The time in Wanaka was one of the highlights of the South Island trip. It’s a superb place to be based for a few days and the scenery is outstanding. The town itself is touristy, although not to the levels of Queenstown, and is a pleasant little place with great views over the lake, and plenty of bars and restaurants. It’s also a fantastic gateway for Mount Cook and Tekapo.
After leaving Queenstown and taking the more scenic route to Wanaka, including getting temporarily stuck on a farm track with a locked gate, we arrived at the accommodation. It was a studio on a huge piece of land with awesome views over the mountains, including Mount Aspiring. And it was blissfully quiet. As locations go, it’s up there with the best I’ve ever stayed at.
The weather was expected to be pretty changeable over the next few days which meant making the most of any clear sky we had, and just after arriving in Wanaka, it was lovely. So we set out.
The road to Mount Aspiring gets interesting fairly quickly. After hugging the side of the lake for a while, it becomes a gravel track which varies in quality along the way, but lined with mountains on each side. The scenery on either side feels quite familiar; very “Scottish Highlands”. It’s a dead-end road, eventually leading to the national park, and one which unfortunately we eventually reached an impasse on due to a stream. The stream wasn’t even that big but the car wouldn’t cut it. Still, the area we stopped at was excellent, and had a great view of the summit of Mount Aspiring.
The remainder of the evening, after following the gravel track back into town, was a couple of pizzas (three pizzas and garlic bread for around £5.50 – hello, Domino’s New Zealand!), followed by a beer in the garden with a fantastic view. It was really peaceful – a tui every so often, a friendly dog checking out what was going on, not really much else to interrupt the views.
The drive to Mount Cook from Wanaka is a long one and given the road network, you’re either taking the plunge with the long drive and back or heading to Christchurch and the East Coast. We did the former, which is well over 100 miles one way and a couple of hours drive on a good day. The weather around the area was looking promising from morning into early afternoon and it would be the only opportunity to head that way during our time here.
The scenery en route through Lindis Valley was really stunning and could easily be a place to spend a day hill walking, with some awesome views from higher up. Early morning it was also a lovely, quiet drive.
The next stop was breakfast and coffee in Omarama, which, bar one roadside cafe, is the only stopover between Wanaka and Mount Cook offering food, drinks and petrol. Naturally then it’s a popular one but not necessarily a place to spend any more time than is necessary.
Mount Cook starts to properly come into view at the foot of Lake Pukaki, and it’s stunning. There’s a beautiful bright blue lake with an awesome snow-peaked mountain at the end of it, and the views remain like this on the lake-side drive right up into the valley.
Most people heading to Mount Cook seem to be there for the Hooker Valley Track and we were no different. I had this naive impression that it was a more rural, off-the-beaten-path type of trail and did not expect it to be so busy, or to include so many casual walkers or people with pushchairs. But it did. It’s really busy.
With the weather starting to close in a bit, we set off. It is a busy route, and my periodic grumbling about that was probably frustrating Eva at times. I don’t mind busy walking trails – how can I if I’m one of the people making it busy? – but I don’t like being stuck behind large groups who are going more slowly, and wanted to make good time. With the clouds arriving I was even more keen to motor on to get decent views while we could.
The scenery along the trail is fantastic but it doesn’t change a great deal from start to finish. Near the beginning there is an amazing view of mountains and glaciers, with Mount Cook starting to come into view around half way along. And from then on, it’s Mount Cook most of the way, aside from when the trail dips a bit.
Somewhat unfortunately, the cloud had closed in by the time we reached the end of the trail and it obscured the view of Mount Cook a little. But in saying that, it’s still a lovely area to take a break, and despite being busy it was still easy enough to find a quiet spot.
The whole area around Mount Cook, Lake Pukaki and the road onwards to Tekapo and the waterfront is beautiful. Tekapo was another stop off well worth the additional distance travelled even if just for a coffee and a bit of a view across the lake.
The drive back was an interesting one. In one direction, with the weather now getting a lot worse, there were massive storm clouds starting to roll down the mountains in Tekapo – almost like a time-lapse video. In another direction was the kind of heavy rain which looks epic from a distance, like thick, grey clouds emptying everything they have over the unfortunately souls beneath. And in another was the remaining bit of sunshine. It made for a slightly more dramatic drive back to Wanaka (with another short stop in Omarama for dinner).
With only three nights in Wanaka and some mixed weather, we were pushed to do everything we wanted to do. On the last morning we had hoped to walk up to Roys Peak but with the summit being in thick cloud, there was no point. It’s another popular route and one to pick up on a future trip, hopefully.
As a place to be based for a few days, Wanaka might be near top of the list due to access to so much fantastic scenery and with plenty of options in the evenings on the doorstep. It would be bordering on a style of country counting to say that three days is enough to “do Wanaka”. There are ways out of the town: towards Mount Aspiring, towards Mount Cook, towards Queenstown, or to the West Coast. So in a sense it is possible to see these in four days, but given the amount of scenery to see and hills to walk, even longer here would likely be valuable time spent. Not only that, Wanaka, for all it was busy and touristy, is a pleasant town centre to spend a bit of time.
For us it was three nights, and then an early start to head further up the West Coast.