Over the years I’ve come to realize that I have a bit of a soft heart.
You see, I fall in love very easily. With people, moments, but most especially, places. Oftentimes I wonder if this is a bad thing, but lately I’ve come to accept it as part of my nature. While this inherently means I am more likely to get hurt or be disappointed, I would rather be passionate about a lot of things than nothing at all. Am I the only one?
Combined with the fact that I have been feeling burnt out and tired from hopping around from place to place long-term without a home, you could say I was prime to fall in love. Again.
As much as I loved Wellington, I came to New Zealand for mountains and epic Lord of the Rings-esque landscapes. I knew that if I didn’t give the South Island a try, I would regret it. It was so hard to leave Wellington and start over again, but Wanaka had been calling to me and I was dead set on giving it a go.
Life is about taking chances, and while I could have easily played it safe in Wellington, the unknown was knocking at my door.
Looking back, I think it took less than 24 hours for me to fall head over heels hopelessly and effortlessly in love with Wanaka. After meeting a bunch of cool people who would quickly become friends to exploring the town, lake and surrounding mountains, and eventually finding the perfect place to live after a bit of drama, my mind was made up – I was never leaving.
Of course lately reality has hit me with the fact that my visa expires in two months YIKES. I am currently in the process of applying for a very special kind of visa that will let me stick around for a few years – wish me luck! After finally finding the place where I belong IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD after 7+ years of travel, it will actually kill me to leave.
Anywho, I wax poetic about Wanaka on my social media channels
too much enough, so I thought I would sit down and spell out how Wanaka captured my attention right here on my blog. After living here for 3 months, I feel like I finally am starting to comprehend what makes this town tick and why it’s so beloved by all of New Zealand – not just me!
Here’s how Wanaka stole my heart in 10 easy steps.
1. The view and the location
Almost as soon as I laid eyes on Wanaka back in January with Haka Tours, I knew I was going to like it. I mean, my god, look at the view! What’s not to love?
At first I was nervous about moving somewhere so off the grid; sometimes living in Wellington felt like the end of the world, what on earth would Wanaka be like? But the truth is that Wanaka is an oasis, a beautiful spotless heaven tucked away among the mountains on New Zealand’s South Island.
It also helps that it’s ridiculously good-looking. And I don’t say that lightly.
Pretty much everyday I look out my window and think to myself, “sweet jesus, how does such a beautiful place exist and how lucky am I to have found it and get to live here?”
Pinch me, is this real life?
And no matter where I am in Wanaka, I can almost always see the mountains and lake, a beautiful reminder of why I chose to live here. Nothing could be more inspirational for both my work and life. Whether I am camped out on the sofa working on a project or writing with views of the glaciers peeking through the windows to going for a sunset walk on the lake or even driving into town, I love getting to live in an area to close to raw nature.
2. Really cool community and still (mostly) kiwi
Besides being arguably the most photogenic town in all of New Zealand and quite possibly the entire world, Wanaka is also home to some awesome, cool, interesting and badass people. Just another layer to the magnificent cake that is Wanaka.
While I’m still working on making really close friends in Wanaka, probably the hardest thing I’ve encountered here, I’ve already been able to find myself a good group of friends to spend time with. Everyone here is friendly and welcoming, all united by a genuine love for Wanaka itself.
Sometimes it feels like I live in a parallel universe because almost everyone I meet here is really really cool and has something about themselves. Whether they are professional kayakers, base jumpers, olympic snowboarders or painters, there is no shortage of talent or creativity to be found in Wanaka – and those are just the girls!
A perfect example of this was last weekend where the first TEDx Wanaka took place and I was a speaker!
And I hate to say that Wanaka > Queenstown, but just between us, Wanaka is TOTALLY better than Queenstown. Don’t tell anyone I said that.
To be honest, it’s actually apples and oranges and you can’t really compare Wanaka and Queenstown because they are so different. But as it turns out, what I was looking for in a place to call home fit perfectly with Wanaka.
One thing that makes Wanaka unique and what drew me to it is that it’s not been (entirely) taken over by foreign tourists (cough cough Queenstown) and it’s held in high esteem by kiwis near and far.
When I was looking for a place to live, I was struck by both how many people told me I should check out Wanaka AND by how much kiwis love it here. This fact has been reinforced so many times after arriving here. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I’ve met who either used to vacation here as kids and then moved here when they grew up to likeminded travelers who passed through Wanaka and never left.
