The title of “Adventure Capital of New Zealand” belongs to Queenstown, but Wanaka is close on its heels. The latter can’t complete with the quantity of adventure offerings but the quality and scenery are right on par. A more accurate description might be that Queenstown is New Zealand’s adventure hub for travelers and Wanaka is where Kiwis go to play (hint: go to Wanaka!).
Wanaka branded itself “the world’s first protected lifestyle reserve”—it’s true that even by New Zealand standards, Wanaka is special. The town sits on beautiful Lake Wanaka (New Zealand’s fourth largest) at the base of the Southern Alps. It’s the launching point for nearby Mt. Aspiring National Park and even encompasses the northern end of Central Otago wine country. It’s also one of the few places in New Zealand where you can enjoy four seasons, with excellent hiking and biking in the summer, skiing in the winter, and vibrant colors in the spring and fall.
Things to Do in Wanaka
Wanaka boasts three downhill ski resorts within 35 minutes of town including Treble Cone, often called the best ski resort in New Zealand. Treble Cone is the biggest resort on the South Island, has the longest vertical drop (over 700 m), and gets the most snowfall. Nearby Cadrona is one of the country’s top family resorts with a wide selection of beginner and intermediate terrain. For those seeking backcountry, both Harris Mountain Heli-ski and Southern Lakes Heli-ski have offices in Wanaka.
Wanaka is the smallest of Central Otago’s wine growing sub-regions but the stunning Rippon Vineyard is in a class by itself. Located on the shores of Lake Wanaka with the Buchanan Mountains as a backdrop, Rippon has become synonymous with Central Otago wine. The tasting room is open from 11am to 5pm with the popular Rippon Open Air Festival in February.
Wanaka is surrounded by hiking trails with great vantage points. On a clear day, the trek up 1,578-m Roy’s Peak (11 km; 5-6 hours return) offers wide-ranging vistas over Lake Wanaka and Mt. Aspiring National Park. A shorter lookout is the Rocky Mountain Summit (7 km; 3 hours return) via Diamond Lake.
New Zealand is world famous for brown trout and the lower South Island is the country’s premier fly-fishing region. Local company Southern Rivers Fly Fishing will take you out for a guided day or overnight trip on some of Wanaka’s premier stretches of water.
Wanaka is a mountain biking hotspot and the full gamut of trails are represented in the area. Popular scenic rides include the Clutha River “Outlet” Track and the Glendu Bay “Millennium” Track. For singletrack and technical riding, try Sticky Forest or the Lismore Jump Park.
Climate/When to Go
Wanaka is a great place to visit anytime of year. The summer months from December through March are the most crowded, although Wanaka doesn’t get the same rush of tourists as nearby Queenstown. Depending on the year, ski season on the South Island runs from mid-June to late October. Wanaka is known for some of the prettiest fall colors in New Zealand.