Wanaka, New Zealand travel tips and things to do: 20 highlights

Beauty and the Backpacker: Ups and downs in New Zealand

What do sky-diving, bras and A-lister dining have in common? Find out as Ben Groundwater and Emma Markezic travel to New Zealand for the first episode of 'Beauty and the Backpacker'. The reporters travelled as guests of Tourism New Zealand.

1 EAT: MINARET STATION*

At $1175 a person, this is not the cheapest lunch you'll ever have, but it is the most memorable. A helicopter whisks diners from Wanaka up over the lake, through a tight mountain pass, and into Minaret Station, a resort and working sheep and deer farm with no road access, set in the most stunning valley you'll ever lay eyes on. This is an exclusive property popular with Hollywood types keen on avoiding prying eyes – it's also the sort of lunch experience that has "impending marriage proposal" written all over it. minaretstation.com

2 WALK: MOUNT IRON

Every Wanaka resident's favourite evening stroll is the 4.5km loop up Mount Iron, the nearest peak to town. It takes about an hour and a half to complete the trail, which begins by gently meandering through forest before entering a series of switchbacks up the side of the mountain leading to the summit, where the full glory of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding countryside is revealed. It's an easy descent back to the car park, and you'll feel like you've earned a nice pub dinner afterwards. 

3 DO: WHITEWATER SUP-ING

Trust the Kiwis. Ordinarily, stand-up paddleboarding is the sort of thing you'd do on calm waters. This is, after all, supposed to be a relaxing pastime. Except in New Zealand, of course, where rather than go for an easy paddle on the lake, Wanaka Kayaks takes thrill seekers for a 10km journey down the Clutha River. Yes, that's a swiftly moving body of water, complete with rapids. It takes SUP-ing to a whole new level – one that is extremely enjoyable. There's no way you'll stay on the board the entire time, but that's half the fun. wanakakayaks.co.nz

4 STAY: WANAKA HAVEN

Staying at Wanaka Haven feels like you've just dropped in to see some particularly well-off friends. This boutique hotel is all set in the one house, which is perched on beautiful farmland about a 15-minute drive from town. There's a pool, a patio, a lounge, a large dining area and kitchen, and then just five rooms spread throughout the homestead. Breakfast is a communal affair around the big dining table, which only increases the feeling that you're in the company of friends. wanakahaven.co.nz

5 DO: CLASSIC FLIGHTS*

You might not have been a classic-plane enthusiast in the past, but there's no doubt you will be after a flight in a 1930s Waco biplane, or a 1940s Tigermoth, over the Wanaka area. Peter Hendriks is your pilot, a local Kiwi with a passion for old planes and a love of showing off his home town. And what better way to see it than in an open-topped old plane, flying over the town and then out over the lake, landing at a private, secluded airstrip for a champagne breakfast before soaring back over the mountains to home base. classicflights.co.nz 

6 EAT: BISTRO GENTIL

Wanaka is a small town, with a permanent population of just over 7000, so you don't exactly expect fine dining when you go out to eat there. It's a pleasant surprise, therefore, to discover Bistro Gentil, a French restaurant that takes its cuisine extremely seriously. There's sous vide salmon on the menu, beef tartare, pork rillettes, braised lamb, and duck confit. Not your average ski town fare. There are also 24 wines available by the glass – and you get to serve yourself, via self-dispensing wine machines. bistrogentil.co.nz 

7 DRINK: KAI WHAKAPAI

Kai Whakapai is a Wanaka institution, the kind of place you'll find everyone from the most gnarled local to the greenest backpacker nursing a beer and eating a pizza on any night of the week. Part of the bar's charm is the location, with views of the lake and easy access to the rest of town. It's also be the friendly local vibe, the reasonably priced food and drink, and the fact the kitchen serves breakfast until 4pm, which tells you all you need to know about the place. 

8 SEE: THAT WANAKA TREE

This is not just a great sight, but a classic piece of Kiwi nomenclature. "That Wanaka tree" is a lone shrub that grows in the shallows of Roy's Bay on the southern end of Lake Wanaka. It's an absolute photographer's dream, and every dawn and dusk you'll find scores of snappers setting up tripods and crouching in front of viewfinders trying to the get the perfect shot of shimmering water, pastel-coloured sky, and "that Wanaka tree" gnarled and sedate in the middle. lakewanaka.co.nz

9 DO: SKYDIVE WANAKA

What better way to take in some of the best views in the southern hemisphere than by plummeting towards them at terminal velocity? That's the experience the guys at Skydive Wanaka offer: the chance to "strap yourself to a beautiful stranger" and jump out of a plane at 15,000 feet. The views on the flight up really are stunning, although you'll probably be thinking more about the fact you're about to jump out of the backdoor. This is a serious thrill. skydivewanaka.co.nz

