The Best Things to See and Do in Wanaka, New Zealand

From ski resorts and mountain biking to wineries and horse trekking, Wanaka is an adventurer's paradise
From ski resorts and mountain biking to wineries and horse trekking, Wanaka is an adventurer's paradise | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Thalita Alves
10 September 2020

Wanaka’s stunning Southern Alps location and proximity to Queenstown has made it an enticing stopover for South Island visitors. Spectacular sights, adventurous attractions and classy vineyards are right on your doorstep. To help you plan your next trip, here are some of the best things to see and do in this underrated New Zealand destination.

Cardrona, Treble Cone and Snow Farm

Natural Feature, Ski Resort
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© Simon Harry Collins / Getty Images
These are Wanaka’s primary skiing destinations. Cardrona Alpine Resort is one of the very best in New Zealand, offering a trove of slopes and runs for beginners and advanced skiers alike. Treble Cone is the South Island’s largest ski field and is especially renowned for its off-piste terrains and uncrowded runs. Snow Farm is home to New Zealand’s only cross-country ski field, and in the summer months, the mountain is transformed into an epic hiking and mountain-biking spot. If you want to head even further afield, Coronet Peak and the Remarkables resorts are within an hour’s drive from Wanaka.

Wanaka Tree

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In recent years, a lonesome willow tree right in the middle of Lake Wanaka caught the attention of curious nature photographers. Nowadays, capturing the Wanaka tree is an inside joke-turned-rite-of-passage on Instagram. The surge in popularity for this photogenic spot propelled the Wanaka Tourist Board to add it into the local photo trail, which in itself is a must-do for shutter-happy travellers.

Rippon Vineyard

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Wanaka’s oldest vineyard, Rippon, is renowned for its biodynamic wine production and exquisite lakeside views. It resides on farmland that has been with the same family for five generations. As with many vineyards in the Central Otago region, Pinot Noir is the house speciality — other varieties they offer include Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Rippon’s doors are open for tastings daily.

The Roys Peak Hiking Trail

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Trekking at Roy's Peak, Wanaka, New Zealand
© Raquel Mogado / Alamy Stock Photo
If a hike with panoramic views of Lake Wanaka and Mount Aspiring is what you seek, the Roys Peak Track will be the one to deliver. The trail begins at the Roys Peak car park, just six kilometres (3.7mi) from Wanaka township. A 16-kilometre (10mi) return journey, taking approximately five to six hours to complete, will take a zigzagging route that traverses tussock grasslands as you climb up to the 1,578-metre (5,177ft) summit.

Rob Roy Track and Glacier

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A picturesque one-hour drive will take you across to the Rob Roy Glacier track, which is a fantastic entry point to Mt Aspiring National Park. If you don’t have a car handy, there are regular shuttles to Raspberry Creek (where the trail begins) from Wanaka. On arrival, head on a 15-minute valley trek towards Mātukituki River. From there, you’ll steadily climb through a small gorge, along the Rob Roy stream, to reach the alpine valley that will give you spectacular views of the exquisite glacier. All up, you’ll be covering 10 kilometres (6.2mi), spending four to five hours appreciating the area’s forests and landscapes.

Deans Bank Mountain Biking Track

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The 11km (6.8mi) loop track at Deans Bank is a definite must-do for keen mountain bikers. The track consists of a few tight corners and rocky obstacles, making it better suited for intermediate-advanced riders. As you trace the tussocks, berms and flowing downhill slopes, you’ll get to relish the very best of the Otago region’s landscape, including the Clutha River and the awe-inspiring Southern Alps.

Jet boating on the Mātukituki River

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Jet boats, Matukituki River West Branch, Matukituki Valley, near Wanaka, Otago, South Island, New Zealand
© David Wall / Alamy Stock Photo
Who says Queenstown is the only place to get your jet boating thrill? Wanaka River Journeys take adventurers on a spectacular journey across the Mātukituki River. You can choose between four different experiences that take visitors around the region from Wanaka into Mt Aspiring National Park. These include a 4WD countryside safari adventure, a zooming ride along the shallow rivers and past the epic mountain formations, and a jet boat ride to Mātukituki River followed by a helicopter trip up to Isobel Glacier (weather permitting) and a wilderness walk.

Horse trekking in the Cardrona Valley

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Now here’s something uniquely Wanaka: a horse trekking tour. Backcountry Saddles and the Cardrona Horse Trekking Tours are the two operators you can choose from. Both will take you on a journey along the gold mining valleys and plateaus. The journey is striking as well as historic, giving you a perspective of the Cardrona area that goes above and beyond those snowy ski fields.

A cruise along Mou Waho Island

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This stunning South Island gem is a must-visit for nature and wildlife enthusiasts. Take the scenic cruise across Lake Wanaka to reach the predator-free Mou Waho Island. On arrival, you’ll get to explore the forested tracks, which will take you to a secluded lake at the island’s highest point. From there, you can soak up the Southern Alps panoramas, listen to the native birds chirping and keep an eye out for the rare and flightless buff weka.

Wanaka Lavender Farm

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Wanaka Lavender Farm, New Zealand
© Jennifer McCallum / Alamy Stock Photo
What’s more relaxing than a picnic or a cup of tea in a field of lavender? Nothing, according to the Wanaka Lavender Farm, just minutes from the town of Wanaka. Not only can you enjoy the scenic fields of purple flowers, but you can also sip on lavender tea or slurp on lavender ice cream. Throw in a bit of alpaca petting, and you’ll be filled with warm fuzzies for the rest of the day.

Blue Pools Track

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Take a short walk through a silver beech forest to a swing bridge that overlooks blue pools of the Makarora River. Look out for the large brown and rainbow trout that can be seen feeding in the crystal clear waters below. Keep walking across the bridge for views up the river gorge and listen out for the calls of the threatened yellowhead/mohua bird in the forest canopy.

World of Deer Museum and Specialty Shop

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As Central Otago is also popular for deer hunting, it’s no surprise that Wanaka has its very own shrine to this animal, in the form of the World of Deer Museum and Specialty Shop. The museum is known for its unique collection of red deer antlers as well as paintings and pictures of deer and carvings made from deer antlers. The museum is open every day, and there are personal tours every hour from 10am to 4pm.

Additional reporting by Bianca Ackroyd.

These recommendations were updated on September 10, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.