For me, those kinds of stories speak volumes about a place!
To make Wanaka even cooler, it’s leading in a year-long contest to have the fastest internet installed in New Zealand called Gigatown – read more here. Of all the cities in New Zealand, I can’t believe Wanaka is winning and has been kicking ass for the entire time! If you know me at all you know that New Zealand internet drives me nuts and I MUST WIN – therefore please share, post, retweet, like ect. anything with #GigatownWanaka on it, for my sake.
On top of that Wanaka is both quirky and safe. I thought I might go crazy living in a town so small we don’t even have stoplights and only one small overpriced grocery store. But as it turns out I love the small town vibe here and that the sense of community is one of the most important aspects of Wanaka.
It’s the kind of place where you almost always run into friends on the street or out and about and everyone greets you everywhere with a smile on their faces. People aren’t jaded and there is virtually no crime. There are heaps of hitchhikers and everyone is willing to help out and give you a lift, and it’s so safe I don’t lock my car half the time.
I can’t tell you how good it feels to live in a place like this. It’s good for the soul.
3. Mt. Aspiring National Park
And on top of all that, Wanaka’s back door is Mt. Aspiring National Park, one of the most beautiful parks in New Zealand. An hour drive down a dead end road and 30km of dirt farm road along the lake and Matukituki Valley with a couple (9) creek crossings will bring you to Raspberry Creek car park and the entrance of the national park. I don’t want to give too much away but trust me when I say that this drive is one of the most scenic in New Zealand, and that’s saying something.
The park gets its name from Mount Aspiring/Tititea, New Zealand’s highest peak outside the Mt. Cook area. Snowcapped and glorious, it looks a bit like the Matterhorn in Switzerland, and it’s stunning to behold. In fact all of the mountains and glaciers are stunning to behold.
There are too many trails around the park to count, and heaps and heaps of DOC huts you can stay in on multi-day hikes which means there is something for everyone.
My first experience here was a quick day hike to Rob Roy Glacier, probably the most popular hike people take on, my first week in Wanaka. A 3 hour return through the forest along a raging alpine river, you eventually pop out of the woods at a magnificent glacier. If I wasn’t in love with Wanaka before I was now.
I took a nap in the tall grasses, watched a few of the stunning Kea alpine parrots trying to steal food and had a little picnic. How many people get to live in a place where this is your average Saturday escape?
From there I’ve been in an out of the park a few times, and it’s wowed me every single time.
One of the main reasons Wanaka appealed to me was because it’s such an outdoorsy destination. The monuments here are to be found in the raw nature; you could even say Wanaka is it’s own open air museum.
In college and afterwards when I was living in Spain, I felt like I lost touch with my outdoor side – I wasn’t spending time in nature or outside anymore, and I didn’t like that.
In New Zealand I learned very quickly that the beauty here inherently makes me happy. All I have to do is go walk outside for 10 minutes and I already feel better. How many places can boast that? And Wanaka is the perfect example. You don’t have to be a mountaineer or hardcore adventure soul to enjoy what Wanaka has to offer. There’s something for everyone here and that’s what appeals to me the most.
I arrived right at the end of summer, greeted with beautiful weather and stunning views before it quickly turned to autumn. Central Otago and Wanaka is famous for its colorful foliage and beautiful leaves. My favorite season is the fall and nothing makes me happier than when the air turns cool and and the leaves change.
Though I have to admit it’s a bit strange that it happened in Wanaka in April and not October. I still have to get used to living in another hemisphere!
For 2 months I was a perpetual tourist, toting my camera with me everywhere I went trying to nab the best photos of the same trees.
My favorite area of Wanaka and probably everyone’s favorite area of Wanaka is down by the lakefront in town as you head out towards Mt. Aspiring National Park. Here there is a beautiful track and beach lined with tall straight poplar trees that turned bright yellow for weeks on end.
And out in the water there is the famous Wanaka tree, a tree who didn’t listen to how trees were supposed to grow and decided to pop up IN the lake instead of alongside it. Of course this is why I like it.
I think this tree is the most photographed tree in New Zealand, and I’ve even started using #ThatWanakaTree hashtag online because I’m like that, ok?!
Trees are cool.
