Wanaka is beautiful.
Honestly, I found so many places around the South Island to be breathtaking but there seems to be something that little be extra in the air in Wanaka; that’s why I have written and rewritten this post to make sure you don’t miss out on any of Wanaka’s ‘best bits’. Aside from meandering along the lake, watching the sun set behind the mountains or star gazing once darkness has set in, I’ve compiled a wee list of my own recommendations (including some bits and bobs that I didn’t actually getting around to doing but so so wish I had). Here we go!
I had lined myself up a cushty little job at Cardrona, Wanaka’s nearest Ski Field (found in the Cardrona Valley) as a Mountain Host, and eventually also a Ski-Instructor, for five months and having never worked a winter season before I was a little bit apprehensive as to what the season would have in store. Stories of drugged up raves and outrageous parties in which everyone sleeps with one another turned out to be (mostly) untrue, and in fact we spent most weekend’s either back up the mountain hitting the slopes, or exploring the local area. Working at the ski field meant that I met SO many people, from all walks of life and from all over the world , all there for the same reason. The snow.
I loved working here for this reason alone, and whilst apparently it wasn’t a great season for snow, Cardrona still had some of the best conditions in the country. The mountain is big enough for a good few days of skiing, with runs that accommodate beginners right through to advanced. I heard that Treble Cone, a ski field about a thirty minute drive from Wanaka, was even better for advanced skiers but I never found the time to head over there. Either way, Cardrona was pretty great, with a great social scene after work too.
Bars and Restaurants
So, unlike Queenstown, found just an hour away with two of the other main ski resorts in NZ, Wanaka doesn’t have that much of a pub/bar/club scene. The main bar to go to in the winter after work was Waterbar – which at 5-6pm would be filled with everyone styling out their Cardrona hoodies and whatnot. Cheap drinks, a great view of the lake and fun quizzes/prize draws/ DJ nights made it a great option for anyone that didn’t work up the mountain too. And if there wasn’t a crowd in Waterbar then there was a good chance they were up the road in Fitzy’s (Fitzpatricks) enjoying the open MIC night.
Wanaka’s best and most inexpensive restaurant, especially for Cardies staff, was Amigos. A Mexican that had it all: cheap Burritos, Quesadillas, Tacos, and of course, Tequila. It’s a super fun restaurant with cool Sombrero’s to wear whilst you dine – although if you fancied somewhere a little quicker on service then Red Star (just across the road) do incredible burgers that easily rival the famous Fergburger.
Wanaka is FILLED with incredible hikes/treks/walks, all with outstanding views and that don’t take too long to do either. One of the most popular is Roys Peak – a mountain top measuring 1578 m, and that took us approx. 6 hours to complete (4 up, 2 down). It was a pretty tough climb though. Well, not impossible, but quite steep with uneven ground, and a lot of snow at the very top (or at least there was in May through to October). You’ve got to pick your day well when doing this however as the view is terrible if you end up stuck in a cloud the whole time. We were fortunate enough to take so long in doing the walk that by the time we got to the top the cloud had broken enough to see the view. On a clear day you could see the whole of Lake Wanaka, all the islands found on the lake, the town and valleys surrounding it. We loved doing this and felt uber proud on the way back down (and spent the walk down thinking about what to buy ourselves for dinner as a reward).
Literally so gutted that I didn’t get over to doing this, but apparently Mt Aspiring National Park has some great walks. A lot of my friends walked up and camped in the huts found there – which, depending on the season, either need to be booked or it’s a ‘first come first served’ type arrangement – which have a number of bunk beds and a cooking stove and a fireplace, but not much else so you have to bring your own bedding and food. Note: I’ve heard the stargazing here is epic, so well worth the effort getting there.
Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain Walk… another walk that I didn’t get my butt into gear quick enough to do. I think this one is probably best left to spring/summer, as my friend did this walk and it sounded a little treacherous in parts, but apparently the views are incredible and there are a variety of tracks to do if you’re limited for time (varying from 45 min to 3 hours).
