Wanaka, New Zealand City Guide

Wanaka isn’t the kind of town that crops up on most people’s radars when they think about New Zealand. There are plenty of other, more famous places to visit on the South Island, like Queenstown, Christchurch, or Fiordland. However, that measure of anonymity actually works in Wanaka’s favor.

Of course, you’ll still find tourists in Wanaka, especially during summer, but the relaxed lake town feels more like a local getaway than a bustling tourist hub. The cozy, local vibe is one of my favorite feelings when exploring a new city, so it’s not surprising that I fell in love with Wanaka.

I’ve put together this city guide to share what I did (and what I wish I’d done) while I was there, so you can visit and fall in love, too.

#thatWanakatree in New Zealand
Wading out into Lake Wanaka near #thatWanakatree. © Meghan Crawford

How to Get to Wanaka, New Zealand

Driving to Wanaka

Wanaka is located about an hour north of Queenstown, just outside Mt. Aspiring National Park. The best way to get there is to fly into either Queenstown or Christchurch and then drive.

Renting a car or a camper van is one of the most popular ways to see New Zealand. It allows for the kind of freedom and exploration that bus schedules and tour groups can’t provide.

Still, there are some things to remember when driving in New Zealand, the most important of which is that they drive on the left. If you’re from one of the 165 countries and territories that drive on the right, bear that in mind when deciding to rent a vehicle. For those already comfortable with driving on the left – or game to give it their best shot, even if they’re not (I fell into this camp) – there are still some uniquely Kiwi road hazards you should know about.

Visit the New Zealand tourism board’s website to learn more about what it’s like driving there. If you’re flying Air New Zealand, you can watch their informational videos as part of your in-flight entertainment.

From Queenstown to Wanaka

Flying into Queenstown is certainly the fastest way to get to Wanaka. There are two routes you can take. The most direct of these follows Crown Range Road, which turns into Cardrona Valley Road, through the Crown Range Mountains and takes only about an hour.

This road is steep with many narrow turns and is a little bit of a difficult drive, particularly in winter (May through October) when there’s ice and snow on the ground. If you’re nervous about driving in New Zealand or are inexperienced driving in icy conditions, this might not be the best option.

There’s also the slightly longer route through Cromwell, which adds only 30 minutes or so to your total trip time and avoids the mountains entirely. Just stay on State Highway 6 and follow signs for Wanaka. Both routes offer plenty of opportunities to stop for photos, sightseeing, and lunch breaks.

Related: Motion Sickness Tips for Travelers

Mt. Iron Trail in Wanaka New Zealand
Views from a hiking trail in Wanaka. © Meghan Crawford

From Christchurch to Wanaka

The drive from Christchurch to Wanaka is much longer and I don’t recommend attempting it in a single day. Instead, make a road trip out of it, with several stops along the way. I cut across through Arthur’s Pass and then down the West Coast on my trip, but you could just as easily go down the East Coast. Whichever you choose, be sure to break your drive up into manageable chunks. Driving in New Zealand can be tiring, especially on the mountainous South Island.

Related: 50 Travel Songs for the Ultimate Adventure Playlist

Get to Wanaka by Bus

For those who don’t feel comfortable driving, New Zealand’s InterCity buses are a great way to get around both the North and South Islands. If you’ve had bad experiences with public transportation in the past, don’t worry. I traveled on an InterCity bus from Auckland to Rotorua and found it to be clean, comfortable, and punctual.

InterCity offers both fixed and flexible rates for booking your bus fare in advance. For the most flexibility, though, I recommend taking advantage of their FlexiPass hop-on/hop-off system. Buses depart daily for Wanaka from both Queenstown (around 2 hours) and Christchurch (around 8 hours). You can view the full timetables and book your passes on the InterCity website.

Related: Travel New Zealand by Bus: Everything You Need to Know

Things to Do in Wanaka, New Zealand

Like most people, you might know about Wanaka because of that famous tree that crops up on your Instagram feed every so often. However, that Wanaka tree isn’t the only thing in town that will make you reach for your camera.

