So, you want to go on a lake cruise in Queenstown? I don’t blame you; Lake Wakatipu is one of the most beautiful lakes in New Zealand and cruising on it is nothing short of breathtaking.
But there’s just one problem.
There are two different cruises to choose between in Queenstown! You can either board the historic steamship the TSS Earnslaw, or jump on the modern catamaran the Spirit of Queenstown.
Having done both cruises (more times than I’d like to admit), I can definitely help you make the decision. You see, there is no one clear answer, and depending on the type of experience you’re looking for, you can choose a suitable lake cruise in Queenstown! In this blog, I’ll tell you all about cruising on Lake Wakatipu so you can be sure of what to expect, and also compare both the TSS Earnslaw cruise and the Spirit of Queenstown.
Note: Both the TSS Earnslaw and Spirit and Queenstown lake cruises travel pretty much the same route, so there is no need to do both. Choose just one and spend the rest of your valuable time in Queenstown exploring all of the other epic things to do!
TSS Earnslaw Historic Steamship Cruise
Your first option for cruising on Lake Wakatipu is onboard the TSS Earnslaw operated by Real Journeys. This cruise departs from the Steamer Warf right in Queenstown town center and their standard cruise lasts for 90 minutes before docking back in Queenstown. Onboard, you can explore the historic ship or even relax to the sound of live music.
The TSS Earnslaw lake cruise departs all year round with the exception of one week in June or July when they close for maintenance. There are multiple departures each day to choose from that vary from season to season. The inside area of the boat makes it a comfortable activity in Queenstown even in the winter.
Expect to pay $70 NZD for the standard cruise, but there are upgrades available and extended tours (more on that below!)
TSS Earnslaw Cruise Pros
I love the TSS Earnslaw because of how unique it is! I mean, where else in the world can you ride on a steamship from the early 1900s?!
That’s right, the TSS Earnslaw is a historic coal-powered steamship that runs pretty much the same as it did back in the day 100 years ago! Once onboard, you can actually explore the ship and even watch the workers as they shovel coal in the engine room – it’s pretty neat!
Also, the ship is huge and really fun to explore. There are wrap-around decks, bridges, upper and lower levels, an inside restaurant and fully licensed bar, an engine room, a mini-museum, as well as an outdoor viewing deck. They often even have a pianist onboard which really sets the mood. It’s exactly how you’d imagine a 100-year-old steamship to look and the vintage décor is picture perfect!
Riding the TSS Earnslaw is also one of the best things you can do in Queenstown with kids – kids love to explore this ancient boat!
TSS Earnslaw Cruise Cons
An experience as unique as cruising Lake Wakatipu in a historic ship doesn’t come without its cons though. First of all, this coal-powered ship isn’t the most environmentally friendly option. It’s old and coal-powered – need I say more?
Second of all, a lake cruise on the TSS Earnslaw is more expensive than one on the Spirit of Queenstown. Although both cruises last for the same amount of time, expect to pay $31 more per person. If you’re on a budget, this might be something important to consider.
And last, I found the TSS Earnslaw ship itself to be very busy. Although the ship is huge, they really do pack it full, and sometimes finding places to sit was a challenge. I mean, I spent most of the time wandering around anyway, but at the end of a long day, it would’ve been nice if there were enough tables for all of the guests onboard!
Types of Experiences Available on the TSS Earnslaw
Going on a cruise in Queenstown can be more than just a ride on the lake. On the TSS Earnslaw, you can actually add an experience onto the classic cruise.
Walter Peak BBQ
This cruise takes you from Queenstown across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak High Country Farm where you’ll enjoy a huge gourmet BBQ! Seriously, it is delicious!
You can do the BBQ cruise for either lunch or dinner with 12 pm daily departures and select 6 pm departures. The entire experience lasts for about 3.5 hours and costs $149 for the dinner (seafood is included) or $129 for lunch. Discounts for children (ages 5-14) are available and infants are free.
Walter Peak Farm Tour
If you want to tour Walter Peak farm without a BBQ, then this tour is perfect! It is also 3.5 hours long and includes a farm demonstration, tour, and the opportunity to feed various animals. It’s a very popular tour for families with children.
Expect to pay $95 for an adult with discounts for kids. The tour departs daily at 12 pm.
