Celebrate the splendour of autumn in one of New Zealand’s finest lakeside holiday havens, that celebrates every distinct season with style and passion. Escape to play in Wānaka, writes Mike Yardley.
Mellow and majestic in equal measure, with a serrated mountain backdrop and glacial-fed water, the mesmerising lakeside setting of Wānaka sets the stage for happy holiday frolics. As autumn takes hold, there’s really something quite magical about the flaming hues that torch the trees so theatrically – best exemplified by that vast sweep of lakeside Lombardy poplars. The depth of the leaf fall along the lake edge track in deep autumn is the stuff of legend – a blizzard of crinkled brown and gold recasting the landscape and crunching under your feet.
Even #thatwanakatree, which actually began life over 70 years ago as a willow fence post, looks all the more self-important in its seasonal golden coat. Encircling the perky tourist town, a formidable arsenal of outdoorsy adventure options seems to expand on every visit. But if you’ve had your fill of adrenaline-inducing activities and virtuous work-outs on the region’s magnificent trails, why not focus your energy on more languid and leisurely indulgences, grazing, noshing and quaffing from the town’s resplendent array of temptations?
Wānaka offers far more choice than you’d expect from a town this size. Fresh local produce, brilliant wines, a buzzing craft beer industry and superb café culture all combine to power a sparkling hospitality scene, bursting with verve and variety. Here’s a round-up of some of my favourite venues.
It’s an institution to rival that Wānaka tree, Kai Whakapai. Food made good. With a sunny sprawl of outdoor tables and eclectic Kiwi décor, it’s a go-to for comfort food throughout the day, before morphing into a relaxed bar after dark. The cool kids love it. If you’re idea of breakfast entails downing a Mimosa or Bloody Mary, you’ve come to the right place. Don’t miss their delicious Duck Bao Buns and Katsu Fried Chicken later in the day, over sundowner cocktails.
With an unmistakeable Middle Eastern accent, Big Fig is a headline café where everything is made in-house, the luscious meat is free-range and slow-cooked, the legendary salads burst with flavour and they boast a stunning range of vegan and vegetarian dishes. Choose from small, medium or large servings and take your tastebuds on an exotic journey. I headed there for breakfast and drooled over the hot cabinet options, including one of my all-time brekky faves, shakshuka. They do a very fine version.
For breakfast on the run, grab their gozlemes. Their take on this Turkish classic consists of fried pitta dough filled with harissa chicken, spicy potato and onion, egg and spiced tomato or creamy mushroom. Wow! Later in the day, if you’ve earned the reward of dessert after busting your gut in Wānaka’s great outdoors, or duly conquered the summit of Mount Iron as your personal fitness regime, enjoy the surrender of their divine honey fig cheesecake. You deserve it.
A much loved Wānaka café that the locals scoot to is Federal Diner, snugly hidden down a little lane off Helwick Street. This town sure loves its scones and Federal Diner is swooned over for its cheese and date scones. When they’re gone, they’re gone! Lunch is all about inventive sandwiches, salads and blackboard specials, but dinner is the stand-out. My menu pick? Slow roasted merino lamb shoulder with white bean cassoulet and salsa verde.
With a distinctly Scandi-inspired fit out with lots of blonde wood, a polished concrete floor, and in keeping with Wānaka’s outdoorsy credentials, Scroggin is a recent addition to the café culture on Ardmore Street. The cabinet features sweet and savoury options with a clear focus on healthy snacks, while the all day menu incorporates a mix of fresh, savoury options and comfort classics like a Reuben.
Scroggin’s owner, Lucy Conway, puts a lot of emphasis on plant-based food, seeking to ensure diners feel energised by what they eat, ready to go out and enjoy the outdoors, rather than feeling sleepy after a big meal. For breakfast, I plumped for a tofu, jalapeno and avocado bagel from the cabinet. It was undeniably delicious and fuelled me up for an active morning ahead.
For cheap eats and food to go, the colourful food truck scene is always good fun. An eclectic array of offerings can be found at the Brownston Street food trucks market. Don’t miss the fried chicken from Firebird. Further down the road, opposite the gorgeous Cinema Paradiso, an essential pastime is to pop by Charlie Brown’s retro caravan. An 8 year old institution, this is the go-to for French crepes and savoury galettes. Crêpes are not only a sweet delicacy. The traditional “galette” is a savoury crêpe meal made from gluten-free organic buckwheat flour.
I’ve always had a soft-spot for Cinema Paradiso, where you can spread out on a comfy couch, recline in a dentist’s chair or sprawl in old Morris Minor, while catching a flick. Wānaka is also home to another eclectic boutique cinema, Ruby’s, which channels a whiff of cinema’s glory age with a lush New York vibe. You can catch a flick from a reclining leather chair with a blanket, or just relax in red-velvet lounge bar.
Travelling with kids. You cannot miss the National Toy and Transport Museum, touted as the Southern Hemisphere’s largest private collection open to the public, with over 60,000 aircraft, vehicles and toys on display. The museum’s founder, Mr Gerald Rhodes, established his own car and truck wrecking business, allowing him to be in the right places to pick up “bargains”.
The museum is now run by his children, with a variety of exhibits that has something for the whole family. Blending Smurfs with Skidoos and Studebakers, plus a MiG jet fighter flown by the Polish Air Force, this outrageously eclectic collection is a treasure chest and toy box of epic proportions. I love it.
