Twenty reasons to visit Wanaka
1 It's not Queenstown
Queenstown may reign as the Aspen of Australasia, but ask a Kiwi - pretty much any Kiwi - which of these two all-year-round resort towns they prefer - Queenstown or Wanaka - and invariably they'll choose the latter. Certainly Wanaka's breathtaking glacial lake and mountain setting, ideal for a summer or winter holiday, compares more than favourably to that of Queenstown, which risks, as a result of its popularity, becoming overdeveloped.
2 Cardrona Hotel
After arriving at Queenstown International Airport from Australia you'll need to drive to Wanaka, preferably across the scenic Crown Range. No worries, bro. Break the one-hour-plus journey with a feed or a drink at the rustic Cardrona Hotel, one of New Zealand's oldest public houses (dating back to 1863) and a popular modern-day apres-ski haunt in the ski season.
3 Whare Kea Lodge
Unlike burgeoning Queenstown (population nearly 23,000), the major hotel brands are yet to open in Wanaka (population slightly more than 5000). But there's no shortage of accommodation here, with Wanaka also being home to the exclusive, lakeside, six-room Whare Kea Lodge & Chalet (wharekealodge.com). If your budget is sufficiently elastic, this is not only the ultimate place to stay in Wanaka, it's also one of the finest of New Zealand's renowned luxury lodges. Each room has lake and mountain views and features walk-in wardrobes, writing desks and Bose sound systems. However, the real show-stopper is the glass-encased open-plan lounge, with sensational alpine vistas possibly only interrupted when one of the staff serves your Central Otago pinot noir while you relax on the couch.
4 Whare Kea Chalet
Whare Kea is the only New Zealand lodge to offer its own mountain-top chalet, exclusive to well-heeled guests. It's accessible only by helicopter, ensuring not only complete privacy but also seclusion. The fully equipped chalet, which doubles as a weather station, is perched right on the edge of the oft snow-capped Mount Aspiring National Park.
5 Aspiring Helicopters
If your budget doesn't quite stretch to a night or more at Whare Kea Chalet, then take a peek at the peaks aboard a scenic flight with Aspiring Helicopters (aspiringhelicopters.co.nz). Its Lake Wanaka Scenic Flight may last just 20 minutes and cost $NZ170 a person ($138), but it will surely prove to be one of the most memorable 20 minutes you've ever spent as you marvel at Lake Wanaka and the Matukituki, Clutha and Makarora rivers (a favoured course for jet boating) and, of course, the region's mighty mountains.
6 Southern Alps
The Southern Alps, a constant and captivating presence during any time spent in Wanaka, don't rival the altitudes of the Himalayas or the Andes, but they're by far the highest mountain range in Australasia, comprising no fewer than 16 peaks above 3000 metres, with Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand's tallest peak, at 3754 metres. The Southern Alps were the place where the late Sir Edmund Hillary honed his climbing skills before eventually conquering Mount Everest 60 years ago.
7 Lake Wanaka
Aside from those truly majestic mountains that envelop it, Wanaka's most dominant physical feature is its eponymous, magnificently pristine lake. The turquoise Lake Wanaka, which covers nearly 200 square kilometres, is the fourth largest in New Zealand, with a depth of 300 metres. Even in summer you're unlikely to spot many, if any, swimmers braving its chilly waters, but while you may not find yourself in the lake, you're sure to spend time around it, above it or on it during your visit to Wanaka.
8 Eco Wanaka Adventures
Mou Waho Island is a must-visit, predator-free nature reserve in the middle of Lake Wanaka. There are regular tours there operated by Eco Wanaka Adventures (ecowanaka.co.nz) and led by a garrulous expert guide and local character, Chris Riley. On each trip to the island, Riley carries a native tree to plant at the top of the island's hill, but the highlight is the view of the lake, beside which morning or afternoon tea refreshments are taken. The unusual sight of a smaller lake atop an island sitting on top of a much larger lake initially feels like an optical illusion.
A weka is a delightful New Zealand flightless woodhen-like bird that's classified as a vulnerable species. It's friendlier and more inquisitive than a backyard chook and therein exists its problem. It makes the birds eminently vulnerable to non-native, introduced predators, with the best place to view wekas being the sanctuary environment of Mou Waho Island.
It's easy for non-Kiwis to get their wetas confused with their wekas, but they really couldn't be more different. One of the world's largest and heaviest insects, the weta resembles an oversized cricket or grasshopper, and can be found in large numbers on Mou Waho Island. New Zealand's acclaimed film director, Sir Peter Jackson, named his Wellington-based production house Weta Workshop after the insects, which, like the weka, are also listed as vulnerable.
11 Cafe culture
The Kiwis, like their Aussie cousins, are crazy for espresso coffee. One of Wanaka's coolest cafes is Federal Diner (federaldiner.co.nz), whose motto is "Changing the world, one cheese scone at a time". It's a hidey-hole kind of place just off the top end of Helwick Street in the centre of town. On a sunny day, sit in the courtyard with the backdrop of a mural of Wanaka's alpine scenery in front of, well, Wanaka's alpine scenery and tuck into an excellent breakfast or lunch with the in-the-know locals who love this easily-missed-by-tourists joint.
