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Located in the bottom half of New Zealand’s South Island, about an hour’s drive from Queenstown, Wanaka is tucked beside its namesake lake and ringed by snowcapped peaks. The small town (population roughly 8,400) crackles with fresh air and hums with adrenaline, making it an outdoor adventurer’s dream. Every season brings its own beauty, from spring‘s bright green carpet on the mountain slopes to fall’s moody morning mists and golden foliage. (Read more about one of New Zealand's most epic drives.)
No matter the time of year, residents and travelers find plenty of heart-pumping ways to take in the scenery, whether it’s on foot, by boat, atop skis, or in a vintage biplane. Fair warning, though: You may find yourself planning to make a permanent move.
From the ground
The gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park, Wanaka offers more than 460 miles of trails. Locals regularly hoof it along the Mount Iron Track, a 547-foot climb that rewards efforts with 360-degree views of the town and Lake Wanaka. Most travelers make a beeline to the Instagram-famous Roy’s Peak Track, but the Rob Roy Glacier Track and the Diamond Lake trails feature the same eye-popping views with fewer crowds. Pro tip: The area’s beauty and the proximity of wilderness to town can lull first-timers into a false sense of security, so stop by the Mount Aspiring National Park Visitor Centre in Wanaka to get the lay of the land. Local companies can arrange guided hikes.
On the water
Lake Wanaka is a 28-mile-long ribbon of indigo plunging 1,020 feet deep. Its temperatures run cool, but that doesn’t deter locals from sailing, waterskiing, fishing, and boating. For a relaxing introduction to the lake, hop aboard an Eco Wanaka cruise to the island of Mou Waho, which has its own lake. Wanaka River Journeys provides jet-boat rides up ice-blue waterways that are too shallow for conventional craft. Another delightful diversion? Renting a kayak from Paddle Wanaka on a late afternoon in the summertime, when the heat is at its strongest. Take a refreshing glide out to the lake’s Ruby Island, a popular spot for picnicking and strolling that’s less than a mile from the shore.
In the air
Hands down the best way to see Wanaka is from high up. The sheer scale of wild beauty that stretches out below is jaw-dropping: glaciers cling to craggy peaks, tarns (glacier-formed mountain lakes) gleam like gemstones, and a curtain of mist hangs over the Tasman Sea coastline. With an airport a few miles from town (currently for small aircraft only; no commercial flights), it’s easy to book an outing on a helicopter, Cessna, or 1940s open cockpit Tiger Moth for a scenic flight, heli-hike, heli-bike, or heli-ski. During winter (June through September), skiers take to the powder at nearby sites such as Cardrona and Treble Cone for downhill and Snow Farm for cross-country. (Discover the best places to snowboard and surf in New Zealand.)
Contributing editor Carrie Miller is the author of 100 Dives of a Lifetime, from National Geographic Books.
This story was published in the December/January 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.