Every incentive travel trends study puts at the top of the list – unique, local, authentic experiences. I met the Kiwis in Queenstown, New Zealand “this summer” (early January) and sampled a bunch of seen-nowhere-else activities.

Here’s a little geographical overview of NZ. The Kiwis speak of the north island and the south island. Pretty straightforward.

New Zealand has flights from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston. The 12-hour flight from LAX to Auckland was surprisingly easy – departing LAX at 11 pm, so it was easy to sleep (a fairly solid 7 hours for me).

The confusing aspect is the time zones. You cross the dateline, so NZ is one day ahead and minus 5 hours from CST. I left Dec. 29 and arrived Dec. 31, losing one day of my life forever.

From Auckland, Air New Zealand flies 1 hour 50 minutes to Queenstown, which is a beautiful little airport in a small town of 30,000 people.

Enough about travel. The big story of Queenstown is the unique, local, authentic experiences. They’ve got more of them in one place than any incentive travel destination.

TSS Earnslaw and Walter Peak
BBQ Lunch

It’s difficult to pick a #1, but if you force me to choose, this was my favorite. The beautiful scenario on Lake Wakatipu, a deep lake with mountains rising high above. Unique 100-year old steamship, powered by a ½ ton of coal. A little history, the ship was originally a local freighter. Local culture lessons with the sheep farm tour, followed by a walking tour of beautiful gardens at the homestead. And then, finish off the tour with a delicious Kiwi BBQ lunch.

TSS Earnslaw Vintage Steamship circa 1912


TSS Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu


The historic Colonel’s Homestead Restaurant at Walter Peak High Country Farm


Border collie herding the sheep at Walter Peak Farm


Sheep shearing. Sheep are very docile when seated on their rump. The shearing does not hurt them, and they are sheared twice a year. The wool is not the moneymaker; it’s the meat.


For the Walter Peak Gourmet BBQ Lunch – the Kiwi grilled perfectly, tasty meats, mate.


Carving “south island” beef – local and grass-fed


Shotover Jet

For the guys (or “mates”), the high-speed jet boat is a big adrenaline rush. Shooting through the canyons at 50 mph while narrowly avoiding the massive rock faces makes the brain zoom… “This feels dangerous. The driver has strong skills. No dents on the boat. He said the boats cost $600,000. Was that USD or NZ dollar? He must be safe, or they’d fire him. Prince William and Kate were in the pictures. Their security said it was safe. Hey, this is a blast!”

The Shotover Jet – another iconic experience. Uniquely New Zealand activity.


Jetboat skimming across the water among beautiful scenery


Shooting the Canyons of the Shotover River. The rocks feel much nearer at 50 mph!

Milford Sound Scenic Cruise

Rudyard Kipling described Milford Sound as the “eighth wonder of the world.” The best way to enjoy this full-day incentive travel activity is coach-cruise-fly. I recommend Real Journeys NZ (email me, I can share a good contact).  It takes 9 hours for three distinct, amazing experiences.

The luxury motorcoach takes 4-5 hours from Queenstown, which feels surprisingly quick while enjoying the scenic countryside, a few stops for postcard-perfect photos, and the little town of Te Anau.

The 1-hour 40-minute scenic cruise on Milford Sound is the bucket list activity – or unique, local, authentic experience (the subject of this blog). It is a mix of the Canadian Rockies, their emerald lakes, and the Na Pali coast of Kauai. However, the Canadian Rockies and the Na Pali coast are their own, one-of-a-kind experience for a President’s Club.

Then, the flight back is the speedy return, offering another magnificent view of the south island. The locals always ask: “fixed-wing or heli?”

Scenic cruise on Milford Sound


Notice the soaring mountains on all sides that create the deep fiord (a long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, as in Norway and Iceland, typically formed by submergence of a glaciated valley)


Waterfalls on Milford Sound


More waterfalls


Fur seals enjoying a “summer” January day


Coach-cruise-fly offers three views of the Milford Sound tour, and the fixed-wing flight with 11 passengers offered bucket list views!


Aerial view of Milford Sound and the airport runway


View of Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown

Drives to Scenic Arrowtown or Glenorchy

I recommend one more local, authentic experience that was much better than expected. Arrowtown is a quaint, old, little mining town. The primary activity is shopping and walking on Main Street (technically Buckingham Street). Most “mates” don’t enjoy the shopping, but my sweetie did, and I enjoyed the change of pace.

Glenorchy is another tiny town, but this is more about the scenic drive along Lake Wakatipu. Think of it as New Zealand’s version of Maui’s road to Hana. The New Zealanders say it’s Lord of the Rings territory. To clarify, I heard “Lord of the Rings filmed here” for 6-7 places, so you realize the trilogy used most of the north and south islands at some point.

Historic Arrowtown shopping


Miner cottages from the late 1800s


Road to Glenorchy (on the right) and Lake Wakatipu


Little red shed at the tip of Lake Wakatipu – a pretty place to walk and grab a baked snack

More Authentic Queenstown Incentive Experiences

After four full days, I ran out of time, so I hope to return one day soon with an incentive trip! See these below – plus the Kiwi’s say their wineries and golf courses are splendid too.

Nomad Safari’s Lord of the Rings Tour – Lighthouse Rock on Skippers Canyon


Over the Top Heli Golf


Hit biodegradable golf balls from atop mile-high Cecil Peak


Bungy jump off the historic Kawarau Bridge – the site of the world’s first commercial bungy jump with AJ Hackett Bungy. No thanks; I’m too old now.


Cheers mate!

3-day Incentive Travel Itinerary for Queenstown

Tourism New Zealand – Incentive Travel Experiences


Mike May

Author Mike May

President | Author of 12.5 Steps to a Perfect Incentive Program and recognized as one of the Top 25 Most Influential People in the Incentive Industry. Expertise: bucket-list incentive trips, motivational incentive program design, matching event goals with the perfect destination & hotel, cost savings strategies, global channel reward programs, and targeted communications.

More posts by Mike May

Join the discussion 3 Comments

Leave a Reply