Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand’s Adventure Capital Wānaka
Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand's Adventure Capital Wānaka - Ride the Waves at Lake Wānaka
With its impossibly turquoise waters and breathtaking mountain views, Lake Wānaka is the jewel of New Zealand's Southern Alps region. At over 70 square miles, it's the fourth largest lake in New Zealand. This pristine alpine lake is ringed by native beech forests and the snow-capped peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park.
While the lake's postcard-perfect scenery is reason enough to visit, Wānaka also has a secret that adventure seekers love - insane winds. Gusts can reach over 100 km/hr on the lake. These winds transform the placid waters into a windsurfer and kitesurfer paradise from October to April.
I tried windsurfing on Lake Wānaka and it was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. The winds whip up steep chop that gives your board a rollercoaster ride. One second you're skimming smoothly, the next you're catching air off a wave. With the towering mountains as a backdrop, it's an incredible adrenaline rush. The winds are consistent and predictable, making Wānaka one of the top spots in the world for windsurfing and kitesurfing.
If you're learning, you'll want to stick to the southern end of the lake, which is more sheltered from the wind. Newbies can take lessons at operative businesses like Lakeland Adventures. Intermediates will have a blast exploring the middle portion of the lake. Experts can challenge themselves along the gustier northern shores.
To experience Lake Wānaka's winds firsthand, I'd recommend renting gear from Deep Canyon near the lakefront at Damper Bay. The knowledgeable staff will set you up with the perfect board and sailing rig. They also provide wetsuits and jackets to keep you warm on the chilly alpine lake.
While out on the water, keep your eyes peeled for Lake Wānaka's rare, flightless buff weka birds that strut along on the shoreline. You can also paddle out to small islands like Mou Tapu. Watch in awe as paragliders soar above the lake on updrafts created by the very same winds propelling you across the water.
What else is in this post?
- Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand's Adventure Capital Wānaka - Ride the Waves at Lake Wānaka
- Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand's Adventure Capital Wānaka - Hike to Rob Roy Glacier for Jaw-Dropping Views
- Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand's Adventure Capital Wānaka - Go Canyoning Down Waterfalls in Mount Aspiring National Park
- Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand's Adventure Capital Wānaka - Bike and Brew at Cardrona Distillery
- Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand's Adventure Capital Wānaka - Star Gaze at Dark Sky Reserve
Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand's Adventure Capital Wānaka - Hike to Rob Roy Glacier for Jaw-Dropping Views
Tucked away in Mount Aspiring National Park, Rob Roy Glacier is one of New Zealand's hidden gems that delivers truly jaw-dropping alpine scenery. This moderate 9.5km out and back hike takes you through beech forests and over suspension bridges to reach the glacier's termini. While quite touristy, the crowds thin once you get past the first kilometer from the car park. The track then opens up to sweeping vistas of the glacier valley that will make you stop in your tracks.
As you continue along the trail, keep your eyes peeled for thundering avalanches. These snow slides calving off the distant peaks echo through the valley - a raw reminder of nature's power. The path crosses over Rob Roy Stream several times on swing bridges that sway and creak. Stop on the bridges to take in views down the milky blue waters to the glacier.
The terminus finally comes into full view about 3km in. Here, the milky blue ice tumbles down the mountains to the valley floor. The crevasses and jagged peaks of the Main Divide make for an unbelievable backdrop. Find a comfortable rock or fallen log to sit and soak it all in. Watch and listen as hunks of ice crack off and come crashing down. But always keep a safe distance from the glacier’s face.
The return trip follows the same track so remember to save some of that jaw-dropping scenery for the hike out. I highly recommend bringing a packed lunch to enjoy along the route. Find a sunny spot on one of the bridges or by the river to take in the tranquil surroundings while you refuel.
While Rob Roy Track is suitable for fit hikers of most abilities, be sure to pack for changing alpine conditions. The weather at the glacier can turn quickly so bring layers. And wear sturdy hiking boots with good traction for stream crossings along potential muddy sections. Check forecasts and avoid the hike in poor weather when the swing bridges and riverbanks can become hazardous.
Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand's Adventure Capital Wānaka - Go Canyoning Down Waterfalls in Mount Aspiring National Park
Among New Zealand's most thrilling outdoor pursuits, canyoning down the waterfalls of Mount Aspiring National Park will get your heart pounding. This adventure sport involves climbing, jumping, sliding, and abseiling (rappelling) down a canyon. With its rugged peaks and glacial-fed waterways, Mount Aspiring serves up some of the South Island's best canyoning.
The national park's waterfalls range from gentle trickles to raging torrents. At the Triple Creek Canyons near Wanaka, you'll rappel over 15m and take leaps of faith into crystal clear pools. These beginner-friendly descents let you get the hang of canyoning. For a bigger adrenaline hit, check out the Upper Dart River Canyons closer to Glenorchy. Here, experienced canyoners plunge over 30m waterfalls surrounded by sheer schist walls. The descents end with a frothy whitewater tubing excursion down the Dart - the perfect way to unwind after the thrills.
I joined Wanaka Rock Climbing to try canyoning for my first time. After a safety briefing, we hiked 45 minutes into the Rob Roy Valley through beech forest. Emerging from the trees, I caught my first glimpse of our waterfall - three cascading tiers totaling over 60m. We roped up and my guide demonstrated the first rappel. I tentatively backed over the edge, my heart in my throat. But I quickly got the hang of the maneuvers. Before I knew it, I was plunging through the final cascade's chilly downpour, letting out a triumphant whoop.