One of my earliest childhood memories of family holidays is of heading to Puzzling World which has continued to expand and refresh its enticements over the course of its 50 years. From its humble beginnings as a simple wooden maze in 1973 to today’s head swirl of attractions, Puzzling World is unquestionably a tourism landmark in these parts. From the Great Maze to the Illusion Rooms, there’s a myriad of brain-benders to keep the entire family amused and bewildered. Even the café tables come equipped with puzzles. Get amongst it!
Truth be told, one of the timeless family pastimes in town is free – there’s much to be said in indulging in the simple pleasures of soaking up all of the various lakeside strolls, and letting the kids go crazy crunching all of those leaves under their feet. You’re spoilt for choice.
Home to four craft breweries and eight wineries, nothing quite beats tasting the local produce when in Wānaka. Wanaka Beerworks is the town’s long-established boutique brewery, purring into life in 1998 to produce their handcrafted range of beers include the Brewski Pilsner, Cardrona Gold Lager, Jabberwocky Pale Ale and LakeCider Dry Apple Cider. Tours and tastings are available at the brewery, but it’s hard not to fall in love with the flagship tipple, their fabulous Bohemian lager, Brewski. While you’re visiting Beerworks, check out New Zealand’s first craft beer vending machine.
You don’t need coins to operate the machine. It’s a push, then pay at the counter set-up. Check out Ground Up Brewing in Gordon Road and their funky taproom. Brewing over 200 beers in the last seven years, they showcase the best of the bunch in their taproom, whether you’re keen for a pint or tasting paddle.
Also on Gordon Road, pop into Rhyme & Reason Brewery. This sunny spot in the backblocks of Wānaka has some serious hoppy goodness going on within its walls. The macrocarpa interior, cosy armchairs and custom graffiti artwork inject ambience and colour to this fully operational brew house.
Beckoning like a one-stop-shop and a gateway to the world of specialty wine, fine spirits, and craft beer, Pembroke Wines & Spirits is a most salubrious venue. It’s a boutique bottle shop, lounge bar & tasting room all-in-one. If you want to hit the wine trail, I definitely recommend Paddon’s Paddock, headed up by Hayden Paddon’s parents. It’s a gorgeous, unpretentious family winery.
Maude Wine’s stylish tasting room is situated just above the township. Maude’s Single Vineyard range of pinot noirs are deliciously expressive. And how could you not pay homage to the original winery in Wānaka, the soothingly picturesque Rippon Vineyard, rising up the terrace from the lake edge? Or one of Central Otago’s iconic pinot noir producers, Nanny Goat?
An indelible way to get your fill of wine tastings and a sense of place is to hook up with Joe Waide from Wanahaka. He offers a unique wine tour experience that blends a host of tastings at local wineries with a dollop of local history and culture. His tour experience connects the wines and land with Māori culture and the history of the area. He offers of variety of options, but the e-bike tour is the way to go!
I had the pleasure of meeting up with Joe for a blast around the edge of the endlessly photo-friendly lake, gleaning all manner of intriguing nuggets from him. You could not ask for a more engaging, authentic and insightful local guide. https://www.wanahaka.co.nz/
Where to stay? At the town end of Mt Aspiring Road, you could not wish for a more enchanting stay than at Edgewater Wānaka. It’s the only accommodation in town that boasts an absolute lakefront position, edged by those winning waters, prized poplars and rolling velvety lawn. It is elemental tranquillity par excellence.
Dotted across the expansive site, all of the 1 and 2 bedroom self-contained apartments feature modern furnishings and lip-smacking vistas from the pampered comfort of your spacious living area. Bliss-out, relax, unwind and indulge. It’s that sense of space that is so precious. Wineglass Café is an alluring on-site venue that spills outside for an al-fresco vibe, with dining across the day, including flavourful snacks like their famed super scones.
Yes, they have a tantalising menu of scones, spanning ingenious flavour creations like Apple scones with salted caramel and mascarpone to Crystallised Ginger scones with rhubarb & lime compote and whipped cream. I’m in heaven. Dinner at the resort is a must.
Under the culinary helm of executive chef, Chris Nelson, Edgewater offers contemporary cuisine inspired by the local land. The menu is anchored by a sustainability ethos, sourcing produce that is thoughtfully grown and harvested. The abundance of quality Central Otago ingredients are to the fore. My recommended picks from the dinner menu?
Autumnal Gnocchi which is accompanied with pumpkin puree, salt baked beetroot, kale and ajo blanco. You’ll also adore their Stuffed Pork Belly, which includes field mushrooms, rocket, olive oil mash and quince aioli. Beyond the dining delights, the resort’s extensive facilities include a tennis court, BBQ, spa and sauna and children’s play area.
If you’re planning a family holiday, Edgewater is offering some sizzling family packages, including complimentary breakfast and complimentary dinner for children when dining with a paying adult. Check out the full range of options and treat yourself to a wonderful getaway in Wānaka. https://www.edgewater.co.nz/
Nourish the soul with an autumn escape in Wānaka. Crisp air, incredible colours and the ideal temperature for some hearty adventures. Hit the trails by bike or on foot, there’s canyoning and rock climbing to size up, glaciers to gaze at and family frolics galore, and an epic food and drinks scene to explore. Escape to play in Wānaka. https://www.lakewanaka.co.nz/