Epic otherworldly beauty.
That’s the answer I’d give if you asked me to describe Wanaka in three words!
This laid-back, friendly, and fun-filled town on New Zealand’s South Island is downright unmissable. Situated on the banks of an enormous glacial lake and framed by picture-perfect mountains on all sides, not only is Wanaka staggeringly beautiful, but it’s also jam-packed with cool things to see and do.
This is one of my favourite places in the entire world! And, having had the good fortune of spending plenty of time in Wanaka on two glorious trips around NZ before I started blogging, I got to know it fairly well.
Are you planning a trip there at some point soon? Well, I’m jealous (especially if you’re going to buy a campervan for it)!
But I’d also like to help you make the most of your time there…
Now, a quick Google search will tell you all about Wanaka’s main draws – Wanaka Lavender Farm, churches, wine tasting, watersports, and more. That’s a good place to start planning. However, those ideas often only scratch the surface of what’s available. In reality, many of the best things to do in Wanaka are less obvious, a touch out of town, and/or off the beaten track.
And it’s those types of attractions that I’d like to focus on in this post! Sound good? Read on for a selection of 7 off-beat things to do in Wanaka, New Zealand.
1. Sleep at the Summit of Roys Peak
Roys Peak is one of the most popular short hikes in Wanaka and features on basically every guide you’ll ever read on what to do here! For good reason, too.
The views from the trail and summit are insane, just like the views at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the South Island.
On a nice day, dozens upon dozens of travellers take the challenging zigzag path to the top, oftentimes for sunrise or sunset. They’ll go up in the early hours (starting at around 2am!) or late afternoon, taking a torch to light the trail in the dark.
However, if you want to do something a bit different, you can actually catch the sunrise and sunset on the same trek. How? By camping at the top!
Technically speaking, this isn’t allowed. But people (I may or may not have been one of them…) definitely still do it! You grab a tent (here’s a guide to the best instant tents if you need one), sleeping bag, and some food, lump it all into a backpack, and haul it up through hook or crook to the summit in time for sundown. You then set an alarm, wake up before dawn, and watch the sun climb over the mountaintops, basking in one of the most beautiful views you’ll ever see.
2. Take a Dip in Motatapu Gorge
As you can probably tell, Wanaka’s a diamond destination for outdoor enthusiasts! In summertime, there are hiking, biking, swimming, and climbing opportunities galore. Then, when winter hits and the snow falls, people flock to town for the skiing and snowboarding.
I could go on for hours about the various outdoorsy activities available in Wanaka. However, there are a couple of hidden gems worth highlighting for anyone visiting in warm, sunny weather…
The first is an idyllic spot called Motatapu Gorge.
Unfortunately, because most travellers who head to Wanaka don’t have a car (or are only passing through), they never get the chance to come here. And that’s one reason it’s so special! You often have it all to yourself.
Pack your bathing suit, hop into a car, and drive west around the lake heading for “Glendhu Bay”. Take a left onto Motatapu Road and continue up it until you see signs for “Motatapu River Track” (not “Motatapu Track”, which is different) on the right hand side, where you park up.
You then walk down a short staircase into your very own slice of paradise! You can swim in the river, jump from rocks into cool flowing water, and venture upstream to explore the gorge. Just be careful. As stunning as it is, accidents do happen here.
3. Explore Motatapu River
The second hidden outdoor gem I recommend is found further around Lake Wanaka, as if you’d never taken that left turn to the Motatapu Gorge. This one’s even trickier to find, but trust me, it’s worth it!
Keep going past Glendhu Bay, following the road as it turns inland, away from the lake. You’ll soon drive past the Diamond Lake Conservation Area and the Rocky Mountain Track Trailhead (another awesome hike in this neck of the woods!). Then, not far from there, you’ll see the Motatapu River Picnic Area on your right, before crossing a small bridge over the river.
Immediately after the bridge there’ll be an inconspicuous looking left turn into what looks like a gravel pit.
And then follow the road around.
