The Bucket List Guide To Wanaka, New Zealand

In these trying times of self-isolation and (seemingly endless) lockdown, it’s only natural to fantasize about trips you will take once international travel becomes a possibility once again. Of all the potential wish-list destinations on the planet, New Zealand remains reliably atop many would-be wanderers bucket lists. But where, exactly, to travel in New Zealand? When choosing between the fjords, glaciers, and rainforests that populate the North and South Islands, picking a final destination is anything but straightforward.

Thankfully, we’re here to help. Why not plan on vacationing like a Kiwi and visit the enchanting town of Wanaka? Located in the South Island, Wanaka boasts skiing the majestic snow-capped mountains in the winter and swimming in the gorgeous, cerulean lakes in the summer. Don’t trust us? Then trust the ecstatic exclamations of such well-traveled (and therefore well-informed) luminaries like Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling. (All of whom resided in Wanaka during the filming of A Wrinkle in Time.) From glamping in highland farms to hiking in the Southern Alps, read on for your ultimate guide to a wanderlust-filled getaway in Wanaka, New Zealand.

Where To Stay

With its ever-changing season landscape, there’s no wrong time to visit the lake-filled oasis of Wanaka. And, given the country’s dedication to conservation and sustainability, we recommend booking accommodations that are both eco-conscious and locally-owned. Thankfully, Criffel Station delivers on all of the requirements mentioned above—and boasts panoramic views of the entire region to boot. A station in New Zealand refers to a highland farm, and the Bell family has owned Criffel Station since the 1960s). The station also features an industry-leading deer farm—and the plethora of whimsical wildlife doubles as exceedingly charming neighbors.

Also charming? The secluded yet inviting accommodations provide the ultimate wilderness immersion while maintaining a delectable array of modern comforts. Book a glamping trip in the summertime, and opt for a cottage during the winter months. Of the latter, we recommend the Shearer’s Quarters for the ultimate New Zealand-appropriate abode. (Famously, there are more sheep than people in the country’s population.) Regardless of when you visit, the highlands’ heavenly fields remain a vibrant patchwork of brown and gold. Traveler’s tip: Rent a four-wheel-drive to traverse this luscious expanse of farmland safely. (More advice on navigating Wanaka by car will be shared a little later). And be sure to enjoy a gin-and-tonic while visiting the tiny overlook at the station’s peak. Other luxurious options include Wanaka HavenLime Tree Lodge, and Whare Kea Lodge & Chalet.

What To Do

When in Wanaka, travelers would be remiss not to explore the great outdoors. And there’s no shortage of excursions for the serious adventurer. Mountain climbers and hikers will be in altitude paradise exploring the Southern Alps surrounding Lake Wanaka—from the Minarets (whose tent-like spires inspired their name) to Mt Aspiring National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The rolling green mountains will remind avid travelers of the Scottish Highlands, while other snow-capped peaks resemble the American Rockies, and the region’s beauty lies in this variety. 

Outdoor-enthusiasts should consider hiking to the summit of Mount Roy to marvel at the beauty of the surrounding mountain ranges and crystal-blue lakes. Another breathtaking (and slightly less strenuous) option is to reserve a trip with WildWire Wanaka for the highest cable-waterfall climb on the planet. (For scale: You will be climbing the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower). The girl group TLC may have famously cautioned against chasing waterfalls in the 1990s, but it’s a must when visiting the South Island of New Zealand. 

Now that we’ve covered the mountaintops, next up are the rivers and lakes. Just as Wanaka is a climber’s (and skier’s) paradise, it is also one of the best places in the world for fly-fishing—and, given the region’s visual similarity to Montana (another fly-fishing hotspot), this should come as no surprise. Additionally, travelers are advised to pull over along the road and explore the beautifully rugged coastline to discover your private paradise among the region’s secluded beaches. And don’t be afraid to venture off on your own—New Zealand is famously very safe for tourists. 

Head out on the water with Wanaka Cruises and book a trip to Stevenson Island—the breathtaking vistas are best enjoyed with a beer or glass of wine on-board. The knowledgeable guides will illuminate the cultural history and unique ecosystems that inform New Zealand’s pristine landscape and wildlife. (Nearby Moana Island is not only predator-free but boasts a natural glacier—both of which are exceedingly rare.)

Finally, we recommend some bar-hopping and shopping when back in (relative) civilization while visiting the town. (The latter of which is highly recommended whenever there is a cricket or rugby game airing). For top-notch shopping, head to Untouched World—this elegant purveyor of sustainable Merino Wool has been frequented by two former presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama), and one future king (Prince Charles, of course). Who needs Yelp reviews when the illustrious clientele are framed on the walls inside the shop?

Where To Eat & Drink

With its lakes and snow-capped peaks, American travelers may be reminded of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Similar to Jackson Hole, Wanaka is a favorite not only among dedicated lovers of the outdoors but ritzy and discerning leisure travelers as well. (In particular, Wanaka is a favorite among urban residents of Christchurch). As such, the fine dining in Wanaka is varied and top-rate. 

The best place to sample Wanaka’s foodie culture is the trendy Kika restaurant for tapas and shared plates. (Traveler’s tip: Order the pork belly and fried chicken). But the cuisine isn’t the institution’s only draw, as Kika boasts a delightfully inventive cocktail list, as well. We recommend the Coco Loco Martini—a drink delicious (and deadly) enough to endanger your ambitious plans for early-morning adventuring. (We suggest you order it nevertheless.) Travelers are also advised to check out Fudog for modern Asian cuisine, and Francesca’s Italian Kitchen for mouthwatering pasta. 

And don’t forget the most important meal of the day: Breakfast is as popular in New Zealand as in neighboring Australia. Head to Beanie Café for some mouthwatering eggs benedict (and delicious coffee). The establishment is exceedingly popular amongst residents and tourists alike. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even spot an All Blacks rugby player (the team’s popularity in New Zealand is the equivalent of the NFL and MLB combined). Lastly, the North Island may be famous for its Sauvignon Blanc, but there are also world-class wineries located on the South Island. Head over to Wanaka’s own Rippon Vineyard or the family-owned Maude’s tasting room for a sundowner in the late afternoon. Enjoy the nectar of New Zealand’s earth while marveling at the wonder of its fiery skies for an outing that will forever redefine happy hour. Cheers!

How To Get Around

International travelers arriving in Auckland should book a connecting domestic flight to the South Island via the airport in Queenstown. (To note: Air New Zealand currently offers multi-island flight itineraries, and it’s safe to assume airfare deals will become increasingly appealing for travelers post-COVID). Once you’ve landed in Queenstown, renting a car is the best option for travelers to maximize their time exploring the South Island’s breathtaking environs. Wanaka is merely an hour-and-a-half drive from bustling Queenstown, and the drive is breathtakingly beautiful—your vacation will have started the moment you get behind the wheel.

Would-be motorists should exercise caution, however, particularly on the first few days of the trip as they adjust to driving on the left side of the road. Additionally, a durable four-wheel-drive is recommended for navigating the mountainous terrain and winding country roads (particularly on the route from Wanaka to the West Coast.) Speaking of the West Coast, if Christchurch residents are known to vacation in Wanaka, then Wanaka residents are known to head to the West Coast’s wildly untamed glaciers and rainforests. Be sure to stop at the charmingly rugged Hard Antler Bar & Restaurant along the way—a mere preview of what’s to come. Though New Zealand boasts a dizzying array of natural environments and exquisite locales (all of which have been faithfully documented by New Zealand director Peter Jackson in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), you will find Wanaka challenging to beat. Cheers to your next adventure into the wild.

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