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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!