“The mountains are calling and I must go” said John Muir. I always feel this pull, a curiosity and desire, to explore the mountains which is a huge reason I find myself in New Zealand right now. There’s something about the the wildness of forests and mountains that makes me feel more free and full of life. So I knew I had to venture to the South Island in winter to witness the majestic Southern Alps coated in snow.
My travel buddy, Sara, and I got lucky because a fresh coat of snow was dumped on Wanaka and Queenstown area just a few days before we arrived. I typically choose a window seat when I fly because you never know what kind of incredible view you will see from above and the flight into Queenstown does not disappoint! So definitely snag a window seat if you are flying into the South Island.
Upon landing in Queenstown we picked up our rental car from Go Rentals and started driving north to Wanaka. It’s about a one and a half hour drive and there’s two ways to go. One route is shorter and through the mountains called the Cardrona Pass and the other is a longer but flatter route through Cromwell. In retrospect we probably should have driven the longer route since it was winter and with fresh snow the roads were not the safest but I don’t regret the snow mountain views nor our lunch at the Cardrona Hotel!
The Cardrona Hotel, established in 1863, is one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels and restaurants and is one of two lasting reminders of the Cardrona Valley gold rush era. It reminded me of being back in the American Old West in the Rockies of Colorado or the Sierra Nevada in California. The gold rush rose and fast quickly in Cardrona, but the Cardrona Hotel perservered and remained a significant post into the 20th century even after the miners left the empty gold hills behind.
Like hundreds of travelers before me, I arrived at the Cardrona Hotel with a hungry tummy! We walked through the original not-up-to-today’s-standard-height doorway into a warm pub full of travelers alike. I ordered the pulled pork sandwich and dined with a snow-capped view of the grounds around the hotel and restaurant. The grounds include a fire pit outside the restaurant where you can roast marshmallows, which sounds like the perfect winter activity, but as an American girl who loves s’mores I must warn you that marshmallows in New Zealand are…different; and well in my opinion they are just not good haha. They are raspberry flavored and it is a cultural difference I do not understand or enjoy. But Kiwis love it and I can’t argue with that. 🙂
With full bellies we finished the drive to Wanaka, and checked into our hostel, Base Wanaka. Wanaka is a resort town along the southern shores of Lake Wanaka with a population of around 8,000, so there are not a ton of affordable accommodation to choose from but I recommend Base Wanaka for it’s perfect location in town just a five minute walk to the beach, numerous restaurants and shops and across the street from the movie theater for cold winter night entertainment. Also, to my excitement there was an amazing crepe stand, Charlie Brown, just next door to Base Wanaka that is delicious and wonderful!
After checking in, we drove over to the Lake Wanaka iSite Visitor Centre to buy our bus pass and lift tickets for tomorrow to Treble Cone Ski Resort. Nearly every city in New Zealand, even the smaller ones, have an iSite and they are great resources for local activities, tickets, passes, directions and any general information!
By this time it was entering the evening and I wanted to see the famous That Wanaka Tree before the sun set. A couple minute drive or 15 minute walk from the main street in Wanaka, the That Wanaka Tree (aka The Lone Tree) has become very famous to outsiders with the introduction of social media and the ability of photographers to share their work rapidly and globally. Really I feel like New Zealand in general has greatly benefited from social media and the easy visibility for people all over the world to see the breathtaking landscape of this remote country. Of course the Lord of the Rings movies immensely boosted the tourism and that coincidentally aligns with the creation of social media platforms in the past decade. But I digress, That Wanaka Tree is a photographers dream not to be missed and it’s an easy target to hit whether you are passing through or staying over in the beautiful lakeside Wanaka. A trip to the South Island would not be complete without a visit to the most photographed tree in the world!
After our (frigid) sunset stroll on the beach, we headed back into town and since we ate a late lunch at the Cardrona Hotel we just walked to the supermarket next to our hostel and bought cheese and crackers for dinner and went to bed early for a full day of adventuring in the morning!
