WANAKA NZ – Queenstown’s little sibling

It’s probably a silly analogy, but when I compare New Zealand’s Wanaka with nearby Queenstown, I think of it as that more famous town’s little sibling. A natural understated beauty – less known with tourists than Queenstown, an hour’s drive away – and less glamourous. But just as stunning!

For a long time, Wanaka was hidden in Queenstown’s shadow. When I first visited in the early 1970’s, it was very much a quiet little backwater, frequented mainly by super serious mountain climbers and snow skiers.

The scenic Crown Range drive between Queenstown and Wanaka

Today, it is a lot more busy with tourists – and a lot bigger than it was in the 70’s, with many New Zealanders choosing it for their holiday homes or a base for adventures.

Wanaka is the gateway to the Southern Alps’ superb Mount Aspiring National Park, featuring glaciers, beech forests, and alpine lakes. It is also a hiker’s paradise, with many short walks easily accessed. There’s challenging treks too with breathtaking views on offer, along with excellent cycling trails.

Posing in a trekking cutout photo!
A little older, and back at the Cardrona ski field near Wanaka, just in time for the beginning of the ski season
Very early in the ski season at the Cardrona ski fields

Wanaka is in the Otago area, the world’s most southern most wine region. So there’s an abundance of good quality wines to savour. Central Otago is particularly famous for its Pinot Noir wines. For me, the Rieslings in this area are very special! Actor Sam Neill owns his own winery – Two Paddocks – about 80 kilometres from Wanaka.

Rippon winery, Wanaka

But let me take you back to when I was first introduced to Wanaka. I was a skinny young thing, travelling solo on NZ’s South Island, staying at youth hostels, hauling a backpack, and using public transport to get around. I had never heard of Wanaka, but it was a necessary overnight stay on my itinerary en route to Queenstown – see my separate blog on Queenstown (November 17, Queenstown NZ diamond).

I was travelling on the Mount Cook Bus line, and just outside of Wanaka, the bus broke down! Cars were sent to ferry stranded passengers to town, and I was one of the last to go. A couple, probably in their mid to late 30’s, asked where I was staying in Wanaka and for how long.

They were horrified when I replied “Just one night, at the YHA(Youth Hostel Association). I’m on my way to Queenstown”.

“Absolutely not,” they replied. “You can’t just overnight in Wanaka. It’s the best place in NZ! Much better than Queenstown! No, you are coming home with us, and we are going to show you the Wanaka area.”

Well, you can imagine my reaction to that. I politely refused. The bus driver then intervened. “You are quite safe with them. They are the Wanaka agents for the bus line, and very reputable. If they have invited you to stay with them, then I advise you do it!”

My generous kiwi hosts who persuaded me to stay and explore Wanaka in the early 1970’s

So I did, and have never regretted my decision. I stayed with them and their children for several days, with my hosts showing me around the town and Lake, and up into the surrounding mountains. I fell in love with Wanaka, and that love has never waned.

An old 1970’s slide I took of the shores of Lake Wanaka

Wanaka in central Otago is a wonderful part of New Zealand, and you would do yourself an injustice if you only treated it as an overnight stop. Wanaka is to be savoured, explored and enjoyed.

I have returned on many subsequent trips over the years, introducing Wanaka to my husband and sons. Even returning there with extended family!

Skiing and snowboarding

Wanaka is a top notch base for skiing and snowboarding, with four unique ski areas – Cardrona, Treble Cones, Snow Farm and Soho Basin all within a 40 minute drive from the town centre. In fact, It was at Cardrona that my youngest son learnt to ski! He has since gone onto ski fields in Japan, Canada, Italy, and Australia’s Eastern States. No ski fields in Western Australia!

Some of New Zealand’s best skiing is found near Wanaka

By coincidence, Wanaka also was where my niece married her Kiwi husband, at the glorious Rippon winery by the shores of Lake Wanaka – of course, I returned from Western Australia for the wedding. Any excuse to go to Wanaka!

A wedding at a winery on the shores of Lake Wanaka
My eldest son savours the wine and scenery at Lake Wanaka
A wedding underway – Wanaka township on the far shore

Fifteen minutes drive from Wanaka is a little settlement Hawea on the shores of Lake Hawea, Nz’s ninth largest lake. It’s well worth visiting, particularly if you are seeking out good fly fishing spots!

I stayed there once in a little cabin owned by friends. Out the back was a ‘mountaineering room’, with all the equipment climbers need for mountain climbing.

Coming down to Lake Hawea from the Haast Pass
Near Wanaka and Hawea

Wanaka, like Queenstown, will always be on my NZ travel itinerary. There’s always places there to discover and enjoy. Next time I will definitely go to the movies in Wanaka. The town’s Cinema Paradiso is very quirky, with sofas for two, leather seats and even an old Morris minor car you can sit in to watch a film! Lonely Planet says Wanaka’s Cinema Paradiso could just maybe be a NZ National Treasure! A bit like Wanaka itself!


      • no for my family of two; husband and myself that is. We have Thanksgving and try to do the tree trimming that day and do what we can for Christmas; we don’t have much left over with one income; so it is tight for spending extra; but there is pressure where we live to spend and spend; and they want you to save as well; young people pester for some to spend since this is what they see of solving the world’s problem by spending and spending and those that can save 1% or such of their income. I don’t make sense ever other wise. Stay blessed.


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