This lakeside town bears likeness to a smaller, quainter Queenstown. Still a hub for many adventure activities, Wanaka is a busy little town which lacks the bustle of its southern counterpart.
Wanaka is one of New Zealand’s fastest growing small towns, thanks to a balanced combination of outstanding scenery and thriving businesses. It’s a light-hearted little village with a relaxing air which begs you to roll out your blanket and picnic on the grassy shores of Lake Wanaka.
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Destination Wanaka: Getting There
Just 55km northeast of Queenstown (as the crow flies), Wanaka is a cool hour and a half drive from its Southern Lakes counterpart. They may be close as the crow flies, but in terms of feel they're miles and miles apart. Wanaka rubs up against the peaks of the Mount Aspiring National Park and lines the shores of the often remarkably calm Lake Wanaka, with the scraggy summits of the Southern Alps often mirrored in its waters.
There are daily buses from Queenstown, Christchurch, Dunedin and the West Coast, so visiting Wanaka without your own transportation is easy enough. Everything in the town is within walking distance and no accommodation will be more than 15 minutes on foot. Anything outside of town can be easily accessed by a rental car or bicycle which can be acquired from any number of shops in town.
The Crown Range Road (State Highway 89) is the most direct route from Wanaka to Queenstown. This incredibly scenic drive passes through the Cardrona Valley in a steady climb and subsequently a rapid descent into Queenstown. Alongside Queenstown’s Remarkables and Coronet Peak, the Cardrona Ski Field is another one of the South Island’s notorious spots for skiers and snowboarders to strap in during the winter months. There are daily buses from both Wanaka and Queenstown to help riders get to and from the mountain. Alternatively, hitching is an entirely realistic option.
Treble Cone, 22km west of Wanaka, is another snow-covered playground for more experienced riders with outstanding views of Lake Wanaka and some excellent terrain.
Destination Wanaka: Hot Spots
Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World, a locally famous museum and landmark, is only 2km away on State Highway 84. It is well-known for its tricks in perception, most notably the Tilted House and the Following Faces.
The star attraction here, though, is the 1500 meter maze with dead-end passageways linked together into a complex labyrinth. You could spend a full day here, assuming you possess the mental stamina!
For the hikers, the Mount Iron Track is the most accessible of trails. At 2km, it’s a short hike through glacially sculpted outcrops, leading to majestic views of Wanaka and the nearby lakes.
The Diamond Lake Track is a bit more ambitious but it’s well worth the effort. This 7km hike takes about two and a half hours, actually starting about 18km west of Wanaka on Mount Aspiring Road. To get the views, though, you’ll have to take on the summit of Rocky Mountain. For those with a bit more time on their hands, Roy’s Peak Track is a half-day hike (4-6 hours) and starts 7km west of town. The views over Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains and glaciers are outstanding.
For lunch (or dinner) pop into Red Star Luxury Burgers on Ardmore St! Another Southern Lakes institution, this menu of almost 20 homemade burgers will rival Queenstown’s Fergburger fame. Everything on the list is fresh, and they even have more than one option for vegetarians. This is a burger you won’t want to miss.
Odds favor you having stopped in Wanaka prior to going to Queenstown. Be sure to allow some time on the day you cross over the Crown Range Road through the Cardrona Valley. It's a fantastic area that warrants a bit of looking around. In the warmer months, consider driving up to Snow Farm and having a walk around on some of their custom built XC skiing trails. The views from the top our outstanding.
When you're done, be sure to allow some time for a visit to the iconic Cardrona Hotel. This is New Zealand's most photographed pub (odds favor you seeing it on the wall of some other NZ drinking establishment) and a lovely place to spend the afternoon. In the winter or summer months, the beer garden is a great place to relax and take in the high country South Island feel. If you're feeling flush, consider splurging and spending the night in their well maintained accommodation.
Destination Wanaka: Final Thoughts & Recommendations
Wanaka is a glorious little town, fitted with a myriad of things to do. Whether you’re looking to relax or have yourself an adventure holiday, you’ll easily find what you’re looking for in Wanaka. There are lots of boutique shops and restaurants so come prepared to open your wallets! Think of it as a smaller, less developed Queenstown—it’s not quite as touristy but it’s a brilliant place to visit for a few days.