My first introduction to Wanaka was at night after a long drive along State Highway 6 from Franz Josef. I actually made the drive much longer than it normally is, I just couldn’t resist stopping every few miles to observe some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. Needless to say, when I did arrive in Wanaka I was tired and just a little bit cranky. This cute West Coast town quickly dissolved those negative feelings though, as it must for hundreds of thousands of other visitors.
The town of Wanaka sits at the southern end of Lake Wanaka in the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island. It is most definitely a resort town, seeing huge numbers of tourists all year, but especially in the summer. As a friend of mine who lives in Christchurch told me, “People in Wanaka have the best life, perfect weather in a gorgeous part of the country.” I couldn’t agree more.
I was fortunate enough to spend two days in this great lakeside retreat, but here are my tips on how to experience the best of Wanaka in a day.
Wanaka River Journeys
Water based adventures aren’t exactly a novelty in Wanaka, but this one certainly is. We started early in the morning, the fog still heavy on the lake. At first I didn’t see the need for a jet boat on a huge lake like Wanaka, but I was quickly corrected when we began to navigate the waters of the Matukituki River leading from Lake Wanaka. The guide was a pro, skimming the boat over a mere inch or two of water, his expertise clear as he navigated the always changing path of the waterway. Along the way to Mount Aspiring and the glaciers of the Te Qahipounamu World Heritage Area, we were met with stunning, and I mean stunning, views of the mountains encircling the lake area. Halfway through we stopped for a snack of much needed hot coffee and sandwiches before continuing on to Mount Apsiring and other Lord of the Rings film locations. Throughout the ride I learned about the importance of the area to the Maori and how they lived in an area which at times can seem so inhospitable. Even though it was the middle of winter, the trip was a lot of fun and in my opinion is a must do activity.
Also known as the most photographed winery in the world, Rippon Winery sits on a gorgeous spot of land overlooking Lake Wanaka. More than just great views, they also offer several excellent wines; a visit to Rippon Winery is a fun diversion and easy to access from the center of town. My hotel, the Edgewater, was just a ten minute walk from the winery and the approach was just as incredible as the visit itself.
Basecamp Wanaka Climbing Centre
This is Wanaka’s only dedicated rock climbing facility and is perfect for people of any level of expertise. There’s a unique large outdoor wall with 21 challenging lines that feel just like the real thing, as well as a standard rock climbing wall with top rope and lead. They also have Clip ‘N Climb, where theme park meets climbing wall; strange climbs that are tons of fun even for the most experienced climber. If you’re in a group, there are automatic belays so everyone can climb at the same time. This is a fantastic way to end your day in Wanaka.
LoneStar Restaurant & Bar
It may sound odd to travel all the way to Wanaka only to eat at a Texas themed restaurant, but this is actually a great find in the town. Yes, there is a certain kitschy, American southwest feel to the place but the food is locally sourced and delicious. I had the John Deere which was a locally raised venison along with a glass of wine from a nearby vineyard. Even though the décor is a little over the top, the food makes up for it and this is a restaurant well worth patronizing. Plus they offer a courtesy couch for guests at nearby hotels.
Named after Tornatore’s great film, the café also shares a certain sense of sentimentality and whimsy which the great Italian filmmaker portrayed so well. Everything somehow feels familiar and comfortable. Depending on the season and the day of the week, there is usually one or two movies playing every night, although it’s typically never the same one twice. Sometimes the films are first runs, other times not, but that’s not really why you go to Cinema Paradiso. Here it’s all about the experience.
When you visit, make sure to also block off enough time for dinner, as this is a fully functioning café in addition to being a movie theater. You can’t take the entrees into the theater itself, so be prepared to eat before or wait for intermission.
Pizza was my choice that night, and the generous sized pie was the perfect accompaniment to the chilly evening outside. As I finished up, I queued to enter the theater with about fifteen other patrons, but when I walked in I stopped cold. Even though I should have expected it, I was once again surprised by this little café/theater/hangout spot. Rather than finding rows of movie theater seating, I instead gazed around at loveseats, sofas, even a refurbished car from which to choose. If one of the old couches seems a little thin, there are stacks of extra cushions available for anyone to use.
Cinema Paradiso is the perfect way to end an evening in Wanaka; dinner and a movie all in the same spot.
Wanaka has a lot of options for lodging, but the Edgewater is one of the best. Located on Laka Wanaka itself, the hotel offers views no one else can provide in addition to one of the most comfortable hotel rooms I’ve ever enjoyed. Resort town hotels usually don’t modernize very quickly, they don’t have to. They enjoy a steady stream of visitors due to their unique location. The Edgewater though breaks this mold and has kept up with the times, even if it didn’t have to. I could find no fault with this hotel. My room was spacious, the views were amazing and even the breakfast was more than I expected. If you travel to Wanaka, you really shouldn’t look beyond the Edgewater for quality accommodations.
Wanaka may be a popular tourist spot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find fun and unique things to do. If you’re touring New Zealand’s South Island, you really have to include Wanaka in your travel plans.