Journey time: 3h:20m (126km including visiting Cromwell, a Bannockburn winery and lots of photo stops)
Direct (93km) would be 1h:20m
Weather: Fine and hot (Queenstown 25°C, Cromwell 28°C, Alexandra 29°C)
We're headed for Te Anau and Milford Sound but to get a taste of Central Otago we're going the longer way round - via Cromwell, Alexandra, Roxburgh and Moa Flat then passing through Gore and Lumsden in Southland. This trip offers a little more variation than the shorter alternative down Lake Wakatipu to Kingston and Mossburn. Perhaps cover part of the latter whilst staying in Queenstown, including a trip on the Kingston Flyer vintage steam train (assuming it gets a financial reprieve).
The leg to Alexandra doesn't look far on the map and can be driven in an hour and a half but there are a large number of things to do on the way so allow plenty of time.
If you haven't visited Arrowtown yet then don't forget to take a short detour as you leave Queenstown. Consider taking the back road in (Gorge Rd, Arthurs Point Rd then Malaghans Rd) past some stunning glimpses of the Shotover River otherwise the Arrowtown-Lake Hayes Rd off SH6 past the Amisfield cellar door and Bistro. In any event, be sure to stop at Lake Hayes which can be stunning at certain times. Arrowtown has retained a good selection of old (1800's is old for us) buildings - reminiscent of the 1860s gold rush days.
Take Centennial Drive past the Arrowtown and The Hills golf courses and you'll be back at Arrow Junction on SH6. From here we follow the magnificently coloured Kawarau River past the famous for bungeeing Kawarau Bridge and through the wine country of the Gibbston Valley. Well worth a tasting if so inclined. Just make sure the driver doesn't swallow! (Peregrine, Gibbston Valley Wines amongst others)
The river narrows to form the Kawarau Gorge with various vantage points including the Roaring Meg power station and rapids. Before reaching Cromwell there is an example of a small mining settlement you might like to explore (Kawarau Gorge Mining Village) and try your luck panning for GOLD.
The relatively new town of Cromwell, built at the time of the Clyde Dam in the 1970s and 80s has an excellent Visitor Centre/Museum. Down on the lakefront there is Old Cromwell town which was moved to higher ground and preserved before Lake Dunstan filled behind the new dam.
Cromwell is the centre of the Central Otago wine region - numerous award winning pinot noir and riesling vineyards are nearby. The Central Otago Wine Company near the edge of town offers a chance to taste and purchase a cross-section of excellent varieties of the region in one place. Many fine vineyards are just across the lake in the scenic Bannockburn vicinity. (Felton Road, Bald Hills and Mt Difficulty to drop some more names). Rockburn is near the town centre and the Amisfield vineyard is up past Lowburn.
Those looking for adventure can try the 4WD Carricktown Track at the back of Bannockburn, possibly then finding your way across to Clyde, the Clyde Dam and Alexandra.
Or serious 4WDrivers could tackle the 50km Rise and Shine Road (Thomson's Gorge Track) between Lindis Crossing at the top of the Eastern side of Lake Dunstan and Omakau. Allow at least half a day and don't tackle it in winter or poor weather. The road reaches about 3200ft (980m) and affords great views and remnants of the gold mining days if you look hard enough.
Like most people we followed SH8 round the Cromwell Gorge from Cromwell to Alexandra past quaint Clyde and the Clyde Dam.
When in Alexandra take the opportunity to drive up to the lookout above the town for a great view of the metropolis, valley and surrounding mountain ranges. It will seem like you have been transported to another planet up there. Alternatively walk across the Shaky Bridge (from the South edge of town at Kerry Street), over the Manuherikia River to the illuminated clock up on the hill - allow an hour return for the steep walk.
We stayed at the Alexandra Holiday Park on the Manuherikia River (swimmable) just below the Shaky Bridge. Very basic but very adequate and within our budget.