Wanaka is a town in the Otago region of the South Island of New Zealand. It is situated at the Southern end of Lake Wanaka, adjacent to the outflow of the lake to the Clutha River. It is the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. Wanaka is primarily a resort town but has both summer and winter seasons and is based around the many outdoor activities. Due to the growing tourism business and the increasing number of retirees in Wanaka there is massive growth occurring – up to 50% in 10 years.
The town is part of the Queenstown-Lakes District and was originally settled during the gold rush days of the 19th century.
The first European in the area was Nathaniel Chalmers, who was guided inland by Chief Reko in 1853. Maori knowledge of the region is evidenced by an earlier sketch map from Chief Te Huruhuru at Waimate.
European settlement began in the Upper Clutha River Valley in the 1850s, with the establishment of sheep stations by ‘run-holders’. The first station was at Albert Town as this was the only place to ford the Clutha River. The present site of Wanaka was first surveyed in 1863. Settlement increased in Pembroke (the old name for Wanaka) in the 1870’s because of timber milling in the Matukituki Valley and the use of Lake Wanaka for transport. Tourism started in the town in 1867 with the opening of the first hotel, by Theodore Russell. The site proved very popular for tourism because of its temperate climate and easy access to snow and water.
Pembroke was renamed Wanaka in 1940.
The town of Wanaka is situated at the Southern end of Lake Wanaka. It is surrounded by mountains. To the southwest of the town is Queenstown (120 km (75 miles)), and to the north Haast Pass cuts through the Southern Alps near Makarora. To the northeast on the road to Christchurch are the towns of Omarama and Twizel. Very close to Lake Wanaka in a parallel glacial valley, is a similar sized lake called Lake Hawea, which has a population of about 1,500 people. The road leading to the Mount Aspiring National Park from Wanaka passes the settlement of Glendhu Bay on the shores of Lake Wanaka where a very popular motor park and camping ground is situated.
The centre of the town is on flat land beside Roy’s Bay. Parts of the town have grown into the hills around the town and also around Roy’s Bay in both directions. The lakeside area of the town is prone to occasional flooding in spring, when heavy rain and snowmelt can cause the lake to rise dramatically. Such a flood occurred in November 1999.
Wanaka is one of the few areas in New Zealand to enjoy a Continental climate with four very distinct seasons. The weather is fairly dry with spring (September-December) being the wettest months. Annual rainfall is 682 mm which is half the national average. Wanaka experiences hot, dry summers with temperatures reaching the high 30’s but the average is 24°C. Winter tends to have clear calm days with highs around 10°C.
These days, with its beautiful lake and mountain views, Wanaka has become a popular tourist resort loved by many for being less commercialised than Queenstown.
Wanaka boasts a growing number of excellent restaurants, cafes and a diverse nightlife. Other attractions in the town include Puzzling World and the Paradiso Cinema. Puzzling World contains a 3-d maze, optical illusions and a leaning tower. The Paradiso is a classic old cinema, with seating consisting of old couches and a car. There are a number of wineries in the area.
A great day excursion can be had walking up neighbouring Roys Peak, from which stunning views can be had of Wanaka and the surrounding area, including Mount Aspiring.
Festivals and Events
- The biennial Warbirds over Wanaka airshow has become a major attraction for national and international guests.
- NZ Freeski open
- The biennial New Zealand music Rippon Festival
Wanaka is host to some of New Zealand’s best outdoor recreation and tourism activities with world-class hiking, mountain biking, mountaineering, fishing, paragliding, kayaking, rafting, jetboating, and environmental activities of all kinds suitable for adventure-seeking people and families. With one of New Zealand’s sunniest climates, Wanaka is truly an adventure paradise. It is the access point to the highest mountain outside of the Mount Cook region, Mount Aspiring/Tititea.
Mount Aspiring National Park is very popular for mountaineering and hiking. Tourists enjoy day trips into the Park and many tourists go hiking in the Park for up to a week at a time. Parts of the Matukituki Valley on the road to the Park are also very popular for rock climbing and for day walks.
Lake Wanaka itself is popular for waterskiing, wakeboarding and sailing. This along with the local rivers provides many opportunities for fishing. There is a dedicated mountain biking area made by volunteers in a local pine forest. All the local ski resorts open for mountain biking and hiking in the summer.
Wanaka has the broadest range of snow activity choices of any town in NZ. These include Treble Cone, Cardrona Alpine Resort, Snow Park and Snow Farm, some of New Zealand’s premier commercial ski fields. Wanaka is the main accommodation provider for these resorts and so is very busy in high season (July-September).
Treble Cone has a reputation among New Zealanders as having the best lift-accessed terrain in the country and for this reason has developed a cult following, ‘ConeHeads’. It also catches some of the better snow in the area, with its location and orientation, getting more snow from NW storms.
Cardrona is more attractive to families and beginners, and in 2010 opened up a large amount of new terrain serviced by a new lift making it one the most versatile skifields in the region.
Snowpark is a dedicated 100% artificial terrain park for advanced riders.
Snow Farm is New Zealand’s only commercial cross-country ski field.