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Picture a serene blue lake, ringed by soaring snow-capped mountains and fed by roaring streams and rivers. This is Lake Wanaka, and no matter how many photos you’ve seen, that first glimpse as you drive into town will take your breath away.

Perched on the edge of the sprawling Mount Aspiring National Park, Wanaka is perfectly placed for adventure. The fast-growing town boasts many great shops, restaurants, and cafes, yet, you only have to go five minutes from the centre to find a quiet haven.

The area is a delight for thrill-seekers and adventure lovers, but there’s still plenty to do for those less enamoured of an adrenaline rush. Whether you want to explore by air, water, or land, here are 30 of the best things to do in Wanaka in 2022.

Take to the Air

Wanaka has a bit of a reputation for airbourne activities thanks to its famous “Warbirds Over Wanaka” airshow (mentioned below), but there’s plenty more on offer in the skies above this small town.

You’re the Pilot with U Fly Wanaka

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fly a plane, it’s time to find out at U Fly, where you’ll take to the air above Lake Wanaka on your very own flying lesson with an experienced instructor.

You’ve got three options: a 20-minute taster, a longer flight out and around Lake Wanaka, or a one-hour thriller over the mountains and glaciers of the Mt Aspiring National Park.

You’ll learn to taxi, take off, bank, and soar upwards until you reach 4000 ft, where it’s time to relax and enjoy the stunning scenery. Book your chance to be a pilot on the U-Fly website, in-person at the Wanaka i-site, or in person at the U Fly office on Spitfire Lane.

Heli-Hike the Misty Mountains 

Even if you’re not a Lord of the Rings fan, the views as you follow the Eagles’ flight path towards Mt Aspiring will take your breath away. 

Boarding a helicopter in Wanaka, you’ll fly over glaciers and hover over mountains before landing on Treble Cone at Towers Ridge. That’s where you’ll follow the footsteps of Bilbo and the dwarfs with a guided hike down the rocky ridgeline

There’s no denying that this Eco-Wanaka adventure is a break-the-budget experience, and you’ll need to wear strong walking boots and have a reasonable degree of fitness and good balance to take it on. But, if you do, you’ll never forget this remarkable “Unexpected Journey.” 

Soar Over Scenic Wonders (And Land on a Glacier) 

If you’d rather just relax on your helicopter flight without the whole hiking part, Aspiring Helicopters has a number of ridiculously scenic packages to choose from. A few examples include:

  • A 20-minute flight with a bird’s eye view of Lake Wanaka, with a landing on a remote mountain top (perfect for an Instagram photo to make your friends very jealous)
  • Land on a glacier at 7000 feet to enjoy the pristine view and crisp mountain air on a gigantic river of ice. 
  • Go all out and take the three-hour flight over the snow-capped mountains and towering rainforests of the Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks to Milford Sound and back

The company has over half a dozen different options, so it’s not hard to find one that matches your interests, time, and budget.

Ditch the Noisy Motors and go Paragliding Instead

Located 25 minutes west of town near the Treble Cone ski field, Wanaka Paragliding gives you the chance to run and jump off a tall mountain cliff, 800 metres above the valley below. Yes, this is something people willingly sign up for!

After the initial burst of activity as you take off, it’s time to sit back and relax (if you can) as your pilot guides you gently downward, with panoramic views of mountains and waterfalls all the way. You’ll landing 10-12 minutes later — unless you get lucky and catch some thermals, that is!

Tip: conditions are usually better in the morning, so book earlier in the day if you can. There’s a full refund if the weather makes it unsafe to fly.

The Ultimate Test: Jump out of a Plane!

New Zealand is famous for beautiful skydiving locations (among other things), and Wanaka is one of the most scenic spots in the country to do it. If you feel like adding “jumping out of a perfectly-good plane” to your resume of extreme adventures, SkyDive Wanaka is happy to help. 

Take off on a 10-minute flight to 12,000 ft, or go all-out and spring for the higher 15,000 ft jump instead. Whichever you choose, be sure to enjoy the views on the way up — if your nerves allow. Then, all you have to do is fall out of the plane and fly: your instructor will do the rest. Don’t forget to smile for the cameras on your way down!

Wanaka by Water

Take a Scenic Cruise then Drive Up a Mountain. No Roads Needed

Can’t decide whether you’re after a water or land-based experience? How about both? The Wanaka 4×4 Explorer tour from Wanaka Water Taxi starts at the marina in town, and takes you boating up past snowcapped mountains towards Stevenson’s Arm and Mt Burke. 