Wanaka is gorgeous, but that’s hardly a revelation in a country as photogenic as New Zealand. Fortunately, there’s plenty more to do there than just flex on your Instagram following. I’ve listed some of the best activities below:

1. Visit the Wanaka Lavender Farm

Lavender Fields in Wanaka
Instagram fodder at the Wanaka Lavender Farm. © Meghan Crawford

Okay, I know I just said that there’s more to Wanaka than Instagram, but hear me out. The lavender farm is the reason I even went to Wanaka in the first place.

I hadn’t planned to visit, but then I saw a sticker for the Wanaka Lavender Farm on the side of a public toilet stall in Franz Josef. An oddly but effectively placed advertisement. My head filled with visions of Provence, France, sweeping lavender fields, and endless cute, floral photo opps.

While my photos did turn out stunning, they don’t quite capture the magic of being there. The air is heavy with the scent of lavender and humming with the industrious buzz of hundreds of honey bees. It’s peaceful; the perfect place to relax after a day of adventure.

Wanaka Lavender Farm Lavender Tea
High tea in the garden, attended by friendly honey bees. © Meghan Crawford

Admission is $10NZD ($6.81USD) per adult from December to February and $5NZD ($3.40USD) per adult the rest of the year. That price covers your entrance to the 10 acres of lavender fields and flower gardens, which are home to a handful of friendly farm animals.

You can also enjoy a full tea service in the garden, buy lavender ice cream to enjoy as you stroll the grounds, or sample different flavors of honey. The lavender honey, produced by the bees right there at the Wanaka Lavender Farm, is life-changing.

Travel Planning Tip: Order a prepaid SIM card before you travel!

2. Hiking in Mt. Aspiring National Park

Mt. Iron Summit in Mt Aspiring National Park
The view of Lake Wanaka from the summit of Mt. Iron. © Meghan Crawford

Wanaka is the gateway to Mt. Aspiring National Park, so there are many excellent hiking tracks in the area. Roy’s Peak Track is a popular choice since it’s only 1.5 hours return to the lookout point. It does tend to get crowded, though.

If you have a little more time, an hour’s drive from town will take you away from the crowds to the head of the Rob Roy Glacier Track. Whether you go all the way to the end (5 to 6 hours return) or stop at the lower lookout point (around 3.5 hours return), the stunning views of Rob Roy Glacier and the scenic trek through the alpine landscape make it well worth the drive.

Chose not to rent a car? Not a problem. The Mt. Iron Track is right in town. Since I was only in Wanaka for a day, this was the trail I chose. Allow an hour and a half to hike the loop, most of which you’ll probably spend at the summit. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see Lake Wanaka, Lake Hawea, and Mt. Aspiring.

3. Get Out on the Water

Lake Wanaka with rainbow
A parting rainbow over Lake Wanaka captured from State Highway 6. © Meghan Crawford

There is no shortage of water activities to be enjoyed in the Wanaka area.

Charter a sailboat to traverse Lake Wanaka, New Zealand’s fourth-largest lake. Explore the inlets and secluded beaches along Lake Hawea’s coastline by SUP (stand-up paddleboard) or try some whitewater kayaking on any of the four nearby rivers. Spend the day fishing or jet-skiing or parasailing. Really, there’s something for everyone.

4. Shred Some Powder in the Southern Alps

If you visit Wanaka during winter (June through October), the lazy beach town transforms into an awesome base camp for all kinds of winter sports. Whether you’re a world-class skier or have never hit the slopes before, the mountains around Wanaka have some of the best snow in the Southern Hemisphere.

Cardrona Alpine Resort is the best option for beginners or families, with well-maintained slopes and fine, dry powder, equipment rentals, and lessons for all ages.

For those with more experience and a taste for adrenaline-packed adventure,Harris Mountains Heli-Ski offers skiers and snowboarders totally off-trail, fully-guided experiences through stunning New Zealand back-country.

5. Explore the Central Otago Wine Country

Wine Tasting in Wanaka New Zealand
Wanaka is in Central Otago, a region known for its vineyards. © Meghan Crawford

I mentioned Rippon Winery in my post about cheap and free things to do in New Zealand, but that’s not the only winery in and around Wanaka, New Zealand.

