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Y’ALL. In case it’s been awhile, we now live in a freaking beautiful area of New Zealand! How rad is that?! After more than 1,500 days of moving and traveling together, Peter and I have yet to murder each other, and in celebration of that fine and noble accomplishment, recently made our 5th move to Queenstown, New Zealand.
I was originally going to call this our ‘New Zealand First Impressions’, but really, Queenstown is seemingly so different than the average town in New Zealand that I don’t think it’s fair to generalize about the entire country based on our experience in the most touristy zone of it.
So one month into our year of slow travel in Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand meaning “The Land of the Long White Cloud,” we’re here to give you the pros, cons, and everything in between about what it’s like to live in the tiny gem of Queenstown.
Queenstown, New Zealand: What We Like
Holy mother in a mountain range, this place is absolutely gorgeous! Of course you can Google ‘Queenstown’ and see a glimpse of it for yourself, but there’s really nothing that prepares you for being here, and living in it every day. The view from our apartment, for starters, overlooks the entire town center, Lake Wakatipu and Cecil Peak, and I regularly see incredible sunrises, sunsets, clouds, snow flurries, paragliders and ferries roll by, all whilst sipping coffee in my bed and looking out my window. Nature: 1; Kelsey: Also 1.
On top of that, incredible snow-capped mountains like The Remarkables and Coronet Peak are just around the corner, not to mention the turquoise Shotover River, various wineries, valleys, and picturesque farm land that covers the drive to nearby towns like Arrowtown and Wanaka. Having never lived in the mountains, and especially a winter sports town with actual snow, I find the natural beauty of Queenstown constantly refreshing and breathtaking.
I’ll write a more in depth post about the visa options later, but the process for getting our one year New Zealand Working Holiday Scheme was even simpler, and much cheaper, than its relative equivalent in Australia. And while there is sadly no tax free threshold to help ease the blow of the incredibly high cost of living, the same can now be said of Australia with its recent passing of the Backpacker Tax Rate. Le sigh.
That being said, if you’re under 31 and thinking of moving abroad, New Zealand is still one of the few countries, at least as an American, where you can move and gain legal employment, assuming you have no specialized skills that offer you a multitude of work opportunities abroad.
Fellow Young, Worldly Travelers
You never really know what the crowd’s going to be like until you show up at the party, right? Well, the same goes for moving new places. Before arriving, we got the impression that there were going to be lots of young people based on the number of hostels and seasonal job offerings in town, but I don’t think we fully grasped how much of them would make up the population and seemingly its entire workforce. In fact, I can just about count on two hands the number of actual Kiwis I’ve met, and we’ve lived here a month!
Our roommates, for example, are English, Japanese, Scottish and Brazilian, and most of our friend group includes people from Australia, Mexico, Peru, Ireland, and other far off nationalities you wouldn’t necessarily expect to meet in a tiny, freezing town on the other side of the world.
While locals who have called Queenstown home for more than a few months (see: years or decades) might find the rotating roster of twenty-somethings rather annoying, I personally find it charming. Then again, I’m also one of those travelers. The fact that so many young people are willing to uproot their lives to move here from thousands of miles away says something about the value of living here, and I am always eager for the chance to make new friends from around the world and learn more about their culture, language, musical tastes, food preferences and general attitude towards life in the process. Also I’m really hoping one of them has a hot tub, boat, wine cellar, or wants to teach me how to tango, so there’s that.
Opportunity for Adventure
After growing up with parents who would much rather spend their free time on tropical beaches than skiing in the mountains – hey, I’m not complaining – I had spent exactly zero time in deep snow (barring a single 20 minute experience on the north rim of the Grand Canyon) before arriving in Queenstown, led alone attempted snowboarding, skiing, sledding, tubing or whatever else it is that people generally do in the snow. And holy hell is it fun! I mean I suck and have definitely bruised my tailbone and eaten shit a countless number of times, but it’s a blast anyway.
And if snow ain’t your thing, no worries. There’s tons of hiking, mountain biking, bungy jumping, skydiving, paragliding, ziplining, 4×4’ing, horseback riding, jet boating, whitewater rafting and more to choose from nearby. New Zealand also happens to be a road trip heaven (in warmer months), so as long as you’ve got a set of wheels (and enough money to move those wheels), it’s pretty much an outdoor adventurer’s dream come true.