12 Walking and fishing
If you don't feel totally alive and exhilarated in Wanaka, please check your pulse, though the pace of activities is a little more restrained than in Queenstown. There's everything from leisurely walks around the lake to challenging tramps (as the Kiwis call hikes) to the Rob Roy Valley, which is about 45 minutes from Wanaka. This 3½-hour return walk takes you by the Matukituki River and through alpine forests and meadows just below the Rob Roy Glacier. Of course, this being New Zealand with its abundance of lakes and rivers, fishing is a popular pastime, with the waterways brimming with salmon and trout and with knowledgeable guides available to instruct on the art of fly-fishing.
13 Classic Flights
Take a flight in a vintage DH82a Tiger Moth, complete with an old-fashioned open cockpit, with Classic Flights (classicflights.co.nz), based at Wanaka Airport. Before takeoff you're fully kitted out, Biggles-like, in a classic leather flying jacket, helmet, silk scarf and, of course, those essential goggles. Choose from a 20-minute scenic flight over the lake or a barnstorming 30-minute flight featuring the aerobatic skills of the pilot. Then there's the ultimate romantic Tiger Moth experience, whereby two of the aircraft are in tandem for two or three hours, including lunch or dinner with a bottle of Central Otago wine.
14 Ridgeline Adventures
Wanaka is ringed by high-country sheep, cattle and deer stations with lush pea-green pastures. Ridgeline Adventures (ridgelinenz.com) has access to one such property, where it conducts its half-day tour in a four-wheel-drive skirting the highest extremities of the farm, along, as the name suggests, ridge-line tracks complete with sheer drops below you and affording breathtaking vistas of Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps. You can buy a "combo tour" with Eco Wanaka Adventures, with Ridgelines Adventures rendezvous-ing on the stony shoreline of Lake Wanaka, where your boat to Mou Waho Island awaits.
15 Alpine Images
Start your marriage on a true high (or a rocky beginning) by being wed in Wanaka with the post-nuptial snaps taken atop one of the craggy peaks of the Southern Alps. "Heli-weddings", as opposed to weddings from hell, can be arranged with Alpine Images (alpineimages.co.nz), which also operates out of Queenstown, with just-married couples, in full bridal regalia, flown up to the mountains by chopper, where they pose for pics amid the wondrous sights of the Southern Alps.
16 Rippon winery
The Central Otago region of the South Island is synonymous with some of the finest wines in Australasia. However, even in these sublime parts, few winery locations could surpass that of Rippon (rippon.co.nz). It's situated on the hilly site of the historic Wanaka Station, just up the road from Whare Kea Lodge, with steep vineyards sloping all the way to the edge of Lake Wanaka.
17 Warbirds & Wheels
Warbirds & Wheels (warbirdsandwheels.com) is the remarkable collection of New Zealand entrepreneur and pilot Sir Tim Wallis, who made his fortune from founding the deer farming industry on the South Island, only to be badly injured in a plane crash. At Wallis's museum at Wanaka Airport is his outstanding collection of aircraft that have figured in New Zealand's aviation history as well as a collection of classic, exquisitely restored and maintained cars from all over the world.
18 Chef James Stapley
Wanaka, largely by virtue of its smaller size, has fewer quality restaurants than Queenstown. But guests at Whare Kea Lodge & Chalet are able to sample the outstanding cuisine of British-born chef James Stapley. His dishes wouldn't be out of place at some of Australia's best restaurants, with his cooking at New Zealand's Pegasus Bay Winery, in the North Canterbury region of the South Island, acknowledged with a Cuisine Magazine Restaurant of the Year award.
19 Sculptor Martin Hill
Martin Hill (martin-hill.com) is a master of environmental art, creating wonderful sculptures from the natural materials occurring in the dramatic landscapes that surround him. These materials may include anything from twigs collected from forests to snow gathered from the slopes of mountains that he and his partner, Philippa Jones, use to create their ephemeral outdoor sculptures. You can visit Hill and Jones, pictured, by appointment at their Wanaka studio, where you can buy limited-edition prints of some of the artists' compelling work.
20 Skydive Lake Wanaka
Queenstown may have successfully fashioned itself as an adventure capital, but Wanaka offers plenty of opportunities for those visitors who consider defying death to be the basis of a perfect holiday. Skydive Lake Wanaka (skydivewanaka.com) allows you to fling yourself from its new turbine aircraft from either 4570 metres (60-second free fall) or 3660 metres (45-second free fall). Stunning views of New Zealand's highest peaks, including Mount Cook, are almost guaranteed, provided you're not too terrified to open your eyes on the way down.
The official website for Lake Wanaka Tourism is lakewanaka.co.nz.
Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com.au) operates direct flights from Sydney to Queenstown.
The writer was a guest of Whare Kea Lodge & Chalet and Air New Zealand.