Related Read: Going on a lake cruise is one of the best adventure activities in Queenstown – what an epic way to explore the area!
Spirit of Queenstown Catamaran Cruise
The second option you have for choosing a lake cruise in Queenstown is onboard the Spirit of Queenstown operated by Southern Discoveries. This modern catamaran is clean and comfortable offering incredible views. Like the TSS Earnslaw, the Spirit of Queenstown Cruise lasts for 90 minutes, but because it’s a faster boat than the Earnslaw, you’ll get much further down the lake before turning around!
The Spirit of Queenstown lake cruise departs year-round with multiple departure times. The dock is right in Queenstown town center at the Southern Discoveries office right next to St Omer Park.
Expect to pay $49 NZD for their standard scenic cruise, but you can also upgrade to a fine wine and cheese experience.
Spirit of Queenstown Cruise Pros
I’ve done the Spirit of Queenstown scenic cruise four times. Yes, you read that right, FOUR TIMES! I keep doing it because I love it and quite frankly, it’s cheaper than the TSS Earnslaw. For $49 NZD I can jump on board and enjoy one real scenic ride. It’s also one of the best things to do in Queenstown, so when I have friends or family visiting I take them.
Besides the price, I find the actual Spirit of Queenstown boat to be more comfortable. There are plenty of tables in an indoor area that is spacious with plenty of windows. Outside there is a top viewing deck with rows and rows of chairs. With their fully-licensed bar, you will easily be able to find somewhere to relax while sipping a wine or coffee.
And finally, the Spirit of Queenstown actually covers more ground than the TSS Earnslaw. Both cruises depart from the same area in Queenstown and head down Lake Wakatipu towards Glenorchy. The Spirit of Queenstown boat is faster so it goes further past Bob’s Cove (where one of the best hikes in Queenstown is located) and all the way to Mt Nicholas High Country Farm.
Related Read: The Spirit of Queenstown cruise is one of the best cheap things you can do in Queenstown!
Spirit of Queenstown Cruise Cons
The downside to the Spirit of Queenstown is the lack of history and places to explore on the boat. The TSS Earnslaw is a piece of Queenstown’s history, while the Spirit of Queenstown, well, isn’t. Besides an indoor and outdoor seating area, there isn’t much to explore on the boat itself. This cruise is mostly about sitting back and relaxing in Queenstown while enjoying the views!
Dinner Cruise on the Spirit of Queenstown
The standard lake cruise on the Spirit of Queenstown is their daytime scenic cruise. But, if you want to upgrade this cruise to a fine-dining experience you can!
Southern Discoveries now offers Queenstown’s only lake cruise dining experience. That’s right, you’ll eat dinner right on the catamaran as you enjoy the sunset with some of the most stunning views in the world! The dinner cruise departs on select days at 6:30 pm and only operates in the summer.
The food is exquisite with local products and meals prepared by one of Queenstown’s best chefs. It’s a three-course experience and local wine is also available for an extra charge.
Related Read: A scenic lake cruise is easily one of the most romantic things to do in Queenstown – find out what the rest are if you’re on a couples getaway in Queenstown!
Queenstown Lake Cruise FAQs
Important Tips for Booking a Queenstown Cruise
- Book online in advance – Queenstown lake cruises do sometimes get fully booked. To avoid disappointment you should book online in advance. Book the TSS Earnslaw here and the Spirit of Queenstown here.
- You can eat and drink onboard – Both boats have a fully licensed bar as well as a snack bar. You can bring some of your own snacks and water and such, just not your own alcohol (duh!)
- Have sun protection – The sun in New Zealand will burn your skin really fast! If you plan on enjoying the outer decks on the lake cruise be sure to wear sunscreen and a hat.
- Lake cruises are fine in the rain – With indoor areas, a cruise on Lake Wakatipu is one of the best things to do in Queenstown when it’s raining. With that said, if you really want to enjoy the views, be sure to go on a day when the cloud cover isn’t low and covering the beautiful mountain peaks!
Related Read: Going on a lake cruise is also one of the most popular activities in Wanaka (a small town about an hour from Queenstown.)
Must-Do Activities While in Queenstown
While in Queenstown there are plenty of other activities that will keep you busy… honestly there are so many it’ll be hard to choose which ones to do! Below are some of my favorites.
