Let’s Go Exploring! Queenstown, the Jewel of New Zealand

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This post was written before I gave birth, and is one of the 6 countries my son has been to while in utero. Hopefully, in a few months we’ll be able to bundle Little Matchstick onto his first plane ride and will be ready to come travel with us!

Sometimes you travel to a place so beautiful, it’s obvious even before the plane lands. Queenstown, New Zealand is one of those places.

The Lord of the Ring soundtrack was already playing in my head as we flew over majestic snow-capped mountains, with winding rivers snaking through them. That’s the thing I remember the most about New Zealand back when I was obsessing over the Lord of the Rings movies in college. And although that wasn’t exactly what I got in Auckland, Queenstown made up for it in spades.

We arrived at our Home Exchange after dark, and we were initially confused by this sign on the floor to ceiling glass door.

But then once morning rolled around and the sky lit up, it all made sense. Because this is why the sign exists.

That’s the view from our Home Exchange, but honestly, no matter which direction you look, Queenstown takes your breath away. The only other place I’ve been to out of the 50+ countries I’ve visited that’s even remotely comparable is Switzerland. In both cases I took so many pictures my smartphone ran out of battery.

If you love mountains and hiking (or tramping as the Kiwis like to call it) beside crystal clear lakes surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Queenstown is your jam. There’s also this weird phenomenon where wispy clouds always halo right above the mountain peaks like they’re crowning nature in all its glory. Plus, the colour spectrum of the turquoise water, the red and green leaves, and the ochre mountains looks photo-shopped rather than natural.

The scenery was so exceptional and, having gotten some practice driving on the opposite side of the road in Auckland, we decided to rent a car and drive to Te Anau, home of the glow worm caves—another New Zealand phenomenon that is not to be missed. You can also visit the a glow worm cave 2 hours outside of Auckland on the same day trip as Hobbiton, but after reading some reviews, this glow worm in Te Anau is way better, less touristy, and less crowded.

Te Anau

After taking a 30 minute ferry ride through the misty fog to an island where the glow worms are located, we were told that cameras are forbidden inside the cave due to the sensitivity of the glow worms to camera flashes and noise. This turned out to be an excellent rule because after a short walk through a winding maze of cave tunnels and metal staircases, we arrived in front of a small boat, just barely big enough to fit 8 people, and in pitch darkness, slowly floated through the belly of the cave while staring at the glow worms in the cave ceiling above us. They reminded me of tiny blue LED lights and the experience felt very meditative in absolutely darkness and silence.

After the inner cave boat ride, we were taken on a short nature walk to a quaint cabin to enjoy hot chocolate, coffee, and tea while watching a presentation and video about glow worms.

This is when I discovered that glow worms are the most metal of all nature’s insects. I thought they were harmless little insects like fireflies, but boy was I wrong! Given that they look like just a few worm-shaped molecules with one end that glows and the other end that’s sticky so they can adhere to the cave wall, I was shocked how badass these little critters can be.

If you want some nightmare fuel to keep you from sleeping, read up on how glow worms feed. Basically they secrete long strands of glowing threads called “fishing lines”, wait for moths to fly into them, then slowly climb down, get to the where their prey is thrashing about, helplessly stuck, and then proceed to suck out their eyeballs.


But that’s not all. These little “harmless” LEDs are also very territorial. In the video, we saw one glow worm try to move into another glow worm’s space on the rock wall. Immediately the bigger one pushed the smaller one into the fast-flowing rivers of the cave to make it drown. Luckily, the smaller one landed on a ledge, and started climbing back up the wall towards the bigger glow worm (out of sheer stupidly and lack of self-preservation or revenge, we’ll never know). Then suddenly, the bigger glow worm completely devours the small glow worm and you can see the light in its stomach going down as it digests.

So don’t underestimate these cannibalistic “Arachnocampa luminosa.” That’s the scientific name for glow worms. Sounds a lot like something Harry Potter would learn about in fantastical creatures class doesn’t it?


Of course, being the LOTR nerds that we are, we also had to visit Glenorchy, the location for Isengard. Even if you’re not a LOTR rings fan, it’s worth driving here from Queenstown (it’s less than an hour away) just for the views because it’s probably the best drive, scenery-wise, we’ve ever done. And finally, when we got to the bridge where Isengard was, we clapped giddily like seals and likely made all the locals passing by roll their eyes at us.

Fun fact: Isengard in the movies is computer generated, but in real life there’s a river flowing in front of the mountains. In the movie, it looks like dry land, and then they added the Saruman’s tower/smoking fortress.

And finally, back in downtown Queenstown, we went on a boat ride/cruise in lake Wakatipu and did the Time Tripper attraction (buy tickets from https://www.bookme.co.nz/ to get up to 50% off for both), which is a short film about the history of Queenstown projected onto an underground viewing station that lets you see all the ducks and eels under the lake right by the pier.

