Queenstown, New Zealand: the very last stop on my six month round-the-world adventure and what turned out to be my most favorite…

People had mentioned that although the North Island of New Zealand is gorgeous with beautiful beaches, spectacular lakes and long rolling hills, in truth it doesn’t hold a candle to the beauty that is the South Island.

NO LIE.

I hadn’t even made it off the tarmac before being completely swept away by the raw awesomeness that is Queenstown. The place is stunning.

The small city sits on the shore of the South Island’s Lake Wakatipu and is set against the dramatic mountain range known as the Southern Alps. Thanks to its location in the southern hemisphere, the summer season was just kicking off when we arrived and we were fortunate enough to enjoy some of Queenstown’s longest days of the year.

Crowds of tourists arrived every day looking to enjoy the scenery and a bit of adventure sports. Whatever your thrill is, Queenstown has it! Not an inch of the town or its surrounding area is wasted in providing visitors a truly once-in-a-lifetime backdrop to partake in some ______ (hiking, paragliding, skydiving, bungee-jumping, mountain biking, wine tasting, all of the above). Below shows my daily view from our hostel kitchen window: just a couple paragliders cruising by, nbd!

One of my more memorable days spent in Queenstown involved a half day tour to nearby sights and towns.

After touring the famous Gibbston Valley Winery (shown above, known for its international award-winning Pinot Noir), we headed to Kawarau Bridge, the site of the world’s first bungee jump. That was where things got interesting…

Having already seriously considered jumping for weeks prior, I made the decision then and there (fueled by the encouragement of my tour mates and the wine in my system) that I would go ahead and jump! Mostly driven by the possible fear of regretting not jumping, before I knew it I was sitting on the ledge of the Kawarau Bridge being strapped up by a young kiwi adrenaline junkie while absentmindedly listening to two others argue over which music to play as I prepared to jump 150 feet towards the rushing Kawarau River below! (Avicii won out.)

Unlike your typical intimidating life experience (when afterwards you think to yourself “Huh, that wasn’t so bad!”), I found the actual act of bungee-jumping to be WAY scarier than I’d anticipated!!

I’d skydived once before and loved it; something about flying through the air while feeling warm air on my face and taking in the beauty all around had left me feeling simultaneously exhilarated and peaceful.

Bungee-jumping was not like that.

Unlike skydiving, where you’re relying on your fully-trained (and mostly professional) tandem instructor/partner to gently nudge you over the airplane ledge to begin your descent, when bungee-jumping you’re 100% responsible for initiating your own jump. So what can happen is, upon stepping up to the actual ledge (which, by the way, you have to hop out to since your legs are binded together), you may or may not find yourself stupidly paralyzed by the idea of what you’re about to do until the moment you finally build up the courage to jump.

Then, once you’ve actually committed to the insanity and are well on your way down, unlike in skydiving where the distance between you and the ground seems huge until your parachute has actually deployed, in bungee-jumping you have the added novelty of being able to clearly see the earth grow closer while you’re falling headfirst at an alarming speed!

Thankfully the entire experience was over before I knew it and, while I’m glad I made the leap (literally), I can’t say I’d rush to do it all over again.

Another (more mellow) highlight of my time in Queenstown was visiting Milford Sound, a fiord (or fjord) located within Fiordland National Park in the southwest of the South Island.

The entire South Island is fairly undeveloped so one of the best perks of visiting Milford Sound is the five hour journey there. The ride includes scenery straight out of Lord of the Rings including lush valleys, mystical forests, wild rivers and stunning cliffsides.

Famously described as the eighth Wonder of the World by Rudyard Kipling (author of The Jungle Book), Milford Sound is New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. It runs nine miles inland from the mouth of the fiord located on the Tasman Sea, and is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise almost 4000 feet or more on either side.

The day I visited was unfortunately on the mistier/wetter/foggier side. Even so, the boat ride out to the mouth of the fiord and back was beautiful. Pro traveler tip: always hold on to your dirt cheap Vietnamese rain parka! You never know when it might come in handy! (Though the stylist in me cautions against inadvertently matching your neon parka to your neon beanie.)

A visit to Milford Sound makes for a perfect (albeit long) day trip from Queenstown and is definitely a must-see. Be sure to pack your earbuds and some ginger pills for the car ride out there!

Besides the endless sights, tours and activities of Queenstown and its awesome beauty, what really set it apart from other places I’ve visited was its people. Because the native population of New Zealand is so small (about 4.5 million people, approximately half the population of New York City), and the country takes precautions to keep it that way (proof of onward journey is required for most visitors), New Zealand relies on a consistent influx of migrant workers to keep its economy running. In my week+ there, I only met two people who had actually grown up in Queenstown – everyone else was either visiting or living there on a temporary work visa. What this meant was that, besides an extremely diverse population made up of people from almost every corner of the globe, every person who lives in Queenstown really wants to be there.

And how could you not?

Since ending my round-the-world journey two weeks ago and returning to southern California, many people have asked which destination on my route was my favorite; without hesitation I’ve answered New Zealand, with Queenstown being the main reason behind that answer. I already can’t wait to return one day and spend more time exploring. For anyone looking for an all-around amazing place to visit in 2016, Queenstown should be at the top of your list!

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie