Aspiring Ntl Park from Mt Roy

Wanaka, It’s Where I Want to Be

Full disclosure. I am writing this while sipping a Ristretto cappuccino from Rust coffee shop next door to my local public library on a cloudy, blustery day in Portland OR. So, while I’ll “be” in New Zealand as I write, I’ll have to imagine this cappuccino is that amazing flat white I had while watching locals at the Federal Diner (look for it down a tiny alley off a main street in downtown Wanaka).

Wanaka. While planning the trip I was unsure whether to stay in Wanaka, Queenstown, or both. Queenstown is all over every travel site, and the setting is spectacular. I mean look, this is the view just from the grocery store…

New World Queenstown

View from New World grocery parking lot in Queenstown

But in one of the better decisions of this trip, we decided to spend five nights in Wanaka, and visit Queenstown for the day on our way to Fjordland. Briefly, Wanaka is much smaller (at least for now) and more mellow, but still with a lot of restaurant and lodging choices. And spectacular scenery. Queenstown is more dramatic, but also more crowded and touristy. However, for the adrenaline junky this is one of the best spots on earth, so thrill seekers please don’t listen to me on this one (I’ll meet you in a later post with tales of an alpine helicopter ride).

Wanaka started off on a good note. After a rainy and somewhat disappointing trip over Haast Pass, we dropped down Highway 6 to the shores of Lake Wanaka, then across a blink-and-you-missed-it isthmus to Lake Hāwea. These lakes are huge. No matter how high we got in the region, I don’t think we ever saw either lake all in one view. Lake Wanaka is over 70 square miles, the fourth largest in New Zealand. Lake Hāwea is 54 square miles. Both were carved by glaciers. Surrounded by high, craggy mountains that we could actually see, not shrouded in clouds (at least not upon arrival). The setting is absolutely spectacular. The Colorado girl in me was in heaven.

We stayed at Apartments on Upton only a few blocks from a large park bordering the lake (where we stopped to watch cricket one day), with views to perhaps three different mountain ranges. The extra bonus was a sculpture in the yard of a man out of wood and iron that caught my eye on entry. Later that day looking into Wanaka artists and designers in our apartment I found reference to an amazing one, Martin Hill. And noticed “our” sculpture on his website. Art and natural beauty; a perfect combination.

Of all places we visited, the two I could live in for any length of time were Lagrasse in southwest France, and Wanaka. What was it about Wanaka? Primarily the astounding natural beauty of the region, but that goes for just about everywhere in New Zealand. The people were relaxed and very friendly, but again, that’s just the “norm” in New Zealand. A few differences of this region were retail in nature. First, there are too many fabulous biodynamic wineries to count. Just outside of Wanaka is Rippon Vineyards, one of the originals with a view to kill. Not to mention beautiful floral displays and quirky artwork and a Riesling even I would want to drink regularly. There’s also Quartz Reef a short drive away with a tasting room in Cromwell. They have eminently drinkable sparkling wine… wish I had some now!

There are many high-end boutiques around town with beautiful if expensive finds. With a very fat wallet I’d go back to Escape, especially for dresses by New Zealand designer Paula Ryan. The one store with local designs that I found was the recently opened Funkee Design. Cute local skirts and fabulous wool knits by Untouched World. The best though is the thrift stores. I am not that person who routinely finds treasures in thrift stores, unlike many of my friends who tend to unearth vintage Gucci handbags and other designer finds. Apparently Wanaka has a number of wealthy inhabitants who come seasonally for skiing and summer retreats (hence the high-end stores). They seem to leave behind those purchases… At the Salvation Army I found a very wide brimmed Eugenia Kim sun hat (which I desperately needed by the way, the sun is so strong here) for about seven US dollars. Typical retail, well over $400. Then at Wanaka Waste Busters where one could wander for hours, found a great white men’s cotton shirt, a top quality New Zealand merino wool sweater, and an Australian designer jacket for about eight US dollars, all together. After more than six weeks in two shirts and one sweater, this doubling of my wardrobe was divine.

Most compelling though was nostalgia. In all the best ways, and very few of the bad, Wanaka reminded me of Colorado in the 1970 and 1980s. Whereas Fort Collins (where I grew up) had the thrilling dining choice of Perkins on the north end of town or Perkins on the south end of town, Wanaka has numerous delicious and interesting restaurants and cafes. And a fun living room theater, Paradiso, with the best chocolate chip cookies at intermission (yes, I made us go see Mockingjay Part 2 here, it had just released). So plenty to do, see, and consume… unlike the Colorado of my youth.

Movies in Wanaka

Yes, we went to see the final Hunger Games installment, but it was rainy out…

The similarities? Wanaka is friendly. People smile at one another in the streets. It is low key and unpretentious. The stunning natural features are central to how, and why, many people live here. And there’s a difficult-to-explain energy in the ether that pretty much anything is possible here.

Unfortunately, Wanaka also shares with the Colorado of my youth a refusal by many locals, especially the land holders, to manage growth. Across from Mount Iron, an already crowded local hike, a large swath of land had been bulldozed for construction of up to 1000 homes and numerous commercial buildings. The concept of preserving open space in the face of rapid development is as slow to catch on here as it was in the Front Range of Colorado. Here’s a few images from our hike up Mt. Iron.

But back to the joys of the place. In a nutshell, here’s what we did:

We tried to hike to the Rob Roy Glacier. Sadly we left too late, bad weather was coming, and our dumpy little rental car could ford only about the first four or so of seven river crossings on the road to the trailhead. However, the views up and down the Matukituki Valley along the West Matukituki River were unbelievable and well worth the bumpy journey.

Our “consolation prize” that day was a hike up Rocky Mountain. Both near and far the scenery was amazing. We were nearly blown off the top (the Department of Conservation had actually closed some hikes nearby due to high winds), but in the end that just made it more exhilarating. Here’s a great review by a non-hiker of this route. I think Jeff may have had similar thoughts on this and other hikes during our stay in New Zealand come to think of it…

We visited numerous wineries and art galleries in the relocated “Old Cromwell Town” (though after France, buildings from the 1860s just didn’t seem that old).

We had drinks at the local wine store/bar, Pembroke Wine & Spirits, with Carly. Carly I know from Denver where we worked together in her father’s French bakery when she was in high school and I was, well, way past high school (by the way, this may be the best French bakery in the US; if you’re in Denver, go to Trompeau Bakery). Time with this smart and sarcastic young woman always lifts me up. She and her boyfriend were just at the end of a year working in New Zealand on youth visas. Something I really wish I had done, but I probably would have skipped the apple-picking gig they had. That sounded brutal (complete with collapsing ladders and vicious branches).

Highlight was hiking Roys Peak Track. The brutal part is that it was 10 miles round trip and an elevation gain of about 4000 feet. Having not exercised much, this was a slog for the two of us. Our chagrin at our fitness level was not helped by the numerous super fit locals who jogged past us (just like old times hiking in Boulder, CO). The track had just recently reopened after the spring lambing season, so we hiked with numerous adorable lambs and equally many wary mamas. Views from this hike were amazing. Here are way too many shots:

Here’s a video of Jeff hiking with the lambs (and the wind):

Sadly after five days we had to journey on. We drove through more gorgeous mountains, spent about two hours in Queenstown (with seemingly half of the time driving through construction and looking for parking), then drove south towards Te Anau and Fjordland. Somehow, the trip just kept getting better and better. That post (hopefully) soon.