If you're visiting New Zealand, you have to make a stop in Wanaka

Jul 22, 2016 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Image: Claire Gallam/SheKnows

Nestled next to New Zealand’s most striking mountains, the Crown Range, and 68 kilometers from the bustling tourist center of Queenstown lies one of the country’s most fascinating and idyllic towns: Wanaka.

From the picture-perfect rolling hills of Mount Aspiring National Park and the rocky beaches of Lake Wanaka and Lake H?wea to the delicious dishes served in town and the smiling Kiwis, there are truly a million and one reasons to visit Wanaka. Because I can’t quite fit one million, I'm breaking it down to 10. Just expect to be blown away by the unusual attractions, the quirky and oh-so-welcoming locals, and the sights that have inspired hundreds of people to relocate here, making it one of the fastest-growing towns in New Zealand.

1. The sunsets

Image: Wanaka Haven

During the summertime, the sun doesn’t set until close to 8 p.m., so the bright cotton candy pinks, oranges and purples decorate the sky. For truly stunning views, head to the shore of Lake Wanaka, and watch the sunset over the sparkling water. To experience the splendor off the grid, stay overnight at Wanaka Haven, and watch it set over the tranquil outdoor pool with the rugged mountains as the backdrop.

2. The locals

You won’t meet more hospitable, funny, humble, welcoming and all-around astonishing people than the ones who live in Wanaka. From the receptive inn owners who stop everything to make your stay feel homey to the hilarious tour operators who add in local myths and quirky Kiwi expressions to each guide, you’ll leave with friends you never knew you needed.

3. The food — oh, the food!

Image: Bistro Gentil

Whether you’re a fancy foodie or just a purveyor of good eats, your taste buds will dance with every bite you take in Wanaka. Expect to find perfectly cooked (and locally sourced) Merino lamb on menus paired with a Central Otago produced velvety pinot noir. For a French-inspired meal with a view of Lake Wanaka that rivals the food, head to Bistro Gentil. For a local favorite, visit the White House Café & Bar, which is set in an eye-catching 1930s Art Deco building. Get a taste of the entire region in a few hours by booking food and wine tour. Just be prepared to eat and drink everything you stumble upon.

4. The endless array of outdoor adventure

One thing you’ll notice on your visit down is that Kiwis (especially those who live in Wanaka) love to be outside. One look at the mountainous spender all around and you won’t be surprised. From skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing in the winter to tubing, boating, hiking, running and biking in the summer, you’ll never run out of outdoor experiences. For an epic outdoor adventure, go on a flightseeing tour to the Milford Sound, and hike through the neighboring rainforests and alpine trails.

5. The lakes

During the spring, summer and early autumn, the blue lakes surrounding Wanaka are the places to be. Although you can rent Jet Skies, boats and paddleboards, some of the locals’ favorite ways to enjoy Lake Wanaka, Lake H?wea and others is by relaxing with a picnic beachside. These aren’t your average beaches, so expect rocks in lieu of sand. Just don’t leave without dipping your toes in the crystal clear water.

6. Mou Waho Island

Image: Eco Wanaka

Mou Waho Island isn’t a hidden gem by any means, but it’s surprising how few tourists actually visit this secluded nature preserve. Book a trip through Eco Wanaka to get a boat tour from the marina to the island and a thorough guide with a naturalist all around the rugged terrain. The tour includes a mildly strenuous hourlong hike, but the views at the top of Lake Wanaka are completely worth it. Plus, you get to meet some adorable little critters, like the indigenous weka birds up close and personal.

7. The mountains

The rugged, snow-capped mountain peaks that decorate the blue Wanaka skies aren’t just stunning to look at. They provide an incredible array of outdoor activities for locals and visitors. A ski down the windy slopes or a hike through the lush forest offers incredible ways to see their majestic beauty up close. For something more low-key, just sit back with a cocktail along the beaches and stare up.

8. The easy-to-get-to location

Image: Queenstown NZ

Located just 68 kilometers from Queenstown and the international airport, Wanaka is centrally located. For those a little more daring (and used to rugged drives), the road through the Crown Range is breathtaking. For an easier, flatter drive, take the detour, which takes you alongside the rugged range. The close distance to Queenstown makes this an excellent day trip for visitors or getaway for busy Queenstown residents. In addition, the city is close to countless award-winning Central Otago wineries producing some of the world’s best pinot noirs.

9. The wineries and breweries

Image: Wanaka Wine Tours

The region’s climate makes it the perfect place to grow quality grapes for the area’s most renowned wines. To experience the magnitude of amazing boozy offerings, take a guided wine tour. A full-day tour will take you on an appellation adventure through the Wanaka region and Central Otago, giving you a chance to sip a range of white and red wines. Stop by Beerworks, the town's own boutique brewery, to taste their handcrafted ales, such as the Cardona Gold Vienna Lager or the Black Peak Coffee Stout.

10. Airborne adventures

Image: Lake Wanaka

You won’t get a better view of Central Otago’s stunning landscapes than you will from a heli ride, scenic flight or skydiving adventure. Instead of gazing at the cascading mountains and lush forests from the ground, you’ll get to see them from 10,000 feet in the air. The view is astounding, from the vast green tracts of rainforests to the towering mountains to the deep, forged valleys. The photo ops are truly endless.

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