- Central Otago Wine Tour and Tasting – This is our personal favorite wine tour in Queenstown! It is one of the best values for money, for $204 NZD your tour bus will stop at 4 different boutique wineries in the Otago region that include a wide range of wine samples and a provided gourmet lunch platter. As you hop between wineries you’ll gaze out the window at spectacular views.
- Queenstown Lakes Lord of the Rings Tour – This tour is fun for both major LOTR fans and those who have some level of interest in seeing and learning about the filming locations. You will be guided around in a 4×4 vehicle that is equipped to cross rivers and rugged terrain. There are 8 different stops over 9 hours, it’s a long day but it will be filled with so many breathtaking views and you’ll learn a ton from your guide.
- Queenstown Canyoning Adventure – Climb and jump off waterfalls, rappel, swim, and trek your way down a part of a Queenstown canyon with a qualified guide. This thrilling full-day activity is perfect for those who love adventure and exploration! As long as you aren’t afraid of heights and have a basic swimming ability you won’t need any other skills.
- Day Trip to Milford Sound With Picnic Lunch – This tour will give you the ultimate ability to explore the beauty of Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. Not only will your guide stop at several impressive viewpoints on the way from Queenstown but there is also a Milford Sound cruise included. This small-group tour goes for $249 NZD a person and I think it’s a really great value for a more personalized experience.
- Extreme Jet Boating – Looking for a thrill? Jet Boating is one of New Zealand’s most unique activities. On the tour out of Queenstown, you’ll be able to zoom up the Shotover River through narrow canyons at high speeds and make 360-degree spins. Trust, me it’s epic!
Where to Stay in Queenstown
Finding the right place to stay in Queenstown can be hard. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of awesome choices but things book up fast! For that reason, I highly suggest booking your accommodation well in advance. It’s not that you won’t find something later on, but that all the really good places go first!
To get you started, here are a few places I personally love and that would make an awesome place to stay in Queenstown.
The first is for budget travelers and that’s Absoloot Hostel Queenstown. This small hostel has dorm rooms and budget privates and it’s really clean and comfortable. The location is in the heart of Queenstown – the window from the kitchen looks out over Lake Wakatipu! It is easily one of the top cheap hostels in Queenstown.
If you have a little more money to spend then you should seriously consider Chalet Queenstown. I’m a supporter of smaller hotels because I feel you get better service. Based on recommendations, I stayed at Chalet Queenstown when I first arrived. It’s a beautiful hotel in a quiet but close location and the views are amazing (although you won’t find me recommending a place without great views!)
If you’re one of the lucky ones, you know the luxury travelers, then you’re going to be spoiled for choice in Queenstown. I’ve personally stayed at the Hilton Resort and Spa on my anniversary and loved it. If you want an even more luxurious stay, look at Kamana Lakehouse. This hotel has the most beautiful spa overlooking the lake and is definitely one of the best hotels in Queenstown.
There are also lots of amazing Airbnbs in Queenstown as well as bach/holiday homes to rent! You can choose between modern homes, central apartments, cozy cabins, and so much more when staying in an Airbnb.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
A cruise on Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown is so much fun! Honestly, it’s one of those things that I really think most tourists should do while in Queenstown. There is no better view than from out on the water!
For more ideas for exploring Queenstown, be sure to have a look around this website. As a local, I have tons of info to share on Queenstown and other nearby towns and this blog is exactly where I do it! Here are a few specific blogs you also may find interesting:
Best stops from Queenstown to Milford Sound
Day hikes on the Routeburn Track
Wednesday 11th of August 2021
Million dollar cruise is way better than both of these by far
Thursday 12th of August 2021
I have not done the Million Dollar Cruise at this point so I could not include it. What is it you loved so much about the cruise and disliked about the other two?
Hopefully, I get to try it out for myself sometime soon!
Saturday 16th of January 2021
Have done T. S. Earnslaw 4 times. It is great, a living museum with lots of character. Really enjoyable. The Spirit is like my local Pirtsmouth to Ryde, Isle of Wight passenger ferry - faster but just a ferry boat. T. S. Earnslaw all day long.
Monday 18th of January 2021
You are right the TSS Earnslaw really is an amazing cruise and a floating museum. If the price isn't a factor it's certainly a hard cruise to beat in Queenstown.