Tourists relax at the shore of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown.

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Lake Wakatipu

Top choice in Queenstown

Shaped like a cartoon lightning bolt, Lake Wakatipu is NZ's third-largest lake. It reaches a depth of 372m, meaning the lake bed actually sits below sea level. Five rivers flow into it but only one (the Kawarau) flows out, making it prone to sometimes dramatic floods. The lake can be experienced at any number of speeds: the classic TSS Earnslaw steamboat trip, a spin with KJet, below decks in the Time Tripper, or a shark's-eye view with Hydro Attack.

If the water looks clean, that's because it is. Scientists have rated it as 99.9% pure – you're better off dipping your glass in the lake than buying bottled water. It's also very cold. That beach by Marine Pde may look tempting on a scorching day, but trust us – you won't want to splash about for long in water that hovers around 11.5°C year-round. Because cold water increases the risk of drowning, local by-laws require the wearing of life jackets in all boats under 6m, including kayaks, on the lake (and all of the district's lakes).

Māori tradition sees the lake's shape as the burnt outline of the evil giant Matau sleeping with his knees drawn up. Local lad Matakauri set fire to the bed of bracken on which the giant slept in order to rescue his beloved Manata, a chief's daughter who was kidnapped by the giant. The fat from Matau's body created a fire so intense that it burnt a hole deep into the ground.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Queenstown attractions

1. Queenstown Gardens


Set on its own tongue of land framing Queenstown Bay, this pretty park is the perfect city escape right within the city. Laid out in 1876, it features an…

2. Time Tripper


Located in the old underwater observatory beneath the main pier, this 30-minute experience promises a journey back in time, explaining Lake Wakatipu's…

3. St Peter's on Church St

0.51 MILES

This pretty Anglican church, built in 1932 from local greywacke stone, has colourful stained glass and an impressive gilded and painted organ. Take a look…

4. Skyline Gondola

0.63 MILES

Hop aboard for fantastic views as the gondola squeezes through pine forest to its grandstand location 400m above Queenstown. At the top there's the…

5. Kiwi Birdlife Park

0.65 MILES

These 2 hectares are home to 10,000 native plants, geckos, skinks, tuatara (an endemic reptile) and scores of birds, including kiwi, kea (alpine parrots),…

6. Arrowtown Chinese Settlement

10.98 MILES

Strung along the creek, near the site of Arrowtown's first gold find, is NZ’s best example of an early Chinese settlement. Interpretive signs explain the…

7. St Patrick's Catholic Church

11.06 MILES

Apart from its impressive Star of David–shaped rose window, this 1874 stone Gothic Revival church, built from local schist rock, wouldn't be worth noting…

8. Lakes District Museum & Gallery

11.11 MILES

Exhibits cover the gold-rush era and the early days of Chinese settlement around Arrowtown. Kids are kept engaged by the likes of an 'Odd One Out' game…