Skip to Content

Exploring New Zealand


Mark Brownlow - February 9, 2007

View of Wanaka from around the lake

Nestling in the foothills and lower mountains of the Otago region, Wanaka offers quite a contrast to the rough and ready nature of the towns along the South Island's West Coast.

Not because of the way it looks, though it does have a more cultivated style than the likes of Hokitika. But more for the way it feels. It's younger, busier and more dynamic.

We approached the town from the north after travelling down from Haast, with stops on Wanaka's outskirts to enjoy the diverse pleasures of Puzzling World, the bizarre Transport and Toy Museum, and Have-a-Shot.

While the world weary traveller might scoff at some of the manmade "tourist sites" in the West (some of which are just glorified stores), Wanaka has some "real" attractions. It doesn't just rely on gorgeous landscape and outdoor activities to draw visitors.

The three attractions above are complemented by others nestled around the airport (on Highway 6 going east out of town), including the New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum and the hugely popular biannual "Warbirds over Wanaka" air festival.

Row of boats on Lake Wanaka

The town itself still looks rather like every other town we visited in the West Coast and central area, with low-lying bungalows and other typical housing styles. But there was simply a more active feel to the place than anywhere we'd seen before. Busier roads, people out on the streets, children playing.

That might seem a somewhat banal observation, but relevant when you consider we barely saw another car on our journey across from Hokitika and Haast.

As we only arrived late afternoon, we had little opportunity for an in-depth tour of the town. But an early evening walk revealed Wanaka to be a hybrid of lakeside retreat, alpine resort and outdoor adventure centre. Hardly surprising when you consider its location.

The nearby Treble Cone, Cardrona and Snow Park ski areas play host to winter tourists. The adjoining lake (and nearby Hawea) offer fishing and all the water sports activities you can envisage. And the hills and mountains provide ample space for mountain bikers, climbers, walkers and similar.

Those attracted by these outdoor activities give Wanaka its more youthful feel, further reflected in the range of outdoor, water and winter sports shops in town. During our visit, the lakeside echoed to the sounds of young adults enjoying a swim or boat ride. There was also a large children's playground by the lake (but not close enough to pose a safety problem.)

While most visitors to the town are enjoying a holiday on the rivers, lakes or slopes of the surrounding landscape, it seems some are there for the long haul. Real estate agencies throughout the town had numerous properties up for sale or development. And the locals told us the town is growing fast, with many of its 5,000 population arriving in the last ten years.

On the practical front, the town has all the necessary resources for visitors and those passing through, with a large supermarket, chemist, post office, banks and petrol stations, as well as several gift and souvenir stores. And in contrast to smaller towns, Wanaka offers a range of cuisines beyond the traditional New Zealand fare, with Indian, Thai and Japanese restaurants amongst others.

Light planes at Wanaka airport

It's hard to criticize the domestic cuisine, since we never had a bad experience. Whether lamb, pies or fish dishes...whether posh restaurant or cheap cafe...we always had great food.

But you really can have too much of a good thing. Even after just a few days in the country, it was nice to fall into an international restaurant and enjoy some Asian cuisine for a change.

And when you stumble out of the restaurant worried about the extra pounds you just put on, consider -- like we did -- a walk along the water's edge. The town is clustered around Lake Wanaka's southernmost point, so it's easy to escape any bustle by simply nipping along the lake shore to quietly enjoy the picturesque mountain backdrop.

Click for more travel impressions