You’ll be dropped off at the foot of the mountain, where it’s time to climb into a four-wheel-drive safari truck and buckle your seat belt. Up the tussock-covered mountainside you’ll go, your driver taking you to the best viewing point in the area for a gourmet picnic.   

Take your camera or phone along for the ride: the views are epic, whether you’re on the water or up the mountain, and you’ll want photos of it all!

See an Island in a Lake in an Island in a Lake in an Island in the Sea

Locals will tell you that Mou Waho is the most beautiful of Lake Wanaka’s five islands. As if the secluded beaches and abundant birdlife wasn’t enough, the epic views and hidden lake in the middle make a visit to the island a must-do experience while you’re in Wanaka.

The water taxi to Mou Waho leaves the marina every morning and afternoon. I took the morning cruise on a beautiful summer morning, where there was barely a cloud in the sky or a ripple on the lake. It took around half an hour to get to the island, with interesting commentary from the skipper about Lake Wanaka’s geology and history along the way.

From there, you’re on your own to explore. The path heads up from the beach with a few viewpoints along the way, but the highlight is definitely Arethusa Pool, the hidden lake mentioned above.

You’ve got two choices there: clamber around the rocks that border the lake (and jump in if you want a swim), or keep climbing a few minutes up the trail to a rocky outcrop that provides absolutely epic views of the island in a lake in an island in a lake in an island in the sea. Rather than choosing one or the other, do both: you’ve got 90 minutes before the boat heads back!

Paddleboarding or Kayaking, Lake or River: It’s Up to You!

Would you rather paddle around near the beach? Or test your stamina with a longer ride? There are plenty of stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) and kayaks for hire in Wanaka, and on a nice day, you’ll see locals and visitors alike out on the lake in one or the other.

If you’re happy doing your own thing, Lakeland Wanaka will outfit you with all the gear you need and point you in the direction of the lake (even in winter, weather permitting.)

On the other hand, the crew at Paddle Wanaka offers more structured experiences. Paddle to Ruby Island, for instance, and spend a couple of hours relaxing, exploring the island, or just paddling around nearby, before taking a water taxi ride back to base. 

“The Mission” sees you plan your own route, where the company will transport you and your gear to your starting point, then leave you to paddle back at your leisure. Paddle Wanaka offers SUP packages on the Clutha River, too: a taster for beginners and a 19 km “pro” version for experienced stand-up paddlers.

Jet Boating Thrills

If you’ve got a need for speed, then there’s a host of options when it comes to thrills on the water in Wanaka.  

To pick just a couple of the best examples: the Matukituki is one of the most spectacular jetboating rivers in New Zealand, and you can take an amazing half-day trip up it with Wanaka River Journeys. If you’d rather explore the mighty Clutha, Go Jets Wanaka offers an hour-long adrenaline rush that combines fast-flowing water with a bit of gold mining history. 

Jet boats were invented in New Zealand, and they’re perfectly suited to the country’s shallow braided rivers and rapids. Able to operate in just a few inches of water, they’ll take you places impossible to get to any other way. I’ve explored many of New Zealand’s rivers and lakes by jetboat, and never finish without a huge smile on my face.

Explore by Jet Ski

If you’d rather be the one in charge, head over to Lakeland Wanaka and rent one of the company’s jet skis. Choose a single ski or double up with a friend (the price is the same for either option), then head out onto the lake for a guided octane-fueled adventure.

The large skis are easy to ride even if you’ve never been on one before, and the guides are there to keep you safe as well as explain a bit of the local history. Skim past the (in)famous Wanaka Tree on the lakefront, then head out for a 60-minute ride around the beautiful islands and bays.

Cruise the Lake

Wanaka Cruises knows that sometimes you just want to relax and enjoy a gorgeous water view. That’s why they run cruises all year round, plus fishing and private charters for any occasion. 

Cruise to one of three islands in a comfortable launch, and enjoy a guided nature walk with plenty of photo opportunities along the way. Or take the Happy Hour cruise — a 1-hour jaunt with drinks and a cheese board included. 

Explore the Land 

Go for a Good Long Walk

View of the river and mountains in the West Matukituki valley

New Zealand isn’t short on stunning walks, and being on the doorstep of a national park, Wanaka has access to an absolute abundance of them. I put together a list of seven of the best day walks in Wanaka, and even that just scratches the surface.

While Roys Peak gets all the attention from Instagrammers, it’s far from the only game in town. Take a stroll along the Clutha River on the Outlet Track. Climb Mount Iron for a great view over the town and lake. Check out Diamond Lake, or head into the Matukituki Valley for stunning trails that take anything from a few hours to a few days to complete.