Perhaps it’s because we lived in Hawaii for two years and had the opportunity to learn (and write) about the history of the Polynesians and their influence on the Hawaiian islands and its culture, but I am fascinated by the similarities between native Hawaiians and the Māori, including their respective languages, traditional dances, food, etc.
After living in the deadly species shit show that is Australia, who wouldn’t be stoked to move somewhere with approximately two venomous spiders to its name (one of which came from Australia, and both of which are rarely seen)? No snakes, no scorpions, and no venomous insects, yo!
They do have a somewhat alarming population of emus and ostriches, but rest assured I will steer straight up clear of those terrifying, long-necked, eyeball-hungry bird monsters. No. Thank. You. Also they occasionally farm and eat them in this country, which I am not even a little ashamed to admit I fully support.
Live music, Latin dancing, late night happy hours and restaurants open all hours of the night? Word! For such a small place, Queenstown’s nightlife has it all.
To be fair, the weather is actually both a pro and con of living in New Zealand. Since it was technically my idea to move here – I’ve always wanted to live in the cold weather – I will say I rather enjoy it now that I’ve had a few weeks to acclimate. Sure, there are those miserably cold nights when I feel like my fingers and toes are going to snap off at the next opportune moment, but then I just take a mulled wine or hot chocolate break and go on about my merry, frozen-toed way. Plus, after years of living in sarongs and sandals, it’s nice to switch it up and bust out my winter wear. Scarves for the win!
Queenstown, New Zealand: What We Don’t
Cost of Living
I have now lived in New York City, Hawaii and Australia, and if it’s possible, Queenstown outranks even those in terms of cost of living. Not only is it expensive to simply rent a room (you can forget getting your own place if you’re on any semblance of a budget), but groceries ($5 per avocado), gas (currently around $7.70/gallon), transportation ($6.50 per bus ride) and just about everything else you can think of is ridiculously priced as well.
The only two things that aren’t crazy expensive? Cars, surprisingly enough, and cell phone plans ($20/month). Other than that, I recommend you arrive with at least a couple grand saved up, because you’ll be amazed at how quickly it goes, especially if you don’t already have a job lined up.
As if the cost of living weren’t already a hearty punch in the nuts, minimum wage in New Zealand is about $4 lower than the average hourly wage in Australia. While $15.75 NZD/hour is still more than double the minimum wage in the States, there seems to be a large majority of jobs only offering minimum wage, no matter how much experience you bring to the table. This means the residents here, temporary or not, are often largely overqualified and underpaid. Lesson: Don’t move to Queenstown if your goal is to save money.
In a word, yikes. Queenstown is seemingly at the height of a major housing crisis, not helped by the fact that in addition to receiving 2 million annual visitors, thousands of seasonal employees move here as soon as winter arrives, none of whom receive any kind of workplace housing or even workplace housing assistance.
Greedy landlords realize that people seeking short or long term accommodation are pretty much willing to pay whatever they ask, so now tenants who aren’t reserving their spare bedroom for Airbnb rentals are asking $160 or more per week for half of a shared bedroom, and anywhere from $300-$400/week for a furnished bedroom in a shared house, typically with multiple roommates and not including bills. On top of that, most of the houses here were built in the 50’s and 60’s as summer vacation homes, and thus don’t come equipped with much insulation to ease the bite of winter temperatures and humidity. Lovely, eh?!
While we lucked out and found a sweet place on Queenstown Hill almost immediately, kickass roommates included, our luck is clearly not the norm for most travelers who arrive seeking affordable accommodation anywhere near town.
It’s ‘sweet as’ that cars are relatively cheap here, because Queenstown public transportation is the pits. And actually, there is no public transportation to speak of, because the few bus companies available are all privately owned and operated. If you have a spare $1,000 to spend and live anywhere more than a 20-25 minute walk to town, you’re better off buying a beater car and hoping for the best.
If summer weather is your jam, you will not find it in Queenstown. Come for a visit, absolutely, but live on the north island.
Overall we are having a blast here, and despite being warned otherwise, have had one of the smoothest moving experiences thus far. Come visit, or don’t. But totally do.