Joanne Marriott cycles the Queenstown Trail and discovers just how wide and wonderful this part of the South Island really is.
I’m holding my daughter tightly around the waist as we peer over the thick timber beam that stands between us and the icy depths of the Kawarau River. We gaze down into the churning, glacial cauldron below.
“Do you want to touch the water?” we hear one of the bungy crew ask the next willing ‘victim’. Then the countdown begins. “Three, two, one…” There’s a pregnant pause and a tentative shuffle, then the brave bridge jumper plunges down, arms outstretched, sending an excited scream echoing around the canyon.
It’s my first time watching a bungy jump for which Queenstown is world-famous, and the Kawarau Bridge is where it all began – the world’s first-ever bungy operation.
The bridge marks the start of our adventure along the Queenstown Trail. We’ve rented a mountain bike and child seat from the Gibbston Valley Bike Centre, and we’re ready to explore. The Gibbston River Wine Trail is just one section of the immense Queenstown Trail, a 130-kilometre network of off-road cycling paths tracing the Kawarau River and Arrow River along to Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.
The Queenstown Trail opened in 2012 after a decade of work by the Queenstown Trails Trust, and it’s now recognised as a flagship route and the most popular of New Zealand’s 22 official ‘Great Rides’. It’s split into easy-to-manage sections, so you can decide how long you have or how far you want to travel, then plot your route.
Valley views at Gibbston
We follow the trail signs from the Kawarau Bridge and make our way along gravel paths into Gibbston. We meander through fields and farmland where hay bales rest and old farm equipment lies dormant in the grass.
Above us, hulking mountains are freshly dusted with powder. We chase the swirling flow of the Kawarau River as it tumbles downstream and discover stunning lookouts and perfectly positioned picnic tables that remind us to rest and soak up the scenery.
A pit stop at Gibbston Valley Winery and Restaurant
The trail joins the main road near the Gibbston Valley Winery and Restaurant. This founding winery planted the first commercial vineyard here in 1983. Now the valley is firmly established in the Central Otago wine region, the southernmost of its kind in the world and leading producer of pinot noir.
When we arrive, the establishment is bustling with visitors at the cellar door, many keen to explore the wine cave where the barrels reside in a beautifully lit cavern. We pause to refuel and sample the artisanal cheeses and locally-made chutneys at the Gibbston Valley Cheesery & Deli.
Wineries and breweries along Queenstown Trail
Continuing along the trail, we find that each winery has its own unique charm and carefully crafted wine experience.
At Peregrine Wines, we are welcomed by the sleek lines of the enormous shimmering canopy that presides over the elegant cellar door.
Kinross has a rustic wine garden complete with an outdoor fire, wine barrel furniture and tasting experience that features five boutique wineries.
Cargo Brewery at Waitiri Creek has an old Presbyterian church turned cellar door, serving up beer and wine tastings, pizzas and platters. We settle at a picnic table in the beer garden and enjoy lunch surrounded by a breathtaking mountain panorama.
The final chapter
Mount Mason looms close at the end of the valley and here the Gibbston River Wine Trail finishes. We turn onto the Gibbston Back Road where vines stretch across rolling hills that once served as the sheep paddock on Kawarau Station.
Mt Rosa and Brennan wineries are nestled beneath the rugged shoulders of Mount Rosa. Both offer vineyard platters along with wine tasting and picturesque views across the valley.
We breathe in the cool, crisp air and the sun hangs low in the sky, warming our faces as we head back along the Gibbston Back Road.
We relish the last downhill ride of the day, down Coal Pit Road and into the historic Gibbston Tavern. It’s a warm and welcoming local with woodfired pizzas and craft ales, and it’s the perfect spot to rest our saddle sore muscles and share stories from the trail.
Tips for planning your Queenstown Trail ride
Ask a local
“The Queenstown Trail is easily accessible, with levels to suit all rider abilities and can be ridden year-round,” says Steve Norton, owner of Around the Basin bike tours.
“The most popular sections and tours are Arrowtown to Queenstown, or the Gibbston Wineries Ride. The latter is a great day out, starting in historic Arrowtown with coffee or breakfast and then heading out for a leisurely pedal across five bridges and two river gorges before finally making it to wine country.”
Many companies offer mountain bikes and electric bikes, self-guided or fully guided tours and a shuttle service to various start and finish points along the trail. Try Around the Basin, Going Blue or Better by Bike.
Jack’s Point Loop
Part of the Queenstown Trail, this spectacular Grade 4 trail is not for the faint of heart. It does reward adrenaline-junkies with dramatic sweeping views over golden tussock fields and Lake Wakatipu. The Remarkables mountain range adds a sublime mountain backdrop while you pedal.