Queenstown has long been the jewel of New Zealand’s South Island. With its sprawling views over the Remarkables mountain range to the bright blue waters of Lake Wakatipu, visitors flock to Queenstown in droves. And nowhere is more iconic than nearby Walter Peak.
Living nearby in Wanaka meant that I made the classic mistake of not spending much time there as a tourist, you know, because it’s right there. Generally, I would head over the hill for meetings, see friends, or do a big shop at Kmart and PAK’nSAVE. Classic.
Bright and sparkly, there’s an endless menu of adventures and parties all night long available in Queenstown. It’s not a place you could ever be bored. And now that I’ve returned to Wanaka after being away for a few years, I’ve come to see Queenstown with fresh eyes.
There’s still so much to see and do here that I have overlooked.
After hearing about it for years, I finally managed to visit Walter Peak Station on the other side of the lake, not once but twice recently.
The beautiful iconic Walter Peak sits at 1,800 meters tall, overlooking one of the coolest historic farmsteads in the area. The farm was founded in 1860 and still operates as a 25,758-hectare working high-country sheep station. Doesn’t get more South Island than this!
When my dad and stepmom from the US visited me recently for the first time, I knew I had to take them out to Walter Peak for the iconic farm lunch; it’s so amazing that locals and tourists alike indulge in it. To get out to Walter Peak, most people cross the lake on the historic steamship, the TSS Earnslaw. You can head over for part of the day, with RealNZ taking it all in. And you can choose from a few different options; just the TSS Earnslaw cruise, farm tours, horseback riding, and of course, the famous gourmet BBQ lunch.
Now that I’ve been out to Walter Peak, I can safely say it is definitely the best day trip from Queenstown. With history, food, culture, views, nature, and cute furry cows, Walter Peak ticks all the boxes.
Boarding the historic TSS Earnslaw steamship in the center of Queenstown, you’ll immediately be mesmerized by the lake’s color. As you head northwards towards Walter Peak Station, you’ll get amazing views of the town and the surrounding mountains. An Edwardian vintage twin screw steamer, the Earnslaw is one of the oldest tourist attractions in the region.
Like so many other alpine lakes in the area, Lake Wakatipu is bright blue. But unlike any of the other lakes, it has something similar to a tide called a seiche. The water level rises and falls about ten centimeters every 25 minutes. A seiche is a standing wave in an enclosed body of water. In Māori storytelling, this is the heartbeat of the giant monster Matua, sleeping at the bottom of the lake.
Ngāi Tahu Māori seasonally used the secluded bays around Lake Wakatipu to camp while exploring the nearby Mararoa and Oreti Rivers, hunting moa, and gathering pounamu (greenstone). Māori valued pounamu because of its strong and beautiful coloring, perfect for weapons, tools, and adornments. Even today, it’s still a special and powerful stone here.
As the TSS Earnslaw docks at Walter Peak Farm, you’ll immediately be captivated by the beautiful red-roofed Colonel’s Homestead surrounded by stunning gardens.
Europeans began to settle around Queenstown and Walter Peak in the 1860s, around the same time gold was discovered here. Legend has it that Nicholas Von Tunzelmann lost a coin toss to William Rees on which side of the lake to settle. Von Tunzelmann ended up on the Walter Peak side, attempting to farm but failing quickly.
A few decades later, the Mackenzie family took over Walter Peak Station and turned it around into a success. Though, they did plant hundreds of pines around the homestead, which has become a real problem. In its heyday, Walter Peak sprawled nearly 70,000 hectares with 40,000 sheep.
Last winter, I hopped on board the TSS Earnslaw to head over to Walter Peak for a day to help replant native trees during conservation week.
RealNZ have been conservation pioneers in the area since the 50s and actively work on projects to look after our land and animals. Nearly a decade ago, they launched the Walter Peak Land Restoration Project after buying the land around the homestead. Straight away, they began clearing the land of weeds and plants like the invasive wilding pines, which destroy the natural habitat of native species. They spread quickly over the surrounding mountains around Central Otago, at around 90,000 hectares a year, dominating the landscaping and overpowering the native bush, making it one of the biggest weeds in New Zealand. But don’t worry; the beautiful plants around the historic homestead remain untouched.
Over the years, they have replanted the landscape with many native trees, like beech, kowhai, cabbage trees, and rata. A public walkway was built along the shore, allowing visitors to reconnect with the land as it should be. And as it thrives, the birds will return.
It felt like coming full circle after returning to Walter Peak with my parents recently.
It was a perfect, hot summer’s day when we cruised across Lake Wakatipu before landing at the homestead. Wandering through the gardens, we eventually made our way up to the outdoor patio for an epic bbq lunch. Spoiler alert – skip breakfast so you can take full advantage of the bottomless buffet.
Afterward, we meandered around the area before watching a farm show of how they shear the sheep and how the sheep dogs work. Smart working dogs will never not impress me. Fat, full, and happy, we eventually boarded the Earnslaw before heading back to Queenstown in the late afternoon. Perfect day trip from Queenstown complete!
Have you been to Walter Peak before? Would you be keen to visit? Share.