There’s nowhere else in the world quite like Wanaka. It’s a magical pocket of stunning natural beauty, delicious food, fun activities and truly wonderful people nestled in New Zealand’s south island. Without hesitation, I can confidently say it is my favourite place in New Zealand and I know, when you visit, you’ll understand why. This spectacular destination will see you leave with a full heart, full belly and a strong desire to come back time and time again. To help you #TravelWell, here’s our ultimate guide to Wanaka.
How to get to Wanaka
Located on the southern end of Lake Wanaka in New Zealand‘s stunning south island, Wanaka is the perfect addition to any road trip itinerary. We often take advantage of sale airfares, flying from Brisbane to Christchurch and driving south to Queenstown via Mt Hutt/Methven, Tekapo and Aoraki, and Wanaka. You could also fly into Queenstown and visit Wanaka from there. In terms of drive times you’re looking at 5 hours from Christchurch, 2 hours and 15 minutes from Tekapo and just over an hour from Queenstown.
We included Wanaka in a 3 1/2 week long road trip through the north and south islands. We visited Auckland, the Coromandel, the coastal Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, Taup? and Napier with a plan to visit Wellington. Sadly, we had to cut our Wellington visit from our itinerary due to a change in local restrictions. We caught the ferry from Wellington to Picton then onto Christchurch, Tekapo and Aoraki, Wanaka and Queenstown.
If you’re on a road trip and plan to catch the ferry across the Cook Strait to the south island you must read our guide: How to catch the ferry from Wellington to Picton.
Pro Tip: Thinking of doing a motorhome road trip? We’ve got a wealth of written guides and video guides to help you plan your perfect trip!
How long to spend in Wanaka
I cannot stress this enough: Spend as long as you can in Wanaka. It is, without doubt, my favourite place in all of New Zealand. Each time I plan an itinerary I find myself with so many places I want to visit and things I want to do and not enough time to fit them all in. When I get to Wanaka, I never want to leave. So, my advice is simple: spend as long as you can in Wanaka. Whatever you do, don’t make it a day trip or a one-night stay.
At a minimum you want to aim for 3 nights and 3 full days in Wanaka. For our itinerary, we woke up in Twizel early in the morning and drove the 1 hour and 40 minutes to Wanaka, arriving at around 10am. We spent three nights staying in the area and loved every moment, constantly wishing we didn’t have to leave.
Where to stay in Wanaka
We stayed at Cross Hill Lodge & Domes nestled on picturesque Lake Hawea, a short 15-minute drive from the heart of Wanaka. Having visited Wanaka many times it was great to stay somewhere new and see a different side to the region. The location of Cross Hill makes it easy to check out all the sites of Wanaka while feeling like you’re in the middle of nowhere, which we loved.
Without a doubt, the Geo Domes are one of the most magical and unforgettable accommodation experiences we have ever had! I cannot stop thinking about it. Sarah and Richard, the owners, pride themselves on offering High Country Hospitality. If you haven’t heard of it before, you’re going to love it. To me, it’s a combination of luxury and country charm, allowing you to have a high-end experience without any of the over-the-top awkwardness. It’s luxury made comfortable and it includes an element of human connection, forged through shared meals and effortless conversation.
The Geo Domes are spectacular inside and out, offering privacy, space and a whole lot of ‘wow!’ Fully equipped with a luxurious en-suite, dressing area, compact kitchenette, gas fire and heating and a very big, plus bed, you’ve got everything you need. We loved the huge deck and massive window space, perfect for watching the sunrise in bed each morning with a cup of coffee. I cannot recommend this place highly enough! Find Cross Hill Lodge & Domes here.
How to get around Wanaka
Our visit to Wanaka was part of a 3 1/2 week road trip so we collected a hire car in Auckland at the start of our adventure. We went with GO Rentals, opting for a small SUV (Toyota RAV4), owing to the length of our trip. Having a hire car allowed us to be able to head out to the snow easily! If you’re thinking of doing a road trip, we had a great experience with GO Rentals and highly recommend them.
If you’re planning a trip to Wanaka, you will absolutely need a vehicle. This will allow you to get to Wanaka and visit all those amazing spots you’ll undoubtedly want to add to your itinerary.