Our first stop the next morning was to grab crepes next door at Charlie Brown Crepes! Such a lovely convenience especially on a crisp winter morning. Then we hopped on our bus to Treble Cone Ski Resort where we would get to explore the snowy mountains! My goal of this trip! As I said earlier we had previously purchased our bus transportation and lift tickets from the Lake Wanaka iSite for $50 and this also included a free pizza and hot chocolate at the top of the lift. Pretty good deal. I regret not having the funds to afford to snowboard on these marvelous Southern Alps but I guess I need to leave a few activities for my return visit to NZ one day ;).
Treble Cone is about an hour and a half drive from Wanaka and I’m thankful we bought the bus tickets so that we didn’t have to drive the steep, narrow and icy roads up the mountain. Much more relaxing to sit back and take in the scenery.
Sara and I spent a good few hours at Treble Cone enjoying our hot chocolate while watching the skiers and snowboarders and even playing in the snow a bit. In the afternoon, we took the bus back to Wanaka and continued to explore the charming town. Wanaka was a fishing and hunting stop for the Maori on their way to the West Coast of the South Island. Later in the 1870s when gold was discovered, it became a gold rush boom town, and after the gold faded away it continued on as a high country farming town. Today, tourism is the main source of economy and I can easily see how that is a thriving industry for Wanaka as I walked around and admired the serene beauty of the lake and mountains. In my short time in New Zealand I can already imagine that Wanaka will be my favorite city!
By the time the sun set our tummies were rumbling, and I had the most amazing dinner in my entire life. I would fly back to New Zealand just to eat another meal here! We happened upon WGK by chance, as we tried restaurant after restaurant and all had long waits (the downside of a small town full of hungry skiers and snowboarders). We finally found WGK, a gourmet restaurant, that could seat us straight away. Sara ordered their Mushroom Risotto which was heavenly rich and delicious, and I ordered their Eye Fillet that comes served raw on a Stonegrill, which is heated at 400C and you simply slice your meat, allow to sear and cook to your liking. I hemmed and hawed at the idea at first but after the fillet literally melted in my mouth I became a huge fan of Stonegrill Dining, which I found out is quite popular in New Zealand.
Day Three in Wanaka began with a trip to the local bakery and chocolatier, Patagonia. Since moving to New Zealand I have become quite the coffee drinker and Kiwis are very proud of their coffee. The flat white was invented here (so the story goes if you hear it from a Kiwi), and it’s similar to a latte but with less foam. It wasn’t until New Zealand that I could drink coffee without heaps of sugar added to my drink which proves to me how smooth their coffee must be. And to pair with my delicious flat white I ordered the croissant platter and yes I did eat them all!! A big snow had rolled in through the night and many of the roads had been closed in the morning so we waited it out at Patagonia, sipping our coffee and eating our pastries while taking in the view of the mountains and Lake Wanaka, before making the hour drive to Mount Aspiring National Park for some hiking.
The snow and rain was not going to keep me away from visiting the Blue Pools at Mount Aspiring National Park! Ever since I saw them featured in a National Geographic photographer’s Instagram post it was a “must see” on my bucket list for New Zealand. The hike to the Blue Pools is an easy trek for all ages. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the parking lot and you have a lovely hike through beech forest down to a swing bridge over the Makarora River and then to another bridge overlooking the Blue Pools up the river gorge.
That magnificently vibrant blue color is an incredible sight to behold. Likely due to the crappy weather there were not many people around us and we were able to enjoy the tranquil sounds of rushing water and take in the beauty of the pools. If it hadn’t been late in the day already we probably would have hiked more in the area, but even if you only come to see the Blue Pools the drive from Wanaka is definitely worth it!
Our last day in Wanaka was short, so we headed back towards Queenstown, driving the longer but safer route back through Cromwell, and had a quick walk around the Queenstown harbor. There are no evening flights out of Queenstown so make sure you plan accordingly. I’m excited to return to Queenstown later this month to properly explore this “Adventure Capital of the World”!