There is a joke around Wanaka that everyone either owns a helicopter or has been in one. Ok, I just made that up, but that’s definitely been my observation – there are a lot of helicopters here. Though it should be noted they are not of the billionaire-form-of-transport variety. Wanaka is about as unpretentious as it comes, which is saying something considering how stunning it is here.
Rather Wanaka is surrounded by mountains, big beautiful snow craggy jagged mountains in all directions. This means that it can be tricky traveling, especially in bad weather. The main road to Queenstown from Wanaka is an alpine pass called the Crown Range, and it’s terrifyingly beautiful under the best of circumstances.
Because of Wanaka’s sheer remoteness and location combined with a small population, like many places in New Zealand, a thriving helicopter business has emerged. Badass.
Thanks to my job, I’ve been lucky enough to get to fly in helicopters a few times. Just amazing. Because of their versatility and where they can land, it’s a great way to explore the mountains in New Zealand.
Aspiring Helicopters are a family-owned business in Wanaka and they have many different flights you can chose from. This is an activity anyone can join in on, and I think it’s one of the best and easiest ways to see Mt. Aspiring National Park and see Wanaka from above.
Plus you can totally have a Top Gun moment.
Personally I would love to learn to be a helicopter pilot, a dream that was quickly dashed as soon as I saw what it costs to study to be a pilot – holy shit!
I guess I’ll just stick with getting other people to fly me around.
With Aspiring Heli you can also get to land on the snow and glaciers, even in the summer – can you think of anything more memorable than that?
Growing up I always had a bike, and even through college I would cycle around campus to get from place to place. One of my best friends is a pro-cyclist so I oftentimes was around this crazy bike culture, though it never really sucked me in in the same way it has other people.
I am not hardcore by any sense of the word, but I do enjoy challenging myself and the freedom that comes from traveling by bike around the world is just awesome. You get to see things and experience beautiful places in a way that you probably wouldn’t otherwise get to.
Mountain biking is extremely popular and I was quickly thrown headfirst into the biking community as soon as I arrived in town. While I think it’ll be a while before I invest in a bike that costs more than my car, I really enjoy getting to see more of Wanaka from two wheels – not to mention I always feel accomplished when I’m finished!
One of the first activities I joined in on was with Wanaka Bike Tours. With a trail for everyone, either around town and the lake or at the top of a mountain in a helicopter, anything is possible.
I headed out on the Wanaka Experience ride, the perfect introduction to mountain biking in Wanaka. My first time on single track, it was a great combination of both a nice even line of trail for bikes and 4×4 roads. Winding along the lake, you get amazing views of the surrounding mountains, town and islands.
With a bit of forest, beach, old farming buildings and plenty of deer and wildlife, it was just spectacular.
Exploring Wanaka by bike was the perfect combination of doing and seeing, and it made me appreciate the area even more, so much so that a few weeks later I went on an epic mission with them into the mountains, but more on that later.
7. From the air
If I had to pinpoint a moment when I realized that Wanaka was special it must have been back in January when I passed through Wanaka with Haka Tours and I took a flight in a vintage Tigermoth with Classic Flights.
For me, I love history, especially around the turn of the century, and getting to relive it from the skies was more than a dream come true – it was a once in a lifetime experience.
As soon as the jumpsuit was zipped up, I was wrapped in a thick leather bomber jacket with the vintage goggles on my head, we were off. While the views over Wanaka and the lake were spectacular, the experience of sitting in the front seat of an open barrel plane is something I’ll not soon forget.
To make things more exciting and to add another layer to Wanaka’s quirky and interesting culture, every two years there is a very famous international airshow in town called Warbirds over Wanaka.
Thanks to my epic sense of nostalgia and deep love for anything historic, I was giddy to get the chance to spend a day watching old bomber planes, military helicopters and little stunt planes do tricks, flips, loops and barrel rolls over Wanaka.
Of course the pilots weren’t too bad looking either.
Again the community involvement with Warbirds is just incredible and it made me happy to see everyone from young kids to grandparents out for the day enjoying the atmosphere of the event – and how cool is it that something like this happens in Wanaka?
For my birthday this year I was looking to do something exciting and memorable, and what’s more exciting than skydiving?
