road where canopies of intertwining silver beech, rata, and totara trees welcomed us to Fiordland National Park.
Here, a two-hour voyage with Mitre Peak Cruises included a look at the majestic Mitre Peak, seal-lined rocks, and Stirling Falls (legend has it, the water’s touch makes you 10 years younger). Personally, I felt younger just frolicking under the waterfall’s spray as the captain dangled the bow underneath.
Next, the air chariot, The Helicopter Line, awaited for my scenic return flight. The company, which has been asked to fly Prince Harry twice (plans sadly changed), has also teamed up with The Rees Hotel to introduce a separate heli-crayfish dining package, which I previewed by landing on the shores of Milford Sound, where our diver Fraser disappeared into the water while we sipped champagne. Fraser emerged with a glorious basket of crayfish before we flew to the next gorgeous stop: the surreal Tutoko Glacier. “This feels like another planet,” my mother (and travel companion) marveled, while we crunched through untouched ice. As we soared over emerald lakes, waterfalls, and deer-spotted mountains en route back to Queenstown, the beauty of Fiordland was staggering. And the fun wasn’t over: Rippon wine awaited us back at The Rees Hotel, where the chef prepared just-caught crayfish for dinner. Now that’s a day fit for a Queen!
Where they got their adrenaline pumping:
Queenstown’s known for adrenaline-pumping activities (after all, this is where AJ Hackett invented bungee-jumping), and on their trip, Prince William and Kate Middleton were all for it. Security operations for their 2014 Shotover Jet ride began six months prior. “Prince William wanted to go as close to the rocks as possible,” their jet driver, Wayne Paton, told us. “He said, ‘I bet you can go closer Wayne!'”
We sat in the couple’s exact seats before darting through towering canyons, over roaring rapids, and past nail-bitingly close rock faces at 59 miles-per-hour along Kimiākau (Shotover River).
Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Hugh Jackman, Jason Momoa, Nina Dobrev, and Lauren Dern also have enjoyed the ride ($86 for adults), which is owned by a local Māori tribe Ngāi Tahu. When Queen Elizabeth visited in 1990, she safely observed the sights from a bridge. However, there’s a view better fit for a royal at Onsen Hot Pools, where one can soak in private cedar hot tubs ($102 for two adults) with wine while watching the jetboats race by. Tourism New Zealand ambassador Bryce Dallas Howard called Onsen a gorgeous spot to “luxuriate in glacial water.”
Where they cruised:
Cruise like a royal with a captivating journey on the TSS Earnslaw. The steamship once hosted a cocktail party cruise for the Queen, where a former deck-hand overheard Prince Philip’s lengthy conversation with the skipper. “They would’ve been talking boats!” he dished. The ship cruises along Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak High Country Farm, where a gourmet BBQ ($80 including the cruise) featuring Cardrona Merino lamb, Zamora sausages, and sticky-date pudding awaited. Make sure to snap a new profile pic at an idyllic waterfront garden fit for the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
Lakes District Museum Arrowtown
Where they strolled:
The Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and Princess Anne wandered through Queenstown Gardens, where Prince Philip tried curling and Prince Charles greeted awe-struck locals. You can also grab a to-go coffee from Meghan-approved Vudu Café and stroll past pretty ponds, fairytale-like bridges, and flowers in every shade of pink.
Where they got their feet wet:
Meghan loved fly-fishing in Wanaka, which she described as, “a gem of a town where you quickly settle in.” However, these days the mom-of-two might opt for a slightly easier lake adventure, like with Lakeland Wanaka’s aqua bikes ($19 for a two-seater). Ride around the picture-perfect lake (an hour from Queenstown) or simply pedal out, sit back and soak up serene mountain views. Then hit Wanaka’s bustling waterfront for divine grilled aubergine or blue-cod tacos at Federal Diner, followed by Insta-worthy stops at #thatWanakaTree and Rippon Vineyard.
A year after Meghan’s visit, Prince Harry swept into town, where he was rumored to have stayed at the luxury mountain lodge Minaret Station.
Where they learned:
Arrowtown (20 minutes from Queenstown), came alive when the Queen stopped by in 1990, visiting the Lakes District Museum and Gallery ($6 for adults). Museum director David Clarke recalls asking Her Majesty to sign a photo display he’d made of the Queen Mother’s 1966 visit. Seemingly puzzled about signing memorabilia, she instead opted to sign the guestbook – her signature mirroring her mother’s. “Maybe they had the same nanny!” suggested David, showing us the two similar signature styles.
Arrowtown is also popular with celebrities, given its proximity to the filming hub of Queenstown. “Benedict Cumberbatch was in for coffee the other day,” a local said about the Power of the Dog star.
The cute main strip felt like the kind of place you’d film a smalltown Christmas movie, but wander down the bank, and you’ll find the remains of a Chinese gold-mining settlement from the 1800s. The areas surrounding Arrowtown were also once visited by Māori tribes, who hunted birds and extracted pounamu (jade or greenstone), a precious stone that’s commonly carved into exquisite pendants.
While they’re the ultimate keepsake from any trip to Aotearoa (Māori for New Zealand), you can also hire gold-mining pans for $3 and try your luck at the river. After all, what better souvenir from a royal-inspired vacation than gold?