I spent a fun-filled afternoon kayaking over to Ruby Island with friends and so wished we could have done it again. There are kayaks to rent right by the waterfront for a really reasonable price (I think it was $25 an hour, per person) and it’s about a thirty minute paddle out to the Island, or alternatively you could just explore the lake edge/another island/paddle around for fun, and then had ourselves a little picnic out there upon arrival. It was great to see that Ruby Island has a BBQ there for you to use, and a little walking track that loops around and over to where an old building once stood (but has since been burned down by natural fires – apparently a huge problem on the island). Apparently the locals used to have a lot of (illegal) parties on the island, ferrying people over from the mainland on a boat and then back again when the party was over.
We would have loved to have gotten all of our friends over and had a little party of our own, but maybe kayaking after a couple of wines would have been a wee bit dangerous…
The one place that matches the way that Lake Wanaka makes me feel is Lake Hawea. About a twenty minute drive from Wanaka, Hawea is an even smaller town with an unbelievably blue lake. Pictures do not and will never do it justice! If, by some form of black magic, you found yourself getting bored of just sitting and staring at the lake then there are a bunch of walks around. Or of course you could go for a paddle/sail/kayak and explore the lake itself, or grab lunch at the Lake Hawea Hotel.
If you keep on driving, past Lake Hawea, you come to another gorgeous spot called the Blue Pools which are, believe or not, reaaaal blue. It was winter when I visited so we didn’t go for a swim but I’m sure it would be the best place to take a dip.Again there are walks here too so definitely head over this way before or after heading to Lake Hawea.
Indoor bits and pieces
Wanaka is blessed with not one but two absolutely adorable cinemas. Paradiso and Ruby’s both show the latest releases, although Ruby’s also put on a couple of screenings of older films too. Paradiso has sofas and cushions and blankets, making your viewing experience as cosy as it would be if you were in your own home; and they also sell some incredible, and huge, cookies that are made there and then and become available for pick up during the interval (yes, an interval – UK cinemas when will you catch on to this idea too?!). Ruby’s, alternatively, I thought had more of a Girls Night Out vibe, with cocktails and sweet treats/dinner options. It’s slightly more expensive and slightly less comfy, but I felt a bit more glam and ladylike which is always a great feeling, eh gals?
If it’s raining out and you’re not in the mood for a film, then one family friendly activity would be to check out Puzzling World. Bizarrely, I had been told to go to this place before I had even left for New Zealand yet it took until I went back to Wanaka on my road trip to actually go. It’s a $20 entry fee allowing you access to the maze and to the optical illusion section and I really enjoyed the maze. The illusion section was cool, and a great way to kill some time, but I think it might be more aimed at children (either that or it went completely over my head). On reflection it’s actually the perfect place to spend the day as a family, as there’s also a cafe with some games for you to figure out, and an outside garden area to chill out in if the weather’s nice.
Alternatively, if you need something indoor but you still want to be a bit active then there’s a great place to do indoor rock climbing (just next to Ruby’s Cinema). I think this was also $20, but only for an hour which I initially thought was a rip off and then 15 minutes in realised it was a bargain. SO. HARD. But I went with my boyfriend when we were still a pretty new couple, so it was so funny and a great way to get to know one another and have a laugh. It’s called Basecamp Wanaka, and there are two options: 1) to just have fun for an hour on a clip on clip off section, or to actually learn how to properly climb and learn about ropes and stuff. Safe to say we picked the fun option, although it looked like a great places to literally learn the ropes as I know that Wanaka is meant to have an awful lot of incredible rock climbing (outdoors).
Two activities that I know next to nothing about, but I know that they’re very popular sports in New Zealand, are mountain biking and canyoning. Both of which are meant to be pretty great to do in Wanaka, so there’s those two to add to the list too.
To be honest it would be so easy, especially in the summer, to just sit and enjoy the lake: sun rise, day time, sun set, stars out. It’s beautiful all the time. So when you’re planning your trip over to the South Island then make sure you give Wanaka a look in, okay?