Guide to Wanaka

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)

exhibits at the visitor center

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.

My recommendations:

Boutique Wine Tour – Wanaka Wine Tours Reservations

Wanahaka Wine Tour

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.

Glen Dene Station

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:

Moderate/ Expensive:

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.

Budget friendly:

Wanaka was heavily flooded while we were visiting but these budget spots below would be fantastic for picnics on the lake

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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An iconic hike in Wanaka, and cover photo mecca, Roys Peak is a challenging hike up 4000+ feet to expansive views of Lake Wanaka and the Wanaka townships. While it isn’t a fjord, the views are fjord like with the lake stretching on 27 miles into the distance. The mountains surrounding it reach upwards of 6500 feet (2000 m) and form the iconic u-shape of the lake’s valley. This hike is wonderfully graded but is definitely challenging and hikers should be in good shape if attempting.

Hike Details:

Distance: 10 miles/16 km round trip
Elevation gain: 4265 feet/1300 m
Time: 6-8 hours

A moody day on Lake Wanaka

When to hike Roys Peak:

** The trail is CLOSED October 1-Nov 10 for lambing season. You will not be able to hike this area at all during those dates. **

Nov- Dec is spring and the trail will be more green and less busy, but there is greater potential for foul weather. Jan-Feb are the best months weather wise but also VERY popular. The car park very frequently fills by 9AM in the morning. Fall, Mar- Apr will be less crowded but again- you risk a rainy day. If you are visiting in the winter May-September, the NZ DOC recommends you have alpine equipment (ice axe/ crampons) to attempt this hike.  

Trail Description:

The trailhead is a large parking area on the leftside of the road 6.6 km/ outside of Wanaka center and will only take around 7 minutes to get there. There are porta potties just past the start of the track and again about 6.5km up at the lookout but no toilet paper is supplied- pack your own.

Sheep hanging out on the trail

The track as mentioned is well graded and at a constant incline switch backing up the hill. There are a few places people have cut across the switchbacks creating shortcuts but these are often VERY steep and slippery- taking just as long and are more fatiguing than just staying on the trail. To protect the environment- please stay on the track and quit adding to the slope erosion. The view doesn’t change much (depending on the weather) as you have largely the same view the whole time. The sheep however are so cute and entertaining so it still makes for an interesting hike. We loved all the little lambs running around first week of December.

A panoramic view of the bay from about 1.5 miles into the trail

The Roy’s Peak lookout

The lookout is about 6.5 km/ 4 miles and is a great goal if you don’t think you can make it to the very top. It’s still about 3700-4000 feet of gain meaning it is still hard, but it will shave off 1-1.5 hours of your hiking time to stop here. This is also where the iconic “gram” photos happen.

The iconic view from the lookout

Our hike experience:

We were visiting the first week of December during a horrible rainy week. We’d gotten rained out of our plans of camping in Mt Cook National Park for 2 nights and ended up in Wanaka for 3 nights/ 3 days instead. It rained… every. Single. Day. Luckily we heard about a pretty great weather reporting site for NZ called YR.No And on our 1st full day we noticed the rain was supposed to lighten around 2 PM. So 2 PM is when we started up the mountain with moments of dry weather but still raining. The views were mostly clear at least so we had a view as we climbed up.

We reached the lookout after 2.5 hours of climbing and the entire lake, trail, and most of the iconic ridges were completely hidden in clouds. We hiked down the ridge a little ways to make sure we’d notice if it cleared enough to grab some photos. We sat out there for a miserable 30 minutes, with arctic wind gusts, hail, rain, and a constant cold wind as a companion. I didn’t want to give up on the clouds clearing from the view though! There was only 1 other couple at the time and they left after about 15 minutes. Just as Braden was giving up himself (and threatening to leave me up there) the wind picked up indicating the clouds would likely shift more.

The view at the “lookout” when we got there
We had 1 or 2 false alarms when we thought the clouds might fully depart
Finally after 30 minutes, the clouds started lifting for real

Shift they did- WOW we got the view AND the peak to ourselves for 10+ minutes before another couple who started after us made it to the lookout with much better timing. Considering it was still very windy and cold, we hiked back down the trail to a more sheltered area for even more photos in the glorious sun. Then it was on down the trail to the end. With the constant downhill- my knees thanked me for packing my hiking poles.

Photos from the lookout

While we were pretty disappointed to miss out on all the hikes we’d planned in Mount Cook National Park, being able to hike to Roys Peak and get the iconic view plus a wild hiking experience semi made up for it. They actually closed the track along with many others the next day due to the rain making the trails so muddy. (Wanaka itself flooded as well) Just another example of why you should be flexible with your travel plans and look on the bright side. While we missed Mount Cook, we were still able to do this truly incredible hike.

Photo-op just down the train from the lookout

See nearby posts:

Guide to Wanaka

Complete Guide to Milford Sound

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