Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – New Zealand chapter on Queenstown and Wanaka has to say about Wanaka:
“With overgrown valleys, unspoiled rivers and tumbling glaciers, the Wanaka region is crowned with the colossal Mt Aspiring (Tititea; 3035m), the highest peak outside the Mt Cook region. Enter this area from the north via Haast Pass, and you encounter Lakes Wanaka and Hawea, wedged between awesome hills and cliffs. From the south via Cardrona, stunning valley views and mountain vistas are on tap. The Wanaka region, and especially the activity-filled town of Wanaka itself, is seeing more and more travellers, but it’s still quieter than Queenstown. It’s also very easy to escape the town’s growing tourist buzz by exploring Mt Aspiring National Park or the forested wilderness around Makarora.
Beautiful scenery, tramping and skiing opportunities and a huge roster of adrenaline-inducing activities have transformed the lakeside town of Wanaka into a year-round tourist destination. Travellers come here as an alternative to Queenstown, and while some locals worry their home is starting to resemble its hyped-up Central Otago sibling across the Crown Range, Wanaka’s lakefront area retains a laid-back, small-town feel. It’s definitely not a sleepy hamlet anymore, though, and new restaurants and bars are adding a veneer of sophistication.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Our guidebook describes approaching the Wanaka Range area from the north, and we were going in the opposite direction so we weren’t exactly sure what we would encounter as we left Queenstown heading north. It didn’t help that there was a long line of low clouds obscuring the landscape above the green valley. Before long we were on a twisting, winding road with many hairpin turns that took us up the side of the valley and into the clouds.
I was a little worried that it would be completely socked in and that we might miss the vistas that we had expected to see along the drive. We stopped at a couple of viewpoints as I was doing the driving and couldn’t really see the scenery, as I had to keep my eyes on the road. It also gave me a chance to take some photos to share with my journal visitors.
I was delighted when we got to highest ridges and found that the clouds were dissipating and the landscape was completely different than anything we’d seen so far in all of New Zealand. We were above the tree line and the high hills were cloaked in waving grasses that already looked like they were beginning to change colour as autumn approached.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted three people standing on the edge of a ridge. I wouldn’t have thought much of it, but one of the people was wearing white, and then I realized that a photographer was taking wedding photos for a bride and groom. I stopped the car and took some photos myself, partly because it seemed such an unlikely location and partly because I’d heard long ago that it’s good luck to come upon a wedding when travelling. I’ll take luck wherever I find it!
We carried along at this higher altitude and seemed to be going neither up now down, but moving though an area where there were very few people living, but we when we came to a little hamlet called Cardrona, we stopped to pick up some hot coffee and some pastries. It turns out this area is very popular with trail riders and here and there we saw interesting B&B accommodations. One in particular was called ‘The Gallows’ and the signage on their gate was gruff, but
inviting at the same time!
An hour and a half after leaving the Queenstown area, we arrived at Lake Wanaka. It would have been a good place to stop for lunch, but we had already had coffee and pastries so we weren’t hungry. We decided to stop and wander through the main street just to stretch out legs, because our map directions told us we had plenty of time to reach Fox Glacier later in the day.
I spotted a men’s clothing shop with a sale rack outside, and ending up picking up a nice long-sleeved shirt for Anil. When he wears it now, we are reminded of our lovely drive through the Wanaka region. We headed back to the car and on the way out of town some bright colourful buildings caught my eye and I pulled over to have a look.
It turns out we had happened on one of the most unusual attraction we’d seen since we stopped at Oamaru on the East Coast. It was called Puzzling World, and here’s what I read about it on Wikipedia:
“Stuart Landsborough's Puzzling World is a tourist attraction near Wanaka, New Zealand. It began as a single storey maze in 1973, gradually expanding to become an award-winning complex of optical illusions and puzzling rooms and the world's first 3-D maze. Puzzling World is best known for its Leaning Tower of Wanaka and eccentric lavatory styled as a Roman bathroom. As of 2013 Puzzling World had received in excess of 3 million visitors and now attracts around a quarter of a million people a year.”
We would have both loved to stop and explore the Puzzling World, but neither of us felt we could spare the time from the road. I did take a few photos from the outside, that give a little of the sense of fun that must be inside the walls. Later, when I checked to see if there were any YouTube videos about the features of Puzzling World, I was even more sorry that we had to give it a pass. You might want to check the videos yourself.
The highway heading west eventually entered into the Mount Aspiring National Park and our next break was at the FanTail Falls. The falls were just a few minutes walk from the parking lot, and though they were attractive, the water level was relatively low this late in the summer. It must be something to see in the spring when the meltwater from the surrounding mountains is flowing through the park.
We took a short walk after stopping at the falls, because the whole riverbed was lined with stacks of river rock that tourists has amused themselves by building. There was a wheelchair accessible path through the moss-covered trees, and once again, I was reminded of the mossy forests along the Pacific coasts of British Columbia back home.
We climbed back into our car and set off over the Haast Pass, eventually following the route of the Haast River and it tumbled down towards the Tasman Sea. I stopped at one point, just beyond a small bridge to photograph the river and a funny sign that read ‘The Gates Of Haast’. Anil told me not to venture out onto the bridge, but we hadn’t seen another vehicle for miles and I thought it would be safe. Murphy’s Law stuck again! I was on the middle of the bridge when a large semi arrived at the far end and began to make its way across.
I was sure the truck driver would be annoyed at having to slow down, but after seeing me scurry to safety, he just gave me a big smile, and a wave as he overtook our parked car. New Zealanders seem to be a friendly lot, as far as we could make out.