36 hours in Wanaka

ARRESTING LANDSCAPE: Wanaka provides a visual spectacle of lake, mountains and vineyards.
ARRESTING LANDSCAPE: Wanaka provides a visual spectacle of lake, mountains and vineyards.

Friday, 7am: They can strike anywhere, anytime. A seizing pain, psychedelic vision, numbing sensations. Migraines don't care if you're spending the weekend in Wanaka. It doesn't worry them if you have a flight in a couple of hours.

11am: The headache subsides just before the plane bursts through a slab of cloud and touches down. It's my first time in Wanaka and I can instantly see why Central Otago has some fierce fans. On the way to my accommodation I have to pull over a few times to take photos of the arresting landscape.

Midday: Now it's official; I want to move here. My haven for the weekend is Tiritiri Lodge, owned by Stephanie Pursley and Denis Costello. It's dripping with luxury yet maintains a distinct homely feel. There are five guest rooms and one suite. My room is very spacious and has everything from bedside reading material to jars of chocolates. Two glass doors slide open on to the deck that gives generous views of the mountains and Lake Wanaka. There's even a view from the bathroom; the shower wall has a window so you can gaze at the mountains while you lather and rinse.

1pm: Stephanie and Denis have called Tiritiri (from Ka Tiritiri o Te Moana, the Southern Alps) home for the past five years after giving up their jobs in Australia and succumbing to Wanaka's overpowering allure. Their new lifestyle provides them with what Stephanie calls "travelling without the travel", thanks to their international visitors. You need only briefly flip through the guest book to see people come from everywhere, from the North Shore and Waiuku, to Brazil and Afghanistan. Their daughter, Tiffany Firth, also fell for the charms of the south and followed Stephanie and Denis over after retraining as a chef. She's responsible for the delicious lunch I'm tucking into: a sizeable pork and apple sausage roll with salad.

2pm: When in Wanaka you must try a pinot noir. Tiffany has brought me to Rippon Vineyard, home to Central Otago's oldest vines. I taste their signature wine - the exquisite Rippon Jeunesse Young Pinot Noir - and immediately buy a bottle to take home.

8pm: Dinner is at The Landing, a restaurant with a tasty menu and views to boot. I'm here with Tiffany, Gusto cafe owner Nicky Watt, and winemaker Jen Parr, from the acclaimed Olssens winery. I choose a spring salad with duck, roasted beetroot and goat's cheese for entree, and lamb rump with pinot noir jus for the main. It's fantastically filling.

11pm: There's nothing like a big comfy bed and fluffy pillows. Although I feel sinful for closing the curtains on the alps.

Saturday, 8am: Over the next few hours I will travel by car, plane, foot and boat. I'm in Makarora for an excursion with Southern Alps Air. I meet Paul Cooper, who's running the operation. I also meet Buttercup, the Cessna 185 skywagon that is ready for lift off. I'm on a condensed version of the Siberia Experience, which begins with a 25-minute flight over Mt Aspiring National Park. Paul flies 10 to 20 times a day but any qualms I have are extinguished as soon as we're in the air. I don't want to blink and miss anything. We spot Wonderland Valley, Lake Crucible and watch waterfalls tumble down mountains.

Paul has been flying for nearly 20 years and I'm not surprised he still finds the view awe-inspiring. How could you not when your office is above paradise? After a smooth landing it's on to a walk to see the Blue Pools, where the Makarora and Blue rivers meet. The glacier-fed water is a brilliant azure. The air is crisp and the gravel scrunches beneath my step. I could stay here all day if it weren't for the next part of the experience - an adrenalin-filled jet boat ride. I feel like we could be in a James Bond movie as we zoom through the Makarora River.

6pm: At Tiritiri Lodge you can take your pick of places to unwind. There's a spot by the waterfall and Japanese garden, two living areas or a piano seat if you fancy tickling the ivories on the slick black Bechstein piano. I'm at the dinner table. Tiffany has made another delicious meal and I chat with Stephanie and Denis over more fine Wanaka wines before we head into town to watch a film at Cinema Paradiso. Instead of the usual boring seats, the theatre has a variety of comfy sofas and an old car to sit in. Halfway through the movie, the lights go up and we file out for an intermission treat. The smell of homemade cookies wafts through the theatre but the passionfruit icecream is too tempting. This homely theatre has been raved about in Lonely Planet and The Guardian.

Sunday, 9am: This morning we meet Chris Riley, who takes us on a Wanaka eco tour. It begins as a boat ride on Lake Wanaka to Mou Waho Island nature reserve, where we hop on to the island in the hope of spotting a Buff weka. After these flightless birds were nearly wiped out on the mainland, a dozen were sent to the Chatham Islands which saved the species. Some were transferred here in 2001 and now there are about 100 weka on the predator-free island. Chris, who is originally from Matakana, north of Auckland, says the trek up to the top of Mou Wahu can sometimes be "as rough as hessian undies". Today it's more like silk as the surroundings make the climb seem effortless. We spy wood pigeons, fantails and bellbirds and see the odd weka. Near the top of the climb we spot the ultimate infinity pool - a lake high up on the mountain. A bit further up we find Wally the weka, who, says Chris, "was wise in his real estate" when he located to Mou Waho in 2004. We decide it's a good place to stop for some tea and biscuits. Wally decides it's a prime time to introduce us to his family, and along comes his mate, Sally, and their chicks. These weka chicks distract us while Wally tries to nab our chocolate chip cookies. Near the end of the walk I plant a cabbage tree that Chris has brought along. I'm thrilled that I can make a small contribution to preserving this wonderful place.

1pm: Walking and weka spotting work up an appetite so it's time for lunch at local favourite Gusto. It's the perfect place to sit back and people watch or mountain watch. I order the Gusto salad, a genius and generous concoction of chicken, haloumi, sundried tomatoes, onion and salad.

2pm: It's time to gather my things and bid Tiritiri a very fond farewell. Like everyone who visits, I have fallen for Wanaka's charms. The town's special blend of relaxation and adventure have made for the perfect weekend getaway. Plus it's a miracle cure for migraines.


Where to stay: Tiritiri Lodge, 8 Minaret Ridge, Wanaka, ph 03 443 2433.

What to eat: Tiffany Firth, Tiritiri Lodge's chef, can whip up fabulous meals. If you branch out of the lodge, try The Landing Restaurant and Bar, Level 1, 80 Ardmore St, Wanaka, ph 03 443 5099; Gusto cafe, 1 Lakeside Rd, Wanaka, 03 443 6639.

What to do: Rippon Vineyard & Winery, 246 Mt Aspiring Rd, Lake Wanaka, ph 03 443 8084; Terra Sancta (formerly Olssens), ph 03 445 1716, email wine@terrasancta.co.nz; Puzzling World, 188 Wanaka Luggate Highway 84, Wanaka, ph 03 443 7489; Southern Alps Air, Makarora Tourist Centre, State Highway 6, Makarora, ph 0800 345 666; Cinema Paradiso, 1 Ardmore St, Wanaka, ph 03 443 1505; Eco Wanaka Adventures, 5 Rimu Lane, Wanaka, ph 0800 926 326.

Kate Mead visited Wanaka courtesy of Tiritiri Lodge.

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