The 26-mile-long Lake Wanaka is encircled by mountains.
RooM RF/Getty Images
Carrie Miller
March 13, 2018

You may not know it, but the scenery of New Zealand’s South Island — kingly mountains, ethereal rain forests, and golden ribbons of empty beach — has become famous, thanks to films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Wolverine. On March 9, those otherworldly landscapes returned to the big screen in director Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s sci-fi tale A Wrinkle in Time. DuVernay searched for a stand-in for an idyllic planet, and found it in the region of Lake Wanaka — specifically, in the mountains surrounding Lake Hawea, which runs parallel to Wanaka, and at Hunter Valley Station, a 27,000-acre ranch on Hawea’s western shore. These locations lack moviemaking infrastructure, so the cast and crew stayed in Wanaka, a compact township at Lake Wanaka’s southernmost tip (and my home for the past three years). An hour from Queenstown, it’s popular year-round with New Zealanders for its stunning location, variety of outdoor activities, and walkable community that punches above its weight when it comes to food and wine. Here are a few reasons to visit the area beyond its cinematic cachet.

You can experience luxury in the wild.

Piwakawaka Point Villa, on Lake Wanaka.
Courtesy of MajorDomo Limited

Mahu Whenua (doubles from $1,300) is a handsomely appointed modern farmhouse, with two suites and two adjacent cottages, located a 20-minute drive from Wanaka. While the rustic-chic interiors are sumptuous (and the property comes with an in-house chef), it’s the surrounding estate, a wildlife sanctuary on 200 square miles of rugged terrain, that’s a true knockout. A stay includes access to a wealth of adventures, from horseback riding to a helicopter trip to the island’s western coast, where you can catch rock lobster for your evening meal. If you prefer to stay closer to the lake, Queenstown-based rental agency MajorDomo (rentals from $600) offers a wide range of options, from compact apartments in Wanaka to the Piwakawaka Point Villa, an opulent six-bedroom private residence overlooking the water.

The wines are world-class.

Wanaka is part of the Central Otago wine region, the southernmost on the planet. Located on the 45th parallel, the Pinot-friendly climate mirrors that of Bordeaux and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Rippon Vineyard has been owned by the same family for four generations and has views of the lake; Maude Wines, a local (and personal) favorite, runs a tasting room in Wanaka township.

Wanaka is a foodie haven.

The town may be tiny, but it has a surprising number of excellent restaurants. Francesca’s Italian Kitchen (entrées $17–$21) is famous for its antipasti, contorni, and pizza. The popular Bistro Gentil (tasting menu $85) brings French technique to New Zealand produce — look for such mouthwatering dishes as Cardrona merino lamb served with Jerusalem artichokes and hazelnuts.

Cocktail hour comes with a view.

At the bar Gin & Raspberry, an open-air patio surveys Lake Wanaka. Try the namesake cocktail, which was inspired by a drink favored by miners during the 1860s Otago gold rush.

The locals are passionate about coffee.

At work or play, residents can typically be found with a to-go cup in hand. Tucked down an alleyway, Federal Diner (entrées $15–$30) serves high-octane coffee that pairs well with such breakfast treats as grilled banana bread slathered with almond butter. Ritual Espresso Café (18 Helwick St.; 64-3-443-6662) is treasured for its central location and friendly staff — my standard order is Japanese lime tea.

The mountains are as spectacular as the lakes.

A swing bridge in the mountains above Lake Wanaka.
Paul Gregg Travel NZ/Alamy

Pack a picnic lunch and make a day trip to Kidds Bush Reserve, a campsite close to the Neck, where Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka nearly connect. With its mountain peaks that swoop down to golden-green lawns, it’s easy to see why DuVernay chose this spot to represent Paradise in A Wrinkle in Time. The location has a number of hiking options. Choose the half-mile Kidds Bush Nature Walk for an easy loop through a beech forest, or try the Sawyer Burn Track, one of my regular hikes, a 1 1/2-mile uphill climb that rewards you with solitude and spectacular views of the lake.

The landscape looks great from above.

One of the best ways to take in the wild scenery is from a bird’s-eye perspective, courtesy of an aerial tour by Alpine Helicopters. The 20-minute Southern Lakes Highlights tour includes a high-altitude landing, while the Southern Alps Glacier Discovery flight is an hour-plus journey that gives you a rare view of the area’s hundreds of ice-blue glaciers and secluded mountain tarns.

The skiing is rad.

Wanaka residents joke about the “powder clause” in their employment contracts — leeway to sneak in a few downhill runs during a long lunch. There are three ski areas within 45 minutes of town: Cardrona is a family-friendly mountain with the biggest terrain park in the Southern Hemisphere; Treble Cone appeals to seasoned skiers; and Snow Farm is the only cross-country-skiing area in the country. Even during New Zealand’s winter, which runs from July to September, the temperature in Wanaka remains comfortable, so skiers and boarders often end the day dining alfresco. Order a burger on the patio at Red Star Burger Bar (entrées $9–$12), or grab takeout at Erik’s Fish & Chips (entrées $6–$18) and head to a picnic table by the lake.

You can shop for the latest Kiwi styles.

A stroll along Wanaka’s Helwick Street will take you past 47Frocks, a boutique that stocks fashions from local labels, including minimalist cotton basics by Kowtow and stylish handbags by Deadly Ponies. A few doors down, Perriam showcases merino wool with soft blankets and throws, textured dresses, and onesies for infants.

There’s no shortage of aquatic adventures.

With its calm waters, Lake Wanaka is ideal for stand-up paddleboarding.
Courtesy of Lake Wanaka Tourism

At 26 miles long and 1,020 feet deep, Lake Wanaka is New Zealand’s fourth-largest lake, and is a favorite for fishing, boating, and waterskiing. Take a cruise with Eco Wanaka (ecowanaka.co.nz) to Mou Waho Island, where a tour might include sightings of the flightless weka bird. In addition to kayak and paddleboard rentals, Paddle Wanaka offers guided heli-paddleboarding expeditions. A 40-minute flight leads to a secluded mountain lake 3,200 feet above sea level. After exploring by paddleboard, you’ll fly back to shore for a gourmet picnic.

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