It took four years, but finally I made it back to one of my favourite parts of the country. It was one of the first places I explored in the South Island when I first arrived in New Zealand in 2012, but it took barely a minute to fall in love with the place when the bus pulled in to the lakeside on a gorgeous sunny day. After a 5hr drive south-west from Christchurch, my partner and I arrived in Wanaka on the shore of the lake of the same name, on an equally sunny day and instantly I was happy and excited for the weekend ahead.
The drive itself is beautiful. Apart from several roadworks, and the common incidence of tourist drivers that raise your blood pressure with their extremely bad road sense, it is an enjoyable drive with plenty to look at. We took the back road to Geraldine and on to Fairlie where we stopped at the bakery which has a local reputation for exceedingly good pies. After an early lunch, we continued on to Lake Tekapo, a quaint little town which is always good for a stay or a break to stretch the legs. On this occasion, we pressed on, and soon we were swinging past the expanse of Lake Pukaki which has the most brilliant blue water you have ever seen. In the distance, at its northern end, the domineering peak of New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook stands proud on the skyline. Across the barren landscape to Omarama and then the winding route through Lindis Pass, the landscape seemed dry and brown. Even on the other side, as we covered the final kilometers to Wanaka, everything appeared as if in drought, until finally the water of Lake Wanaka appeared glistening behind the town.
After checking in to our motel, we headed down to the waterfront and had a leisurely stroll along the lake shore. Being the weekend of Waitangi Day, a national public holiday, the town was packed, and the beach was crammed with people enjoying the sunshine and the water. Across the lake, the mountains tower over it, from Roy’s Peak on the near shore, to the expanse of Mt Aspiring National Park in the far distance. Though my partner doesn’t agree with me, Lake Wanaka and its surrounds always make me think of Cairngorm National Park in my home country of Scotland, and that is partly why I feel so at home here. It is a fantastic spot for relaxation as well as outdoor pursuits and there is so much to see and do in the region.
Since I was last in the place, a flurry on Instagram has resulted in a particular tree on the lake becoming famous. Google image ‘that Wanaka tree’ and thousands of photos of it appear. What amused me more was when we walked to go and see what all the fuss was about, there was even a sign marking it as a photographic hotspot. When I was there four years prior, I would have walked past that tree without showing it any added attention. It’s funny what catches the international eye sometimes, and there was a regular stream of tourists trying to photograph it. All that aside, it is very photogenic: a lone tree within the water near the lake edge, which is framed either by mountains of Mt Aspiring National Park, or the town of Wanaka, depending on how you frame it.
After a pleasant meander back into town, we were excited to discover that Patagonia, our beloved chocolate and ice cream store from Queenstown had opened a branch in Wanaka. This place makes the most amazing ice cream, and we have both previously sickened ourselves gorging on it before. There was no way we were not going to indulge in some again this time round. Nearby, we enjoyed outdoor dining in the sunshine at one of the local bars, soaking up the happy vibes that swirl round the town. The next day, after breakfast in one of many cafes in town, we readied ourselves for the event that we were in town for: a friend’s wedding. It was a stunning affair, in the gardens of a hotel complex on the lake side, under a blistering sun, and it was immense fun.
I’m not a regular drinker, so I woke up the day after the wedding a little bit under the weather, but that wasn’t going to stop us from enjoying the region. After a much needed breakfast in town, we took the scenic drive past nearby Lake Hawea and on towards Haast Pass. This road eventually leads to the west coast and then upwards to Fox glacier, and I am yet to reach the pass and see some of the many sights along the way. But I had heard about one of the sights worth seeing on the Wanaka side of the pass, and that was where we headed. First up the side of Lake Hawea then crossing over to flank neighbouring Lake Wanaka, it was a gorgeous drive.
Nearly an hour away, we reached a packed car park that marked the start of the walk to the Blue Pools. Descending through thick forest for about 10 mins, the path breaks out the trees at a suspension bridge that crosses the crystal clear waters of the river below. From here, we could see a lot of people further along the path, and not far ahead, a second suspension bridge crossed another river, and from here, we could see why the pools were so named. Glacial fed, the water was crystal clear and had a blue hue to them. The amount of people lounging around on the shore and wading through the water was deceptive – it was freezing cold! It was so cold that when I stood in it to have my photo taken, it was actually really painful on my feet. Still, it was a lovely spot, and although there were a lot of people around, everyone was spread out enough over the stony river bed that it didn’t feel in the least bit crowded. As we were leaving though, a bus load full of tourists were heading down the path, so we were glad to be leaving when we did.
After stopping for a snack on route, we headed back down the side of Lake Wanaka and across the divide back to Lake Hawea where we had a couple of stops to soak up the view and take some photos. The road and the pull-ins were quite packed with tourists and parking was becoming difficult. In the town of Hawea itself though, it felt like there wasn’t a soul about, and it was peaceful and tranquil. Wading in the water was lovely, and we both wished we had brought our swimwear with us, as this would have been the perfect spot to have a relaxing swim in the lake. Instead, hungry and keen for a dip, we headed back to Wanaka.
Unfortunately, Wanaka was still packed and the beach beside the lake had no spare shade and barely a spare spot in the sun either. There was noise and people everywhere, and the water was full of boats, jetskis and paddleboarders. We tried to lie for a while, but I for one was finding it all too much, kicking myself for not having had the foresight to allow us to go swimming in Hawea. In the end, I had to follow the lake for some distance, ending up back at ‘that Wanaka tree’, just to find a free spot in the shade to zone out. Lake Wanaka is actually very shallow for some distance out, so even after wading out quite a distance, the water wasn’t even at chest level. It was deep enough to swim though, and the water temperature was perfect. It was a lovely way to relax and unwind.
After meandering back in to town and climbing up the hill to the lookout, we stumbled upon a hidden cluster of restaurants down a back street for dinner, and ate out at Cows, another Queenstown favourite that has opened up a Wanaka branch. There was live music in the courtyard and it was perfect conditions for enjoying an al fresco meal.
I had read in our motel guidebook about a local short walk that I hadn’t heard about before, and with other people from the wedding have done the walk whilst we were at the Blue Pools, we headed off on the 20min drive the next morning. On the road to Treble Cone ski field towards Mt Aspiring, it is a nice drive to the poorly marked car park to reach the walk to Diamond Lake. It is possible to walk just to the lake itself, but there are a few longer walks from here up the flanking hills to get a view point of either Diamond Lake or Lake Wanaka. It is a nice wee lake, although the lake itself is quite well hidden by vegetation for large sections of it on the circuit, but hiking up to the lower of the two viewpoints, it was possible to see the lake in its entirety (which is not actually diamond shaped). The circuit and viewpoint took about an hour, although this was at a very rushed pace due to having to make the drive back to Christchurch that day.
Heading home following breakfast in Wanaka, we retraced our steps back towards Christchurch, marvelling as always about the astonishing blue of Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo along the way. I adore Lake Wanaka, and now also Lake Hawea, and hope that it won’t be quite so long next time before making it back.