Wanaka: An introduction

Wanaka – gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park and Te Wahipounamu World Heritage area – has a magnificent setting of soaring mountains, alpine lakes and rivers.

On the southern shores of Lake Wanaka, the resort town of the same name offers outdoor adventures and indoor luxury aplenty. The laidback lakeside town has four distinct seasons – hot and dry in summer, cool in autumn, lush in spring and crisp in winter – and draws visitors all year round. 

Summer is perfect for jet boating, kayaking, climbing and rafting, while hiking, fishing and canyoning are popular in any season.

Autumn (fall) is a particularly beautiful time in Wanaka, when the hills take on a fiery hue, blending golds, oranges and reds – an event celebrated at the biennial Southern Lakes Festival of Colour. On alternate years, the spectacle takes to the skies with the international Warbirds over Wanaka air show (the next edition is scheduled for 31 March - 1 April, 2018).

In winter, the slopes of Treble Cone and Cardrona entice skiers and snowboarders from around the world. Spring is the time to get out and explore the numerous tracks and trails.

Wanaka's not just for outdoor enthusiasts. Stroll the streets and be inspired by cool galleries, stylish shops and a great selection of cafés and restaurants. It's also a prime destination for luxury getaways. Its many prestige lodges and boutique B & Bs combine privacy and pampering, and perfectly complement options such as helicopter tours, vintage plane rides and back-country 4WD touring.

Heritage

Until the early 19th century, Wanaka was a summertime settlement for local Māori. In 1853, Nathaniel Chalmers became the first known European to see the lake. It was gold, however, found in the 1870s, that brought the first population wave. At one time there were 187 gold dredges working the high-yield Clutha River.

The original settlement, founded in 1863 and known as "Pembroke", was renamed Wanaka in 1940. Tourism began in 1881 with the launch of a paddle steamer taking sightseers to the head of Lake Wanaka.

Luxury

A long-time luxury destination, Wanaka has prestigious accommodation, excellent dining and recreation options such as private helicopter tours, vintage plane rides and back-country touring.

Whare Kea lodge offers luxury lakeside accommodation and a chalet on a mountainside near Mt Aspiring national park. The chalet, accessed by helicopter, is a base for heli-skiing, ski touring and mountainside picnics.

Minaret Station, in a secluded alpine valley west of the lake, is a premium alpine experience. The lodge is open year-round for pure relaxation and stylish dining or mountain adventures including hiking, hunting, fishing and skiing.

Nature and wildlife

Wanaka’s natural environment is a haven for rare native birds and plant life – nowhere more so than on Mou Waho island, a nature reserve in the middle of Wanaka. Once a food source for Māori and early Europeans, the buff weka (a large brown flightless bird) now thrives here, along with native falcon, wood pigeon, bellbird, gecko and rainbow trout.

Siberia Experience is a wilderness experience – involving a scenic flight, bush walk and jetboat safari – that takes visitors from a bird's eye view of Mt Aspiring to birdsong in the bush and high-speed boating thrills on the Makaroa River.

Adventure / outdoors

Wanaka has a reputation as one of the world's best adventure towns, with easy access to outdoor activities and Mt Aspiring National Park. You can freefall from 4,500 metres (15,000 feet), abseil waterfalls, take on river rapids, scale a peak, spin in a jet boat, land on a glacier, go off-road and explore clear pools and native forest. The Matukituki, Makarora and mighty Clutha and Hawea rivers offer outstanding kayaking and paddleboarding.

New Zealand’s rock climbing capital also has hundreds of rock routes, ranging from grade nine to 30, on the edge of Mt Aspiring national park. Other options are a family-friendly via ferrata (manmade alpine route) and Wildwire, an assisted climb alongside Twin Falls.

Award-winning skydiving experiences give another perspective on the Wanaka landscape, with up to 60 seconds of freefall over an alpine wilderness that includes New Zealand’s highest mountains, isolated glaciers and lakes.

The region also offers impressive fishing opportunities for salmon, brown and rainbow trout in the clear waters of three major lakes and streams and rivers.

Wanaka's three world-class ski areas are all within 40 minutes' drive of Wanaka's town centre. Treble Cone, the South Island’s largest ski and snowboard area, is famous for its amazing views and vast, uncrowded slopes. Cardrona Alpine Resort is a relaxed ski and snowboard resort with specialist slopes for beginners, advanced chutes and an extensive freestyler park. Snow Farm, with 55 kilometres (34 miles) of trails, is dedicated to cross-country skiing.

For a memorable alpine experience, you can stay on-snow at Cardrona or in a back-country hut at Snow Farm and enjoy the sunrise over the Southern Alps.

And by the way...

  • Lake Wanaka gets frequent mentions in the Mission Impossible III movie, as a location the lead couple had visited.
  • The lake is the source of the Clutha, New Zealand’s largest river by volume.
  • The route over the Crown Range, with a high point of 1,121 metres (3,680 feet), is New Zealand’s highest main road.
  • The road over Haast Pass is only 160 kilometres (100 miles) long, but it took more than 30 years to carve through the solid rock.