Maude, Aitkens Folly, and Archangel vineyards are all within a 15-mile radius and offer tastings, too. I didn’t budget enough time into my Wanaka trip to do any wine tasting, but I did ring in the New Year with a bottle of Maude’s 2017 Pinot Noir and can certainly vouch for the quality of the Central Otago wineries.

Not in the mood for wine? There are plenty of craft breweries and distilleries in the area as well. Choose one or build your own booze tour itinerary and visit a few!

6. Swim in the Blue Pools

The Blue Pools are located about an hour’s drive north of Wanaka, where the Makarora and Blue Rivers meet. Their unbelievable blue color comes from glacial deposits at the Blue River’s source and the crystalline quality of the water. As far as natural swimming pools go, it doesn’t get much better than this.

From the car park, it’s only a 10 to 15-minute walk to the pools, which makes it a popular spot. If you visit during high summer (January to February), arrive early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the crowds.

Another nuisance to avoid: sand flies. The bane of New Zealand’s West Coast, sand flies are just about everywhere from Westport down to Fiordland. While they don’t carry diseases, they do have a vicious bite that will itch for days. West Coast sand flies tend to swarm near beaches, rivers, and lakes. The Blue Pools are no exception to that rule.

Make sure to pick up a local bug repellent and use it liberally before walking down to the pools. You’ll probably still sustain a bite or two – especially if you’re in a swimsuit – but you won’t be eaten alive.

7. Partake in New Zealand’s National Pastime: Eating Ice Cream!

Hokey Pokey Ice Cream is a must try in New Zealand
Make sure to try the Kiwi classic flavor, Hokey Pokey. © Lukas Blazek

Kiwis eat more ice cream per capita than any other country, about six gallons each a year, regardless of what the weather’s like outside. I don’t blame them, New Zealanders make some of the best ice creams.

Why is it so good?

Well, importing ingredients is expensive when the nearest country is over a thousand nautical miles away. So, most ingredients are locally sourced, including the cream used in ice cream. See what the craze is all about by snagging yourself a cone in Wanaka before taking a lakeside stroll.

You can’t go wrong with any of the ice cream shops you come across, but my personal recommendation is Patagonia Chocolates. They have locations in Queenstown, Arrowtown, and Wanaka. I had their award-winning (literally) orange and basil sorbet and would 100% fly all the way back to New Zealand just to have it again.

Wanaka Accommodations

Budget Options

New Zealand is prime backpacker country, so there are plenty of hostels to choose from in Wanaka. I recommend YHA Wanaka because I had a great experience with the YHA hostel in Franz Josef and trust the brand.

Their Wanaka hostel is in the heart of town, only a 5-minute walk from the lakefront. There’s a wide variety of dining options nearby, from cheap to luxury, and a conveniently close grocery store as well for those really looking to stretch their food budgets. The icing on the cake? Complimentary WiFi.

Mid-Range Options

My trip to Wanaka was a last-minute decision, but if I had planned it in advance, I most likely would have stayed in an Airbnb. There are plenty of good mid-range options in town, whereas for mid-range hotel options, you’ll have to stay slightly outside of Wanaka.

Click here to save $55 on your first Airbnb stay.

Off-the-Beaten-Path Option

Wanaka Accomodations Makarora
A-Frame Chalet in Makarora with a view of the Southern Alps. © Meghan Crawford

Makarora Tourist Center: A-Frame Chalets just a stone’s throw away from some great trails into Mt. Aspiring National Park. This is a great option if you’re looking to get out into the national park and don’t want to drive all the way back to Wanaka after your hike.

Makarora is a tiny community, without so much as a telephone line running through it, which means no cell service and no in-room WiFi. It also means no city noise or lights at night. Stargazing is as easy as walking out your front door. I stayed four nights in one of the A-Frames and can’t recommend it enough to anyone looking to unplug totally.

Have you been to Wanaka? What would you recommend? Please share in the comments below!

By Meghan Crawford