Regardless of what you’re looking for – kayaking, skiing, hiking, great food, and wine – you’ll find it in Wānaka, part of the South Island’s Southern Alps. A favourite with adventurers, it’s the perfect day trip from Queenstown. The most direct route in the rental car will get you there in about 75 minutes, but you can add 15 minutes or so and follow the Ciutha River and Lake Dunstan for a good part of the drive.
All along the way, you’ll see wineries where you can stop and do tastings – keep within your limits if you’re the driver – or fill the boot with your favourites to drink later. At Bannockburn, about an hour outside of Queenstown, there’s a handful of cellar doors to explore, including Mt Difficulty Wines, with its spectacular view of the rugged landscape, and Carrick Winery, which often has pizza parties with live music. But don’t spend too much time trying to find the region’s finest pinot noir because you might not have time to do everything else on offer. Here’s a rundown of some of the best things to see and do on a day trip to Wānaka.
You probably already know that New Zealand is where people first decided it would be a good idea to tie themselves to a piece of elastic and drop off a cliff. You might have bungyed before, but have you ever jumped from the original bungy bridge? When it launched all the way back in 1988, AJ Hackett’s Kawarua Bridge operation was the first commercial bungy in the world. And visitors are still taking the leap today and touching the water 43m below the bridge. There’s also a 130m zipline that whips guests over the forest beside the Kawarua River at about 60km/h.
If you like fast but prefer to keep it at ground level, Highlands offers go kart racing on an outdoor track with the mountains as a backdrop. You can also do hot laps in a V8 muscle car or a replica Le Mans vehicle, the Radical SR3. Highlands Museum showcases some of the rarest cars in New Zealand, including Michael Schumacher’s Benetton Formula One car, an Aston Martin Vulcan valued at NZ$4.2 million and a bumblebee from a Transformers movie.
If you don’t mind a decent climb, follow the path from lake level up to Roys Peak. This is considered one of the area’s best day hikes, with views right over Lake Wānaka, although it can take five or six hours to get there and back.
A much easier walk, and one that only takes an hour or so, is the Blue Pools Track, which goes through a silver beech forest and over swing bridges to pools near the mouth of Blue River. If you look closely once you’re there, you might see brown or rainbow trout feeding in the pools.
Want a great shot for Instagram? Wānaka Lavender Farm has eight hectares of purple fields (best during summer and autumn), as well as farm animals, like alpacas and donkeys, other pretty flowering gardens, and games like Giant Jenga and bocce.
But for the absolute best view in Wānaka, consider getting out of the rental car for an hour or so and taking to the skies. There are several helicopter operators offering scenic flights over Lake Wānaka’s hidden bays and remote islands, so you can get a real appreciation for the size of the lake – it’s the fourth biggest in New Zealand – and see how it’s fed by the waters that flow in from the Matukituki River. Some, like Aspiring Helicopters, even have an adventure that will have you climbing to a height of about 2,300m, where you’ll land on a glacier.
See the lake and the mountains that rise around it from a different perspective when you join a tour with Lake Wānaka Cruises. If you’ve got a couple of hours, jump on a luxury 57-foot catamaran to cruise out to Stevensons Island, where you’ll go for a walk and hear about the Māori and colonial history and the efforts to revive the population of the almost extinct buff weka, a flightless woodhen.
Explore the water under your own steam when you hire a kayak or paddle board from Paddle Wānaka. The crystal-clear waters are always calm and you could float around, exploring little bays and beaches, for hours.
Take it up a notch with Lakeland Wānaka, which offers 60-minute jet boat rides that do double duty as a scenic tour taking in views of the snow-capped mountains before heading into the Clutha River. Here, the driver will put the pedal to the metal, navigating shallow water, tunnels, and waves as they speed along the rapids.
Ready to get out and explore the Wānaka region? Hire a rental car in Queenstown before you leave.