Canyoning opens up a hidden world in the mountains. As you descend water-scoured rock faces, it's just you and the elements. Crystal pools at the base of falls offer a cool reprieve between rappels. Look for rainbows in the mist and glimpses of kea - New Zealand's supersmart alpine parrots. With each waterfall conquered, your confidence builds. By day's end you'll be leaping into the void without hesitation.
To try canyoning, I recommend Wanaka Rock Climbing or Deep Canyon. No experience is necessary for intro guided trips. But be prepared to get wet and muddy on these action-packed excursions. Bring quick-drying clothing, sturdy shoes, and a waterproof camera case if you want pics. Check weather beforehand since canyoning is unsafe in floods or electrical storms. Avoid canyoning alone or without proper gear - the risks of accidents or hypothermia are severe.
Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand's Adventure Capital Wānaka - Bike and Brew at Cardrona Distillery
Tucked away in the Cardrona Valley just 15 minutes drive from Wānaka, you’ll find the craft brewing mecca that is Cardrona Distillery. This mountainside microbrewery uses pure Wānaka water from the nearby Cardrona Springs to create their lineup of drinks. Sip a flight of their handcrafted vodka, gin, and liqueurs at the tasting room bar. Or pedal your way there, Kiwi-style. Joining a brewery bike tour is my top tip for experiencing this hidden gem.
Biking to Cardrona Distillery combines New Zealand’s twin passions - craft beer and the outdoors. I joined Wānaka Bike Tours for their half day ride out to the distillery. We cruised along the lakeside Clutha River Trail on e-bikes. The electric assist let us breeze through the gentle hills and take in the scenery. Our guide enlightened us on the area’s history - from Maori legends to the 19th century gold rush.
After working up a thirst, we rolled up to the distillery thirsty for a drink. The tasting room deck offers picture-perfect views of the surrounding peaks. While sampling their spirits, I learned how Cardrona handcrafts each batch from locally sourced ingredients. Their vodka showcases the purity of Wānaka’s glacial waters. And the rich, smooth Brewers Gin gets its botanical flavor from 12 locally foraged plants.
Sipping my G&T on the sunny deck with new friends was a highlight of my trip. Our tour ended with a leisurely freewheel back to town, letting the mountain breeze cool us down. I highly recommend doing the Cardrona tasting by bike. The scenic ride makes you feel like a local while the e-bikes do all the hard work. And rolling from brewery to brewery means you can sip worry-free.
Wānaka Bike Tours offers private or small group tours. Or do it yourself by renting bikes in town. From Wānaka, take the Outlet Track to the Cardrona Valley Road. Then it's a gentle 3km uphill pedal to the distillery. Fuel up pre-ride - those generous tasting samples can sneak up on you! And be sure to book a shuttle back if you'd rather not pedal under the influence.
Hidden Gems and Outdoor Thrills: How to Live Like a Local in New Zealand's Adventure Capital Wānaka - Star Gaze at Dark Sky Reserve
Look up to the heavens on clear nights in Wānaka and you’ll behold a sight that’s become increasingly rare - a luminous night sky brimming with countless stars. This region of New Zealand’s South Island is one of the world’s finest places for stargazing thanks to its Dark Sky Reserve. The reserve protects the area from light pollution, keeping the Milky Way vividly visible. Gazing at the billions of twinkling stars and galaxies above Lake Wānaka is an experience that will leave you awe-struck.
The Wānaka region was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012. This makes it one of only 12 Dark Sky Reserves on the planet. The prestigious status is thanks to efforts by locals to limit artificial lighting. Nearby towns use shielded streetlights that reduce glare. And many businesses voluntarily switch off lights after hours. This allows the celestial show overhead to shine brighter than most people have ever witnessed.
Looking up from Wānaka on cloudless nights, your eyes will be drawn to the Milky Way. This galaxy appears as a creamy swath painted across the sky’s black canvas. In the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll see the galactic center and several glowing nebulae that are oriented differently than in the Northern Hemisphere. Shooting stars frequently streak overhead as earth passes through meteor showers. Keep watch near the Milky Way’s center to spot these magical zips of light.
While you can stargaze from almost anywhere around Lake Wānaka, two spots stand out. Roy’s Peak is a moderately strenuous hike rewarding summit hikers with 360° views of the starry skies and lake below. For more leisurely stargazing, head to the Wānaka Waterfront. Here you can relax in the grassy Millennium Park and use the lake as a reflective surface to double the number of visible stars.
No trip to Wānaka is complete without joining a stargazing tour. Knowledgeable guides will point outconstellations like Orion and share Māori legends about the stars overhead. They’ll also set up telescopes for you to see celestial objects like the Jewel Box star cluster up close. Seeing the craters of the moon and rings of Saturn through the lens is an experience you’ll never forget.
Stargazing excursions like those led by Wānaka Night Sky will provide telescopes and astronomy expertise. Or opt for a multi-sensory experience like Standing Room Only’s Encounter Dark Sky Tour. This tour combines stargazing with a performance art piece on humans’ relation to the cosmos. As you gaze at the infinity above, guides will play live music timed with shooting stars.