Know that mountain weather can be very changeable, and unprepared trampers (hikers) get caught by sudden storms or snow every year. Every time you go out into the Kiwi mountains or forests, make sure you take food, water, and a jacket, just in case.

Fly, Hike, and Jetboat Your Way Through the Siberia Experience

Want to combine jaw-dropping views, great hiking, and a water-based adrenaline rush, all in a part of the country that virtually nobody, tourist or local, ever gets to visit? Check out the Siberia Experience, an incredible trip that starts and finishes in Makarora, about an hour’s drive north of Wanaka.

Even the drive to the starting point is gorgeous, winding around the shores of both Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. It’s once you arrive in tiny Makarora and strap yourself into the small plane, however, that the fun really starts.

The trip begins with a 25-minute flight over remote alpine valleys, waterfalls, and glaciers, ultimately landing on a grass strip in the remote Siberia Valley in the Mount Aspiring National Park. A self-guided hike follows, walking for three hours across untouched tussock flats and through native rainforest. Remember that food and water I mentioned earlier; you’re sure to get hungry on the way.

At the end of the trail, meet your jet boat driver for a spectacular half-hour ride along the crystal-clear Wilkin River and back to the start of your incredible journey. By then, you’ll no doubt be longing for an ice cream from the unexpectedly delightful Makarora Country Cafe.

Go Mountain Biking at Bike Glendhu 

Opened in late January 2020, Bike Glendhu is Wanaka’s newest mountain biking park, with loop trails for every sort of biker. Unsurprisingly given the name, it operates from close to Glendhu Bay, a ten minute drive from town.

The easy tracks take you up and down gentle slopes, and are ideal if this is your first attempt at mountain biking. If you’re up for more adventure, intermediate-level tracks feature jumps and berms on single and double trails that weave up, down, and around the mountain.

For experienced riders, the Dark Matter and Methane tracks wind through native bush, with plenty of rock, dirt, and line choices to test your skills.

You can rent both standard and electric mountain bikes, or just buy a day pass if you have access to a bike already. A helmet is included with all bike rentals, with elbow and knee pads available if you want them.

Try Mountain Carting at the Cardrona Bike Park

Person in protective clothing standing in front of mountain carting track

Kiwis don’t like to see their ski fields sitting idle during the summer months, so the slopes often double up as bike parks. You can do that at Cardrona too, but they’ve gone one better by adding mountain carting into the mix.

These three-wheeled carts are specially built for blasting down the formed tracks, which are lined with tyres for extra safety and to stop your carting experience accidentally turning into paragliding.  

It’s a great activity for thrill-seekers of all ages. Over 8-year-olds can ride independently, and younger children can ride with adults. I took my brother and teenage nephew up there for a few hours of definitely-not-competitive-at-all zooming around one sunny afternoon, and can highly recommend it.

Enjoy Horse Riding Through a High Country Station 

Given the geography of much of the farmland around Wanaka, and the lack of roads that go through it, horseback has long been a vital mode of transport for farmers in the area. If you’d like to follow in their footsteps (hoofsteps?), sign up for a guided ride through a high country farm at Experience The Cardrona

You don’t need previous riding experience, and you’ll get a lesson beforehand to ensure you’ll feel confident on horseback. Less-confident riders can choose from three easy trails: High Country Pub, Gold Discovery, and Twilight Ride, while those with more experience can take the Top Beat, New Zealand’s highest guided horse trek, with space for a good gallop on the way.

Go Quad Biking at Cardrona

If horse riding isn’t your thing, Experience Cardrona has a quad biking option as well. These are the only quad bike tours available in Wanaka, and they’re a fantastic way to get up into the mountains and enjoy the epic views.

Choose from:

  • The Mountain Experience (for 16 years and over). You may well be travelling in snow during the winter on this trip. 
  • The River Run (for riders six years and over). Full of dips, hollows, rises, and ridges, with both bikes and trails tailored to your group’s abilities and experience. 
  • Buggy Rides. Younger children can ride as passengers in a 4×4 buggy, and follow along wherever the quad bikes go.

Experience Canyoning

Over the millennia, rocky mountains plus roaring streams equals deep clefts and canyons. These aren’t just interesting to geologists, though: as with many things in New Zealand, nature’s oddities provide the perfect excuse for an adrenaline rush. In this case, it’s canyoning.