10 DRINK: CARDRONA HOTEL*

In the warmer months, when sunlight stretches long into the evening, there's no better place to be than the beer garden at the Cardrona Hotel. This pub and accommodation, about 15 minutes outside of Wanaka, has been operating since 1863, and they do things right: the beer is cold and frothy, the restaurant turns out huge servings of hearty food, and outside there's a green lawn dotted with tables and chairs and happy punters enjoying South Island life. cardronahotel.co.nz

11 RIDE: FUNNY FRENCH CARS

It makes sense to pay homage to something as quintessentially French as wine with a car as quintessentially French as a vintage Citroen. That's the experience Funny French Cars offers: the chance to visit some of Central Otago's best wineries while being whizzed around the countryside in one of their eponymous vehicles. These 1950s 2CVs ooze charm, but it's the patter of driver-guides Julie and Deane, plus the winemakers you meet, that really makes the day special. funnyfrenchcars.co.nz

12 SEE: LAKE WANAKA

Probably the most impressive attraction in Wanaka is the lake that bears its name. And the best part? It's free. Lake Wanaka covers 192 square kilometres of alpine beauty, with rugged mountains and far-off glaciers feeding a beautiful expanse of water. Locals use the area for swimming, or waterskiing, or stand-up paddleboarding, or just lazing around with a big pile of fish and chips from one of the nearby shops. lakewanaka.co.nz

13 EXPERIENCE: THE SMALL-TOWN FEEL

There's something of a big brother-little brother relationship between Wanaka and the better-known Queenstown, but really, the two can both be appreciated for their separate charms. While Queenstown is a buzzing hub of backpacker hostels and high-adrenalin sports, Wanaka is more laid-back, a small town where everyone knows you – or at least they will after a couple of days. Wanaka locals are some of the friendliest around, and visitors will be rewarded many times over for taking the time to get to know the place.  

14 SKI: CARDRONA SKI FIELDS

Those who fancy avoiding the crowds at Coronet Peak or the Remarkables have long enjoyed hitting the slopes at Cardrona, a family-friendly ski area that can be accessed from Wanaka or Queenstown. This isn't really a place for experts, but rather it's a resort that's chock full of wide-open groomed trails and plenty of intermediate runs – perfect for those travelling with family or large groups. Cardrona also has a large terrain park, which should keep the more extreme enthusiasts occupied. cardrona.com  

15 SHOP: HELWICK STREET BOUTIQUES

Another surprise in a small country town like Wanaka is the quality of boutique shopping, particularly down Helwick Street in the centre of town. Outlets such as 47Frocks and Glowing Sky stock a range of international and locally designed clothes, some of which you won't be able to find anywhere else in the country. Away from Helwick Street, Bella and Escape Clothing both have a great range. 47frocks.co.nz 

16 STAY: WANAKA LAKEVIEW HOLIDAY PARK

New Zealand is a country that's built for campervanning – the roads are in good nick and are scenically stunning throughout, while the facilities for vans in most towns are top notch. Wanaka is no different, with powered campsites that command amazing vistas available at Lakeview Holiday Park. The site is a 10-minute walk from town, has bathroom, kitchen and lounge facilities, plus a good range of cabin accommodation. wanakalakeview.co.nz

17 DO: RIDGELINE ADVENTURES*

It's almost unfair, really, the sort of scenery that New Zealand has been blessed with. This is a country of ridiculous beauty, and you get to appreciate its full gamut on a day out with Ridgeline Adventures. Jump in the back of a 4WD and you get whisked up into the backcountry of Lake Wanaka, a place of snow-capped mountains and winding rivers, of deer farms and rustic old homesteads. The tour culminates in a stop for tea and a snack perched high up above the lake – it's a place you never want to leave. ridgelinenz.com

18 DO: BASECAMP WANAKA

It's no secret that you get a fair bit of rain in NZ, which is likely to put a hold on plans for outdoor activities. However, it's also no secret that Kiwis really like extreme sports, so it makes sense that you'd still be able to do something a bit scary even when the weather is bad. That's where Basecamp comes in: it's an indoor rock-climbing centre that offers walls suited to anyone from rank beginners to serious practitioners. It's the perfect spot to get your adrenalin hit, even on a grey day. basecampwanaka.co.nz 

19 SEE: WARBIRDS AND WHEELS

Another great rainy day spot – although this time for those after something a little more sedate – is Warbirds and Wheels, a museum of classic planes and cars that's just out near Wanaka Airport. This surprisingly large space is packed with classic machines, from a 1916 biplane to an NZ airforce Skyhawk fighter plane, a range of early-model Packards and Lincolns to a few 1930s Harley Davidsons. warbirdsandwheels.com 

20 DO: MOUNTAIN-BIKING

A place as scenic as Lake Wanaka lends itself to being explored on two wheels, which is why mountain-biking has become so popular. From Wanaka town there are plenty of tracks leading out into the countryside, some gentle meanders by the lake, some more difficult climbs through the hills. One of the most popular, particularly for families, is the "Around the Lake" trail offered by Wanaka Bike Tours. It's a relaxed 2½-hour journey that ends with a glass of wine. wanakabiketours.co.nz 

Ben Groundwater was a guest of Tourism New Zealand

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