Image of the iconic tree in Lake Wanaka
Iconic tree in Lake Wanaka

Wanaka is one of New Zealand’s best kept secrets. It’s not that people don’t know about the place – it’s more that it’s overshadowed by its bigger, brasher brother – Queenstown. And we totally get it. Queenstown is an awesome place to spend a weekend, a week, a month – there’s so much to see and do and such a great atmosphere in the town that’s it’s easy to see why thousands of people flock there every year. However, if you’re looking for something a bit more chilled out and laid back, but still ram packed with things to do, then Wanaka could be just the place for you.

Winter in Wanaka

Wanaka is definitely a town for all seasons but like Queenstown, it is perhaps at its best during the winter months. There is something pretty special about seeing the snow-capped peaks all around you whilst you sit back in front of a roaring fire with a nice glass of red, reflecting on an awesome day on the slopes or out walking. Not only are there great adventure to be had in Wanaka, it’s also a great place to kick back and relax with some great accommodation options and some tasty places to grab a bite to eat. It may be less flashy than Queenstown and the nightlife is not quite as vibrant but if you’re looking for a quiet getaway, then Wanaka certainly ticks a lot of boxes.

Top 5 things to do in Wanaka

With so much to do in Wanaka and the surrounding area, we’ve pulled together a list of our top 5 things to do and places to go when you’re next in town. Some of these are seasonal activities like skiing or taking a dip in the lake but hopefully you can take some inspiration no matter what time of year you are visiting!

1.      Exploring the Mt Aspiring National Park

Image of the Beautiful glacial river running off Rob Roy Glacier in Mount Aspiring National Park
Beautiful glacial river running off Rob Roy Glacier in Mount Aspiring National Park

As soon as you drive into Wanaka, you will be immediately awe-struck by the stunning landscape all around which is formed by the Mt Aspiring National Park – part of a World Heritage Area. As the name suggests, Mt Aspiring is the 3,027m centrepiece of this stunning national park but you don’t have to go far to discover a landscape teeming with glaciers, roaring waterfalls, flowing rivers and lush native beech trees. Exploring the park can be done however you like – tramping, jet boating, kayak or strapping on a pair of crampons and really going for it. However you choose to explore the park, you’ll not be disappointed and a full day out will earn you a hearty feed when you get back to town.

2.      New Zealand’s best skiing and snowboarding

Image of the Cardrona Ski Field near Wanaka
The Cardrona ski field near Wanaka

Whilst Queenstown is definitely an apres-ski sort of place, Wanaka focusses more on attracting the hard-core ski and snowboard nuts who are more about the snow than the after party. Wanaka has the luxury of easy access to five international ski areas and was voted as one of the world’s 25 best ski towns by National Geographic. The two main ski areas are Cardrona which is perfect for beginners and intermediates and Treble Cone which boasts uncrowded slopes and fantastic off-piste terrain. If skiing is not your thing, the Snow Farm is a great place to try out something new like cross country skiing, snow shoeing, sledding or maybe a dog sled tour. Wanaka is such a great base for skiing and with all the ski fields within easy driving distance, what are you waiting for?

3.      Walking tracks galore

Although the Mt Aspiring National Park may be a big draw, it’s definitely not the only place to head out for a walk when you’re in town. Wanaka offers up a really diverse selection of walking (or as the Kiwis like to call it, tramping) tracks which cater for all fitness levels. Whether you’re looking for a short walk to stretch the legs or a multi-day, cross mountain trail, Wanaka has it all. One of our favourites and widely regarded as the best half day walk in New Zealand is the Rob Roy Glacier hike. If you’re looking for something a bit more sedate or you have the family with you, there are also pushchair and dog friendly walks, many of which will take you around the lake and offer some superb views.

4.      Get out on the water

Image of a man kayaking on Lake Wanaka
Kayaking in Lake Wanaka

This one is more for the warmer seasons but a great way to explore the Wanaka area is out on the lakes or the rivers that surround this beautiful town. For many visitors in the summer, this is the main reason for their trip to Wanaka and you can’t blame them. With two lakes to choose from, there’s every possible water activity you could think of from sedate sailing to high-velocity jet boating. Kayaking is one of the most popular water sports down here and is a great way of exploring the water and getting some stunning views of the town and surrounding mountains. The best thing about getting out on the water is that there is so much of it that you can go for hours without seeing another soul which all adds to the peace and tranquillity of it all.

5.      Quirky attractions

We can’t complete a top 5 list of things to do in Wanaka without mentioning some of the more quirky attractions in the town. Our favourite by far is Puzzling World where you can literally get lost for hours in the great maze, get fooled in the illusion room (where water actually goes uphill!), check out the Roman toilets and more. It’s a great place to spend a few hours (depending on how lost you get in the maze) and is great fun for all ages. Our other favourite place is Cinema Paradiso. This small classic movie theatre is located in the heart of the town and features comfy old sofas, 3 seats inside a Morris Minor car and an awesome café serving delicious food before during and after your cinema showing. We definitely recommend trying the hot baked cookies – delicious!

Where to stay

Image of the Hot pools at the Mercure Oakridge Resort, Wanaka
Hot pools at the Mercure Oakridge Resort, Wanaka

There are of course plenty of accommodation options in Wanaka, however if you are truly looking to kick back and relax, then we definitely recommend giving the Mercure Oakridge Resort a whirl. Located about 2 miles out of the main town up the hill, the Mercure Oakridge Resort is a 4 star hotel set in the stunning mountain landscape with its very own spa facilities featuring a series of 9 outdoor heated pools set in a beautifully landscaped area with views out into mountains.

Where to eat

Again, there are plenty of eating options in Wanaka but our favourite has got to be the Speights Ale House which is situated right opposite the lake in the heart of the town. With outdoor decks that catch the sun all day, this is the perfect place in the summer months but in the winter, it’s great to settle in to a lovely warming environment. They have an awesome selection of Speights Beer to suit any taste from their dark and heavy porter to something a bit lighter like a Summit Ale. Then there’s the food – good old fashioned pub grub but taken to a gastro level. From the bangers and mash to the fish and chips, everything is a hearty plate which is perfect after a day out exploring.

We absolutely love a trip to Wanaka and there is no better time than now to make a visit and get out exploring. It’s only a short drive from Queenstown or you can take the longer route in via Christchurch. However you arrive here, Wanaka never disappoints!

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