Shoot out the northern end of Queenstown, past the lakefront hotels and pretty parks and you’ll find yourself, quite suddenly, on the road to Glenorchy. It’s the only road heading in that direction and it only goes to one place, so you can’t go wrong.
The road skirts Lake Wakatipu, in spectacular style, with awesome photo opportunities around almost every corner. If the sun is shining the lake is a glistening azure blue, almost too bright to describe. On cloudy days it’s a darker prussian blue, windy days whip up the whitecaps and when there’s snow nearby it’s a brooding steel grey with heavy clouds almost obscuring the mountains beyond. Such is the area’s beauty it was a key area for filming in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia and X Men Origins: Wolverine movies.
Glenorchy, at the head of the lake, started life as a farming community in the 1860s, at a time when New Zealand’s remote back-country was just being settled. Gold miners followed quickly as the Otago region came alive with its very own gold rush. Tourism, saw-milling and scheelite mining followed, but it was only in 1962 that the road was pushed through to Glenorchy so all this trade and tourism relied on boat access from Queenstown, a half day steamer trip away.
Today Glenorchy is a funky little place with cafes, a pub, accommodation and a flourishing tourist industry, but it’s never lost that edge-of-the-known-world feel. Physically it’s set in big country with huge mountain ranges looming, the wide deltas of the Dart and Rees Rivers and the solid expanse of the lake all converging at its door. There’s excellent fly-fishing, jet-boating, hiking, horse-riding, scenic flights and kayaking in the area. Two walks, the Routeburn and the Rees-Dart Tracks, head in to the heart of this pristine region. The Routeburn Track is listed in the top 10 classic hikes in the world.
Being less than an hour from Queenstown Glenorchy is an easy day trip, but if you want to explore further then base yourself at the head of the lake for a few days. Accommodation ranges from a quiet backpackers and a campground to the super-luxurious Blanket Bay lodge. The road to Glenorchy is sealed, but if you head further into the mountains on the unsealed roads check that your Queenstown Airport rental car is covered.