Ever since New Zealand has taken on the aura of an adventure destination, there are so many adventure activities to chose from here, it can be overwhelming. While bungy jumping was invented here, just down the road in Queenstown (and which I have yet to partake in because I’m a scaredy cat) my personal favorite of all the adrenaline sports is skydiving. Here’s why – skydiving is actually really easy. Sure, it’s terrifying, but you’re strapped to someone else. You don’t have to do anything except get on the plane. Easy peasy.
Obviously the view is what does it for me – I’m a sucker for a view, and if you are going to do it anywhere, it should be somewhere pretty, and for me, Wanaka is the most stunning place in New Zealand, why WOULDN’T you jump here?
Skydive Wanaka are pros, and what better way to ring in 26 than by jumping out of a plane with a beautiful stranger at 15,000ft? More coming on this soon…
Though if jumping out of a plane isn’t your style, then how about a scenic flight over the lake and mountains AND getting to fly the plane yourself?
I swear Wanaka has no shortage of awesome, unique activities to do from the skies!
At U-Fly in Wanaka you not only get a scenic flight over the mountains and lakes, you also get to actually fly the plane. Like take off, cruise and land, not just hold onto the steering wheel-thing for a minute or two.
For me, I love hands-on travel experiences, traveling with a purpose and getting to try and do things you would never get to do or even were afraid to do before.
8. Wine country
After living in wine country in Spain for a year, it’s nice to live in an area with a true love of the grape again. Central Otago is famous for its wine, and it’s a great place for wine aficionados to explore in New Zealand. With mostly Pinot Noirs (my favorite), I really enjoy exploring the different vineyards between Wanaka and Queenstown.
And Wanaka itself is home to one of the most glorious vineyards of them all – Rippon. Apart from being quite possibly the most beautiful winery in the world, their wines are to die for.
Can you imagine a more beautiful place to sip a Pinot?
Third generation family-owned and operated, a way of life here in Wanaka that isn’t dying out anytime soon, Rippon is committed to the land and the people and producing a beautiful wine instead of becoming overrun and commercialized.
I feel privileged that I often find myself out at Rippon for one event or another, or just to visit the tasting room and stock up on some bottles.
There is always something exciting going on at the winery, whether it’s a wedding or a pop-up dumpling tasting event, for some reason or another, I find myself out at Rippon as often as I can. You can’t make me leave!
9. Closer to ground
Another family-owned business in town is Wanaka River Journeys which takes you jetboating up the valley towards Mt. Aspiring National Park. Instead of a deep rushing river like back home in the States, the Matukituki River is shallow and braided.
This is perfect for jetboating which zooms across even the shallowest water, doing 360 degree turns and tricks around the river for a bit of a thrill. A classic kiwi activity, as you fly past waterfalls and hanging glaciers, you most likely won’t see a soul, reminding you that Wanaka is still relatively untouched.
Committed to conservation and ecology, Wanaka River Journeys will share stories and legends about the area as well as explain some of the special wildlife to be found in an area where parts of the Lord of the Rings were filmed. Does it get any better than that?
From there you can join in on a 4WD tour of Wanaka and around the lake, an easy, perfect way to see parts of the region that you normally couldn’t. Ridgeline Adventures can take you around to the best spots, a lot of which is on private land on backcountry farm roads and areas you wouldn’t even know existed until now.
We went around a part of the lake that was so still and clear it felt like you could see straight to the bottom 50 feet out! Definitely don’t miss the murky muddy lakes of the East Coast!
Again you will be the only ones out there, providing a sense of solitude and pure bliss that can be hard to find in some of the other corners of New Zealand. Picnicking on top of one of the viewpoints with some of Wanaka’s best treats and food was a beautiful way to take it all in.
Apart from the fact that sometimes I am not always in the mood to do a physical activity on the road, one thing I really enjoyed about the tour is that is passes through farmland. Otago and Wanaka are class kiwi farming areas, with all sorts of farming activities going on, most notably merino sheep.
Passing through you start to get a glimpse of what faming is like in New Zealand, and traveling down old farm tracks almost takes you back in time. One can easily imagine what it must have been like to settle in this area a century ago.
And the views, holy crap! If one thing could convert me into a farmer, it would be that!
10. Did I mention it’s really beautiful?
I mean, look at it!
Have you ever heard of Wanaka? Been here? Can you see why I decided to move here? Hands up if you want to visit Wanaka one day!
Many thanks to Lake Wanaka Tourism for hosting me on some of these activities, like always, I’m keeping it real – all opinions and love are my own