Forget your age or lack of experience: if you’re reasonably fit, Deep Canyon has thrills and spills for all levels, with tours tailored for beginner, intermediate, and advanced canyoners.

Clamber down roaring waterfalls. Jump into deep forest pools. Abseil down steep, rocky cliffs and slide down slick chutes. Revel in the adrenaline rush — but be warned, you’ll want to come back for more.

Climb Up a Waterfall

If you’ve always had a hankering to try something different, then WildWire has the challenge for you. Their Via Ferrata — the punnily-named “Lord of the Rungs” — is the world’s highest waterfall climb. 

If you can climb a ladder and walk on hilly terrain for a couple of hours, you’ll be able to tackle at least one of WildWire’s guided adventures. Choose your level from Lower, Upper, or the epic Full, which includes a two-wire bridge, a 60m waterfall climb, 5-7 hours of scrambling around the hills, and a helicopter ride back once you reach the top.

Whichever option you go for, you’re guaranteed the kind of epic adventure that’s often hard to come by these days.

Climb the Walls at Basecamp

If you’d prefer to do your climbing indoors, or the weather isn’t conducive to scrambling around rockfaces outside, no problem: try the Clip ‘n Climb wall at Basecamp on Cardrona Valley Rd instead. 

There’s no need to wait for an instructor or have an argument about who’s going to do the belaying: Clip ‘n Climb has automatic belays, so you can climb solo, or get the whole family doing it at the same time. It’s the perfect experience if you’ve never climbed before, and kids love it.

As the team at Basecamp put it, you can “keep the kids climbing our walls, not yours!”

Hit the Slopes in Winter

Wanaka has three fabulous ski fields right on its doorstep, so if you’re a snow bunny, you’re spoiled for choice. 

Cardrona Alpine Resort has everything from gentle beginner slopes to runs that challenge Olympic skiers and snowboarders. If you’re not into skiing, try snow tubing instead (in spring), or simply take a gondola ride to the top and enjoy some champagne at the Vista Bar.

Treble Cone is the South Island’s largest ski area. There’s 1359 acres of winter playground, uncrowded runs, and off-piste terrain. 

The Snow Farm is the home of cross-country skiing in New Zealand, and it’s an entirely different experience from the thrills and spills of downhill skiing. Try snowshoeing, go cross-country on the marked trails, or simply play in the snow at the Snow Fun Zone. 

Shoot Some Targets at Crossfire

Ever wondered how you’d go at archery or clay bird shooting? What about shooting targets at the rifle range? Maybe you’d rather play a round of mini-golf, or get the driver out and see just how far you can hit that pesky white ball?

You can do it all at Crossfire, an activity centre opposite the Wanaka airport. Kids and adults alike love it at Crossfire, and it’s a popular venue for stag and hen parties, office outings, and more. The activities that involve shooting things unsurprisingly have an age limit (12-15+), but golf is accessible to all!

Treat Your Mind and Body

Forage and Feast

Treat yourself to a food adventure and learn the behind-the-scenes stories of Wanaka’s artisan producers with Forage and Feast

Perhaps you’ll gather honey from local beehives, search for wild watercress in the stream, or fish for salmon at Hook, Lake to Plate? Whatever you’ve collected, you can then sit back and enjoy an unforgettable meal prepared by one of Wanaka’s chefs.

Every seasonal experience changes, governed as it is by the weather, the farmers, and the environment. If you’re a foodie, this is one adventure you won’t want to miss. 

Wander around a Lavender Farm (and Hang Out With Alpacas)

Close-up of lavender flowers

Set on 20 beautiful acres just outside Wanaka, the Lavender Farm has flowers, farm animals, giant garden games, lavender ice cream, honey, and more. 

As well as lavender, the gardens are filled with plants for all seasons, so there are plenty of scents and colour all year round. At just $10 for adults and $5 for children, this farm’s an affordable treat for the whole family. There’s also a cafe onsite with a small range of food and drinks, and plenty of take-home options for those who just can’t get enough lavender in their life.

I was (somewhat grudgingly) dragged out here one summer afternoon when I’d rather have been at the pub, but to my surprise, I actually enjoyed the experience.

Wandering through the lavender fields made for plenty of great photo opportunities (the farm even provides props like umbrellas for those seeking Instagram glory), but I have to admit that I liked hanging out with the farmyard animals — including the quizzical alpacas — even more.

Test Your Brain at Puzzling World

Optical illusion room at Puzzling World, Wanaka, with two people inside

“Seeing is believing,” or so they say. Not so much at Puzzling World, where optical illusions and mind-bending experiences abound in these weird and wonderful buildings.  