You’ll end up at a small car park (probably with a van or two full of climbers and their campervan accessories); the gateway to a verdant oasis with the Motatapu River running through it! You can climb here, swim here, jump of rocks, explore upstream, and just generally hang out in another pristine location.
4. Paddle Out to Ruby Island
Spending time at, in, and on Lake Wanaka is another must-do activity in this wonderful part of the world. In fact, you basically have no choice in the matter!
The town sits on the banks of this gorgeous glacial lake, making it a focal point of life here. Locals and tourists alike flock here throughout the day, swimming, playing, watersports, sunbathing, having a picnic, and/or sharing a beer or two together.
If you ever grow tired of just ‘hanging out’, though, I highly recommend hiring a kayak and paddling out to the beautiful Ruby Island. The most accessible of Lake Wanaka’s 4 islands, it’s situated just 1km off-shore and makes for a peaceful escape from the hubbub of town-life.
Funnily enough, Ruby Island was once somewhere townsfolk went to enjoy a spot of cabaret in the evenings! Nowadays, it’s a scenic little spot to explore, with classic Kiwi fauna and flora and a small track to wander along.
5. Hike around Lake Hawea
Wanaka’s a captivating place that’s exceptionally difficult to leave! However, if you ever feel like venturing further afield, perhaps to find somewhere quieter and less touristic, then you can’t beat Lake Hawea.
A mere 15-minute drive from town, I’ve never understood why Hawea doesn’t get the same level of attention from travellers as Wanaka. However, I’d totally understand if the local Hawea’ans wanted to keep it this way! It’s always peaceful and calm, whereas Wanaka has much a livelier vibe.
Lake Hawea is just as stunning though. It’s vast, has crisp, crystal clear water, and is surrounded by mountains. You can’t fault it!
…But you can hike around it.
And that’s exactly what I recommend you do if you’re headed this way and feeling fit! Known as the Lake Hawea Track, it’s 20km long, undulating, and rated as an Advanced/Grade 4 trek by NZ’s department of conservation. Don’t let that put you off though! You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with breath-taking panoramic views every step of the way.
6. Watch the Sunset at Mt. Iron
Like hiking but don’t fancy anything quite so extreme? Check out the iconic Mount Iron and the loop walk that takes you to its “summit”. Short and sweet, you can make it up and down in no time while still getting some amazing views over the surrounding area!
However, to makes things more interesting, try going up for sunset instead. The hike doesn’t change, of course, but the scenery from the top definitely does! Trust me, seeing the sun drop over the horizon and watching it paint the landscape with the soft pastel colours of golden hour makes for an unforgettable way to end the day. Oh, and Mt. Iron’s just 2km from Wanaka’s centre, meaning you can easily get back in time for a beer…
7. Jump off a Bridge at the Blue Pools
At just under an hour’s drive from town, the Blue Pools make an awesome day trip from Wanaka. Heck, you could even go for a few hours (as many people do) and it’d be worth it! Turquoise glacial waters flow down from the mountains into this gorgeous valley. There are trails to follow, ice-cold pools of brilliant blue water to swim in and, if you’re feeling brave, a swing bridge to jump off!
This impressive structure extends out across the river, roughly 30ft (give or take) above the surface. You climb over the railings, let go, and fling yourself into the air before plunging into the icy waters below. It’s a definite thrill and not for the faint-hearted, but sure to be a highlight of your day!
There you have it, then: 7 off-beat things to do in Wanaka, New Zealand!
I hope that it whets your appetite for your upcoming trip and shed useful light on a few lesser-known attractions in the area. Whether you do one or all of them, your time here’s sure to be better off for it.
Ultimately, though, Wanaka’s so stunning, welcoming, and full of all-around awesomeness that you can’t go wrong- regardless of how you fill your time in town! Have any questions or thoughts on the subject of this post? Drop a comment below and we’ll do our best to help!
Author: Danny Newman
Bio: Danny Newman is currently writing and travelling his way around the world in a bid to figure out exactly what he’s doing with his life. He’d love you to follow along with his journey over at What’s Danny Doing. Follow Danny on Facebook at What’s Danny Doing.
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