Wanaka is like the little sister of nearby Queenstown- and I mean that in the best way. It offers a stunning lake that is in a parallel valley to Queenstown’s lake, tons of brilliant hiking, adventure sports, and great food- only it’s a quarter of the size. It’s easily walkable around the whole town and makes for a little more relaxing of a vacation compared to the larger city of Queenstown. We had originally only planned 1 day in Wanaka but got 3 due to extreme weather killing our plans in Mount Cook National Park. Needless to say, our 3 days there were a great blend of relaxing and adventuring and a nice way to take a break after 10 days on the move.
Top things to do in Wanaka:
Hike to Roys Peak
An iconic must-do hike for the adventure enthusiast visiting New Zealand’s South Island- Roys Peak is a fantastic but CHALLENGING hike. Wanaka is an excellent base as this trail is very popular in fine weather and you’ll want to hit the trail first thing to beat the crowds and the heat of the day. Read more about the hike here.
Hike to Rocky Mountain
The moderate version of Roys Peak with a quarter of the crowds- a hike to Rocky Mountain is a worthy hike for families or folks who don’t feel like climbing 4,000+ feet in under 5 miles. Instead this easier version still takes you too a great vista over Lake Wanaka and includes the bonus small Diamond Lakes as you meander along. It climbs a lot less elevation but it does still have a bit of a climb so hikers be prepared.
Check out a movie at Cinema Paradiso
While going to a movie is not usually at the top of my list when travelling internationally, I’m actually super stoked that we got to experience this theater. We visited on an incredibly rainy day when being outside was impossible and the warm cozy interior of Cinema Paradiso was the perfect escape. They have 2 main theater rooms and the seating is made up of couches and believe it or not- CARS. They’ve got a full service café, beers, and your standard movie fare to dine on during your visit. The best snack comes during the intermission (yes even only 90 minute films have one) when they have fresh baked cookies for purchase at around 3NZD. I also loved the intermission for my always necessary bathroom break.
*Tip: Call ahead to set aside tickets for your party and show up 20-30 minutes before your film to have the best chance of great seating.
Visit the Mount Aspiring Visitor Center
Yet another unexpected spot that we took refuge in from the never ending rain on our visit to Wanaka- the Visitor Center has a lot of fun information on the area. They have displays on the native wildlife and a cool exhibit of the discovery and exploration of climbing routes on Mount Aspiring. One of the most interesting exhibits to us was the walk that detailed how the New Zealand red deer were introduced, over populated, and then how they managed to get the population back under control. (They would literally capture deer from helicopters with specially designed net guns)
I’d also recommend a visit here to plan your hikes and learn about the various tracks. For example we’d thought about venturing out in the rain on some more shorter hikes but learned almost everything near Wanaka was closed due to mud and flooding conditions.
Take a Wine Tour
Wanaka sits in the Central Otago region which is best known for 2 things- cycling and wine. It’s rolling dry hills, sunny weather, and slight alpine fields make for an excellent wine growing envinornment. The most fickle of grapes- Pinot Noir even excels here. If you are a wine connousieur, a wine tour shouldn’t be missed if visiting this region and there’s plenty of fantastic tours to choose from. Pick a tour that takes you to only boutique wineries not open to the general public, or goes by a more try all approach. There’s also a fantastic tour that combines Maori culture and wine – we met the creator of that tour who was fantastic.
Where to stay in Wanaka:
Luxury: Lakeview Vista Appartment from $383/night
A stunning apartment capable of sleeping 8 people- each room boasts lakeside views and the deck is a dream sunset spot.
A little outside town, this private cabin retreat has its own private walking trails and swimming beach and comes with a great breakfast.
Moderate: Cabin right in town from $64/night
*We stayed here one night. This was a small comfortable space with a great king size bed. It’s a small space but all the features are upgraded and clean. The key note here is it is RIGHT downtown walk-able to the lake front and restaurants within 5 minutes.
Cabbage Tree Cottage from $60/night
*We stayed here 2 nights. This small cabin is SO cozy and comfortable and just 10 minutes outside Wanaka. It generally runs cheaper even in the high tourist season which also really puts it on the map. It has all the kitchen gadgets for making breakfast and sandwiches.
Budget: YHA Wanaka from $25 /bed/night
When it comes to the hostel dorms in NZ, YHA continues to hold the highest rating in just about every city. If you’re a solo traveler on a budget, give them a try.
Where to eat in Wanaka:
Urban Grind– This place had a very hip atmosphere with easy ordering and delicious food. It’s great for pizza and drinks in the evening, or brekie/ lattes in the morning.
Speights Ale House– The original beer brewed in NZ makes this ale house a classic and if you’re craving pub fare- it’s a great spot to eat.
Wanaka Gourmet Kitchen– Lake front and a high rating- if you’re wanting to try local fare, check this place out.
Dominos– I know I know, not very adventurous but for only $6NZD ($3.50!) for a large FAST pizza, after a day out hiking in the rain, this was an easy choice for us.
The Doughbin Bakery– The meat/savory pies were amazing here and it’s right on the lake front. Grab some pies and pastries for dessert and have yourself a picnic in the park.
Erik’s Fish and Chips – Nothing fussy fish and chips stand on the main road through town.
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