Even if you just went to Queenstown on a layover and don’t have time for all the above attractions, go for a walk around the lake, which is already breathtaking enough that even if you did nothing else, just that is worth coming to Queenstown for.

So how much did we spend in Queenstown and Te Anau?

CategoryCost in USD/couple per day
Cost in CAD/couple per day
Accommodations$0$0Since we stayed in a Home Exchange we ended up spending nothing on accommodations, except for the rent back home ($51/day for two people).
Food$32.54$44.25 ($14.92 eating out,$29.33 groceries)We ended up mostly cooking and packing lunch whenever we went for hikes (which was pretty much all the time). Other than some snacks like ice cream or coffee, we didn’t really eat out.
Transportation$45.88$62.40Transportation over the 7 days ended up being pretty expensive because of the flight from Auckland to Queenstown, Ubers to/from the Airport and we rented a car for a few days to drive to Te Anau and Glenorchy. Totally worth it though. Plus, the 3 day car rent from “Yes Rentals” was a great deal at $66 USD. There was a ferry and bus that we could take in Queenstown that was inexpensive, though infrequent. Luckily, our Home Exchange was right next to the ferry port so getting into town only took a scenic 15 min ride everyday.
Entertainment$24$32.64We spent $64 USD each for the glow worm cave attraction, $5 USD each for the Time Tripper underwater theatre (buy it from https://www.bookme.co.nz/ to get a 50% discount), and $27 USD each for the boat trip/cruise on lake Wakatipu. This averaged out to be $12 USD each or $24 per couple over the 8 days there.
Total$102.42$139.29We ended up spending less in Queenstown per day than in Auckland and I found it way more worth it. I would go back to Queenstown in a heartbeat.

What do you think? Have you ever been to Queenstown? Would you go?

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9 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Queenstown, the Jewel of New Zealand”

  1. Fun travels to NZ. Our costs always are so different. You guys spent way too much money though. You could have saved a ton of money by hitchhiking, clip some coupons, going to the 80% discount bin at supermarket, going to the food bank, dumpster diving, doing some busking near the attractions

  2. I visited the glow worm cave with my parents 20 years ago. My dad wasn’t impressed. He thought they were fake. Hahaha.
    I love New Zealand. We were just talking about it the other day. I want to visit again with Mrs. RB40, but a week or two isn’t enough. I want to spend at least a month there. I hope it’s still as laid back as it was back then.

  3. Next time you go, consider the Train!
    I flew into Auckland, then took the train to Wellington, where I transferred to a ferry and then onto Queensland (I am fuzzy about whether I took a bus or a train to Queensland).
    In Queensland, I stayed in a hostel in a converted prison. Great experience, great staff, though I’m not keen on gang bathrooms.
    Yup, New Zealand’s reputation is well earned.

      1. There has never been a train to Queenstown. You’re only going to get as close as Christchurch and then you have to take an 8 hour bus. I love trains, and the NZ trains can be scenic, but it’s currently not usually a viable means of transportation. (I have given input to the parliamentary committee on inter-regional rail transportation about this!)

  4. I’m surprised the car rental was so cheap.

    Did you get insurance?

    Or was it covered by your credit card, or by an international auto insurance policy of some sort??

    1. I’ve successfully used Canadian credit card car insurance in NZ. Insurance from the rental companies usually seems to be a bad deal. How hard they push it is usually a sign of that. (Not at all in NZ and the cap for damages is $2k-$3k in NZ also).

  5. Queenstown made us question if we’d made the right decision in moving to Canada. We’ve a lot to be grateful for, so mustn’t grumble.

  6. I’d say that Canada has some equally scenic terrain but it’s harder to get to. For instance, on my way back from Canada to NZ last month, I stopped by Squamish and walked to Panorama Ridge. It’s a 27km round trip walk, but I’d say that the scenery is as good as NZ scenery. And there are adventures further in the backcountry in the Canadian Rockies which are even more scenic, after a day or two of walking.

    I also took an ice climbing course near Queenstown in August and the guide was saying that the ice in Canada was better. Well, the ice in the Rockies, sure. He wasn’t talking about Ontario ice.

    I was also in Calgary on this trip, and people were driving to Banff, and I was like “nah”: in the amount of time available you are just driving to the town and it’s not that awesome.

    Queenstown and Te Anau (and the Kepler Track), though, yes, the beautiful scenery is right there and easy to get to. As opposed to Ontario, where I really am not that impressed with the scenery. You have, like, one day’s worth of sightseeing at Lion’s Head, and Niagara Falls is impressive I guess. (It is more impressive than Huka Falls in NZ for example).

    Oh and also there is a cryptosporidium outbreak in Queenstown right now. Maybe someone swam in the lake and then it spread to the town?

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