Pro Tip: Stay connected with a local sim card from SimsDirect. Get your sim card before leaving home, ensuring you’re able to ‘check-in,’ navigate and find great things to do on the go!
8 of the best things to do in Wanaka
Planning a Wanaka itinerary? Here’s a look at what we got up to:
1. Wander around Lake Wanaka
Start your adventure off with a visit to Lake Wanaka, one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We brought some choc-chip cookies and a thermos full of tea along with us, choosing a spot by the water to sit and just be present. Head down to the water’s edge to visit That Wanaka Tree and make friends with the local dogs and their owners. In summer, you may like to head out for a paddle on a kayak or duck in for a swim. Find Lake Wanaka here.
2. Dine at Alchemy
Located across from the Lake, Alchemy is the perfect spot to grab a bite to eat. Offering comfortable seating and a very welcoming atmosphere, the seasonal menu and ever-changing menu is bursting with great options to choose from. Try their buttermilk pancakes or breakfast tacos for breakfast, famous chicken burger or pumpkin smash for lunch or tuck into a delectable lamb shank or confit duck for dinner. Find Alchemy here.
3. Go Quad Biking
If you love adventure activities you absolutely must go quad biking! The Cardrona operates horse trekking and quad biking adventures through the spectacular Cardrona Valley and both are a fantastic way to truly immerse yourself in the beauty of the region. Climb aboard a Yamaha Grizzly Ultramatic 4WD quad and head up the mountain, tearing through the terrain until you reach the snow. Led by an amazing guide, you’ll be treated to unbelievable views, historical tidbits and a whole lot of fun. Find The Cardrona here.
4. Eat at Amigos
Mexican food doesn’t get much better than Amigos, located in the heart of Wanaka. This place is popular for good reason so be sure to book as we very nearly didn’t get a seat. If you can, time your visit for their $5 Taco Tuesday so you can appropriately stuff yourself with an obscene number of truly delicious tacos. There are loads of options for vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters as well as all the classic including fajitas, burritos, nachos and quesadillas. Find Amigos here.
5. Shred it at Cardrona
Hit the slopes at New Zealand’s most popular ski area, Cardrona. With a wide range of terrain suitable for everyone from beginners through to Olympic and X Games athletes there’s something for everyone at Cardrona. It’s one of my favourite ski fields as there are some really fun runs, lots of lifts and a gondola and so much good food too. Grab a bite at Captain’s Pizzeria, Base Cafe, The Mezz and, my personal favourite, the Noodle Bar. We spent a full day up at Cardrona and loved every moment. Find Cardrona Alpine Resort here.
6. Grab breakfast at Relishes
On our very first visit to Wanaka many years ago we stopped in for breakfast at Relishes. We loved it so much we ate breakfast there every day for three days in a row! If that doesn’t tell you it’s good, I don’t know what will. This place is really cosy with great coffee and a warm fire burning throughout winter. Their breakfast menu is stacked with favourites including an epic big breakfast option for carnivores and plant-based folk. Their spring onion potato cakes are legendary so be sure to try those! Find Relishes here.
7. Climb a Waterfall at Wildwire Wanaka
Prepare for an unforgettable, epic adventure with Wildwire Wanaka! Tackle the world’s highest waterfall cable climb, making your way up sheer rock face and over suspension bridges with absolutely no experience necessary. Trust me, this one is a must-do. It’s incredibly fun, freeing and very safe. We took to it like naturals and enjoyed each second, learning about the local area, soaking in the views and challenging ourselves to do something new. There are three different climbs to choose from and we went with Level 2 ‘Wild Thing,’ but would love to go back and do the epic ‘Lord of the Rungs,’ on our next visit. Find Wildwire Wanaka here.
8. Indulge at Maude
The Central Otago region is renowned for producing exceptional wine so it makes sense to add a winery or two to your itinerary. Located near Lake Wanaka, Maude is the perfect place to indulge. This family-owned wine company creates exceptional wine in a beautiful location. Stop in to the tasting room to learn about Maude Wines and sample a paddle of wines or a few delectable glasses. You can also grab a bite at Bistro Gentil of an evening Tuesday to Saturday and wander through the maple trees, a truly magical experience. Find Maude here.
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