Stay for an hour, or take in all the attractions and spend the day — there’s something for every reality here. Travel through the illusion rooms, take wacky photos, and try to escape from the Great Maze. You can do that the traditional way, by finding the exit, or make like my girlfriend and just crawl under the barriers when you tire of being lost!

Finally, take a well-earned break at the Think Tank Café and check out the puzzles in the extensive gift shop. Who knows, you might want to take a little piece of Puzzling World home with you. 

Visit the National Transport and Toy Museum

The Rhodes family has spent more than 50 years bringing together one of the largest private collections of toys, models, and vehicles in the world in the eclectic National Transport and Toy museum

Out beside the airport, you get to wander through hangars filled with classic cars and motorbikes, fire engines and military tanks, planes, trucks, and more. When you’ve had your fill of life-size machinery, there are 60,000 toys on display in the main building, not to mention a kids activity area and — of course — a huge toy shop.

This is one of the largest private collections of aircraft, vehicles, and toys in the world, so be sure to put aside enough time to really make the most of it. Tickets are $20 for adults, $5 for children, and under-5’s get in for free.

Tour Gorgeous Gardens

Wanaka is home to many beautiful private gardens that are hidden away behind walls, fences, and trees. Now, visitors can share in the beauty when they take the new Beautiful Gardens of Wanaka tour. 

Twice a day from October to April, you can join expert gardener and long-time Wanaka resident Florence Micoud and visit various stunning gardens. Tours take in anywhere from one to four gardens, depending on the time of day and day of the week.

Florence’s passion shines through every tour as she answers your questions and explains the story behind the creation of each garden. If you have a green thumb, or just appreciate the skills of people that do, this is a must-do activity while you’re in town.

Hand-Craft a Knife

If you’re looking for something unusual to do while you’re in town that leaves you with a unique souvenir, how does making your very own quality knife sound?

Rob at Wanaka Knife Making will help you start with a steel blank and finish the all-day experience with a slick, sharp knife, complete with a wooden handle and brass bolster. Just remember not to pack it in your carry-on if you’re flying home!

Wine and Dine

Glass of beer on the table at b.effect brewing company

If you’ve made it through anything like all of the activities mentioned above, you’ll definitely be in need of a bit of downtime. Fortunately there are plenty of places to relax in Wanaka, especially after a big day of adventuring. 

Visit the Cardrona Distillery with its traditionally-made vodka, whisky, gin, and orange liqueur. Try a brew at Wanaka Beerworks or the delightful little craft beer and cider bar at b.effect, or pop out to the cellar door at Nanny Goat Vineyard

Altogether you’ll find four craft breweries and eight wineries in the local area, not to mention a host of great pubs and restaurants. Dine at the legendary Cardrona Hotel, try the delightfully-good fried chicken and margaritas at Amigos, or wander through the foodstore at Florence’s Cafe.

Really, there’s no excuse to ever be hungry or thirsty in Wanaka. 

Attend a Festival

Wanaka hosts many festivals during the year, far more than you’d expect given its size, and they all bring even more fizz to an already buzzing town. Here are four of the best. 

Warbirds over Wanaka

This famous four-day biannual Easter Air Show features fighter planes of all ages, not to mention pyrotechnics, Warhorse re-enactor groups, and exhibits of all kinds. If you possibly can arrange to be in town at the right time, you definitely should.

Wheels at Wanaka

On alternate Easters, vintage steam and traction engines, tractors, cars, motorcycles, trucks, earthmovers, and more gather for an extravaganza of four-wheeled delights. If big, noisy vehicles are your kind of thing, you’ll be in heaven.

Festival of Colour

March heralds the beginning of autumn (fall) in New Zealand, and the area around Wanaka is awash with autumn colours. The Festival of Colour is Central Otago’s premier arts event and includes music, theatre, and dance performances. Festival number ten is scheduled for 2023.

Rhythm and Alps

The iconic three-day summer music festival attracts up to 10,000 revelers to party with a diverse line-up of Kiwi musicians and international acts. Set against a jaw-dropping background just 15 minutes south of Wanaka, it’s the South Island’s biggest music event.

So, there you have it. No-one could ever be bored in Wanaka, where you can bike, hike, float, fly, ski, eat, drink, and party to your heart’s content. Even the 30 kick-ass experiences I’ve mentioned are just a taste of the adventures on offer in this spectacular, wonderful part of New Zealand. Come on over and join the fun!

All images via author

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