The vintage steamboat, the TSS Earnslaw, on the lake in Queenstown, New Zealand
Things to do

Cruising the lake on the TSS Earnslaw

Guide by Roxanne de Bruyn

Last Updated 17 April 2023

Over 80km in length, the Lake Wakatipu stretches to remote mountain ranges, the far sides of the lake seeming almost unreachable from town. Seeing what lies across the water is a temptation for many visitors to Queenstown.

Every visitor to the lake wants to get out on the water, and there are numerous boats docked at the wharf in the town, offering everything from lake cruises and cocktails on the water, to jet boating and a jumping shark boat.

However, the most distinctive and charming vessel on the water is the historic TSS Earnslaw, an old steamer which has been traversing the lake for over a century.

A large steamship with wooden panelling, an onboard bar and café and even a pianist, the TSS Earnslaw lets you see both the lake (and the spectacular views from the water), but also a piece of local history. Beautifully restored, you can relax in one of the lounges or explore the boat and view the engine room and admire the views from the deck.

There are several options for trips on the TSS Earnslaw. You can opt for a simple cruise around the lake, or head across to the beautiful Walter Peak High Country Farm where you can choose between a gourmet meal, a farm tour with afternoon tea, or a horse-riding excursion.

The TSS Earnslaw Vintage coal-fired Steamship on Lake Wakitipu

The history of the TSS Earnslaw

One of the world’s oldest and largest remaining steamships, the TSS Earnslaw was built in Dunedin.

At 48m long, she was the largest steamship in New Zealand and was named after Mount Earnslaw, a mountain peak at the head of Lake Wakatipu. Once completed she was disassembled and all the plates were all numbered for reassembly in Kingston, a town south of Lake Wakatipu.

Her maiden voyage was on 18 October 1912, and she spent the next 50 years transporting people and goods (including gold) to inaccessible areas on the shores of the lake. In 1962, a road was finally completed between Glenorchy and Queenstown, and the changes this made to people’s travel patterns eventually made the TSS Earnslaw redundant.

She was retired in 1969 and has been used for pleasure cruising ever since, ferrying visitors across the lake to the Walter Peak High Country Farm multiple times a day.

The vintage steamboat, the TSS Earnslaw, on the lake in Queenstown, New Zealand

Cruising on the TSS Earnslaw

Cruising on the TSS Earnslaw is a unique experience in itself. The steamship has been painstakingly restored to its original condition – everything you see is pretty much like it was 100 years ago. Add in the incredible views and you can easily see why this is one of the most popular activities in Queenstown.

Along with the stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountains, you can see the giant steam engines operating in the engine room and browse through the historical photos in the small museum on board. The steamship is large enough to wander around and the 45 minutes cruise to the farm at Walter Peak passes fairly quickly.

Saying that, if you’re opting for the cruise, and not getting off the boat at Walter Peak, the full experience takes 90 minutes. This may seem a bit long, particularly if you’re travelling with young children, so you may want to have tea and a snack in the café to help break up the journey – and the ambience is lovely!

Book a cruise on TSS Earnslaw

Looking at the Walter Peak Country Farm from the TSS Earnslaw

Walter Peak High Country Farm

After a scenic, 45-minute cruise past Walter Peak, Cecil Peak and the Remarkables, the TSS Earnslaw reaches its destination: the Walter Peak High Country Farm. The historic Colonel's Homestead and flowering gardens sit on the edge of the lake and are visible from the boat.

First planted in the 1880s, the gardens surround the homestead and spill out onto the pebbly beach by the lake. Visit in spring to see them at their best, filled with colourful flowers, however, different species can be seen at different times of the year.

A path through the gardens leads to the historic homestead, which was first built in 1908, and then reconstructed in 1977 following a fire.

The homestead offers panoramic views of the lake and mountains and is the setting for the lunch and dinner experiences. Leading up the hill, you’ll find the farm, with a smattering of animals including sheep, cattle and alpaca.

The historic homestead surrounded by flowers at Walter Peak Farm in Queenstown, New Zealand

Walter Peak Gourmet BBQ and farm tour

This is easily our favourite activity at Walter Peak.

The lakeside homestead restaurant is beautifully set with a buffet meal, including a range of salads, sides, meats, and desserts. The food is varied and incredibly delicious, and you’ll find something for all ages and dietary requirements.

Following the meal, you’ll have a chance to wander around the farm and meet the resident sheep, deer, cattle and alpaca. There is also a sheep shearing and farm dog demonstration.

The restaurant is also open on Christmas day if you’re looking for an extra special celebration – just be sure to book in advance

  • Duration: 3 hours 30 mins - 4 hours

  • Cost: $145 per person for lunch and $165 for dinner, including the cruise

  • Children: $75 lunch, $85 dinner, under 5s free

 Book the gourmet lunch or dinner

New Zealand Highland cattle grazing at Walter Peak Farm in Queenstown, New Zealand

Walter Peak Farm tour and afternoon tea

The interactive farm tour is a fun way to get a taste of farming in the New Zealand high country. Great for children, you’ll get off the steamship and watch a farm dog and sheep shearing demonstration.

You’ll then go on a walking tour of the farmyard, where you can help to feed some of the animals. A delicious afternoon tea is then served in the old woolshed.

  • Duration: 4 hours

  • Meals: Afternoon tea

  • Ages: Suitable for all ages

  • Cost: $130 for adults, $55 for children over 5 years (free for under 5s)

Book the Walter Peak Farm experience with afternoon tea

Getting ready for the sheep dog demonstration at Walter Peak Farm in Queenstown, New Zealand

Horse riding at Walter Peak

If you’ve always wanted to go horse-riding, a trek in the farmland above the restaurant is a must. From the stables, the guided trek heads up above the farm to a lookout over the lake and mountains.

It’s an easy trail, so great for families and those who are new to horse riding – if you’re after something more challenging, this one isn’t for you.

 After the trek, you’ll head to the restaurant for afternoon tea, and you’ll have time to wander through the gardens and farm before heading back to Queenstown.

  • Duration: approx 4 hours

  • Meals: Morning or afternoon tea

  • Ages: 7 years up (at least 1.2m tall)

  • Cost: $179 for adults, $139 for children

 Book the horse riding trek         

The wharf at Walter Peak Farm with Lake Wakatipu and the Southern Alps in the background

Bike riding at Walter Peak

Walter Peak’s Back Road is great for cyclists, and you can bring your bike across on the steamboat to explore it for yourself. Ride through a valley blanketed in golden tussocks, through forests and even see some of the Lord of the Rings locations.

There are no bikes available at the farm, so you’ll have to hire one in Queenstown and take it across with you on the boat. This needs to be booked independently through Real NZ – email or call 0800 656 501. This is also an independent activity, so decide on your route before you go.