This small town offers a big choice, on and around the lake. Travel writer Lisa Jansen reports.
The Central Otago and Queenstown-Lakes districts are known for their breathtaking mountain and lake scenery, endless tourist attractions and stunning autumn colours – and for not always being the most motorhome-friendly part of New Zealand. However, the town of Wānaka might be the exception.
Although you won’t find any freedom camping spots in Wānaka either, compared to its bigger sibling, Queenstown, and other parts of the region, the feeling is much more welcoming. From several highly rated camping grounds, including affordable options, to easy parking in town and a very well set-up dump station, the town does a lot to ensure RVers have an enjoyable time.
The town sits at the southern end of Lake Wānaka. An hour north of Queenstown, it’s often considered the quieter and more affordable, yet equally picturesque, destination in the central South Island. It has a population of about 9000, though in the summer and ski seasons, that goes up significantly. It’s big enough to cater for most things visitors and locals might need: large supermarkets, cafes, bars and restaurants, a wide range of shops and services, medical providers, entertainment and much more.
Where to stay
RVers are spoiled for choice when it comes to finding a place to stay. The Lake View Holiday Park is the most convenient option for those who like to be close to town. The park gets excellent reviews and is an easy stroll from the town centre and the lake. Just slightly further out of town are the Mt Aspiring Holiday Park and the Wanaka Top 10 Holiday Park – both also popular among travellers.
Those who don’t need holiday park facilities can find a more affordable option five minutes out of town, at the Albert Town Campground. And those who love stunning lake views and old-school Kiwi charm will enjoy Glendhu Bay Motor Camp, 15 minutes northwest of the town.
Visit ‘that Wānaka tree’
No visit is complete without taking a photo of the famous tree – a crack willow bending into the lake. It’s believed to be one of the most photographed trees in New Zealand, if not the world, and for good reason. With the lake around it and the Southern Alps in the background, it makes for a stunning sight, especially on clear days and when the sun is low in the sky. Find the tree by walking west from town, along the lakefront, for about 25 to 30 minutes.
Be amazed at Puzzling World
This might sound like an attraction mainly for kids, but Puzzling World is not just for the little ones – especially the illusion rooms, which seem to defy logic and will engage your senses and challenge your brain. Across the five rooms, you can try to escape the eyes of Einstein, watch water flow uphill, see yourself shrink, and marvel at impossible art, plus a whole lot more.
It’s also a great place to enjoy lunch or coffee while trying to solve some of the free puzzles and mind-benders you’ll find around the Think Tank Cafe.
Go to the movies
In most towns, the movie theatre wouldn’t necessarily make it onto the list of activities. But Paradiso Cinema deserves to be called an attraction. Instead of your standard cinema seats, here you can enjoy movies from the comfort of sofas and luxurious leather seating. The cafe and bar serve delicious meals, and old Morris Minor cars give the cinema that quirky yet comfortable touch it’s famous for.
And if that doesn’t convince you it’s time to go to the movies, this probably will: homemade ice cream and world-famous fresh cookies are served during intermission.
Explore the great outdoors
Whether you prefer cycling, walking or snow-sports, Wānaka is the perfect base. One of the most famous walks is the hike up to Roy’s Peak. It’s a gruelling 3- to 4-hour uphill battle, but the views from the top are worth it. Consider hiking up for sunrise, for an unforgettable experience. If this track is too long or too crowded for you, Mt Aspiring National Park offers countless others for all fitness levels.
Suitable for most cyclists, the 12km Hawea River Track links Lake Hāwea township to Wānaka, via Albert Town. The 15km Glendhu Bay Track offers stunning lake and mountain views, and just up the road from Glendhu Bay, you can find Bike Glendhu, Wānaka’s newest mountain bike park.
For winter sports enthusiasts, Wānaka is one of THE destinations in New Zealand. Three of the country’s best ski areas – Cardrona, Treble Cone and Snow Farm – are within a 40-minute drive from town.
To find the right walking or cycling track or ski field for you, ask the friendly locals at iSite on Ardmore Street. They will be more than happy to recommend the best options.
Find the lake within the lake
A lesser-known attraction is Arethusa Pool, on Mau Waho Island in Lake Wānaka. To get there, book a water taxi – the trip takes about 45 minutes and is a great way to see the township and its surrounding mountains from the water. Once on the 2km long, predator-free island, tackle the 20-minute uphill hike to see the pool. This lake sits 150 metres above the surface of Lake Wānaka. It’s said to be a few degrees warmer than the main lake, so if you’re visiting in summer, you might want to bring your swimming gear.
Have lunch at Cardrona Hotel
Cardrona makes for a great little side-trip. Although the road is steep and winding when coming from Queenstown, and therefore not suitable for some RVers, it’s an easy drive from Wānaka. Along the way, you get to enjoy views of the Crown Ranges, and once in Cardrona, the famous hotel is a great spot for lunch. The few little shops are worth a stroll through as well, and the cafe at the northern end of the settlement offers excellent coffee and homemade baking. If you have extra time, you could stop at the Cardrona Distillery with its impressive buildings, just north of the settlement.
Find out more
• Visit the local iSite on Ardmore Street.
• Check out the excellent resources at lakewanaka.co.nz