Wild mountains, rugged scenery, transparent shimmering turquoise lakes and spiralling trees make Lake Wanaka on South Island, like many of the ranges in the region, a hub for sports and activities. The hiking, skiing and cycling are regularly voted some of the world’s best.
Sheltered by the Mount Aspiring range from the wet winds of the west, and the well-named ‘The Remarkables’ mountain range in the east, the clear, natural light, awesome defined hills and craggy rocks make for an inspiring environment. Yet,as much as the adventure activities thrive here and in nearby Queenstown, Wanaka has a lot more to offer.
Having had my fill of skydiving, rafting and swinging –and with no desire to do a bungee – I headed to Wanaka for thrills of a different kind: a weekend of wheels, wine and wings. So if you too are inspired by the scenery of Queenstown and the Central Otago region, but looking for something a little different, take the 70km road to Wanaka.
My weekend kicks off with dinner and drinks at The White House, Wanaka’s most-loved restaurant among locals.Books are scattered around, the windows are blurred in the evening sun, pomodoro paste tins are used to serve the bill,and owner Peter is an eccentric blend of old-time food lover and punk rocker. The food is all local, an ever-changing blackboard reflecting what is on offer and in season. Last minute the chef garnishes my salad with prunes from the over-abundant plum trees in Martin’s Orchard this year, and the herbs were all grown on site. A self-confessed wine lover himself, the list is great, and handing me my first glass of Central Otago Pinot Noir, Pete warns me: “This will change your life.”
It was a great introduction to the grape that makes up 70% of all those grown in the area. As one of the warmest, the coldest, and the driest regions in the world, the climate and the soil in the area is unique, meaning that so is everything growing here – including grapes. Alpine ranges, glacial layers, and a sometimes tropical warmth make for depth of colour, natural stability and profound intensity resulting in a complex red that thrives on the unique terroir.
At Georgetown Winery, a small boutique vineyard and winemaker housed in a tiny stone house that is in fact the only remaining building from the old Georgetown, I sample a 2009 that is light in feel yet strong in flavour – there’s a lot of strawberry, vanilla and toasted tobacco, a result of the mineral-rich soils seen in the dry, craggy stacked schist.
At 45 degrees latitude, Central Otago is the most southerly wine making region. Although not as famous as its equivalent in the north, Burgandy, fame and notoriety are building and have come a long way since those first vines were planted by gold miner Jean Desire Ferand in the 1870s.
Tradition doesn’t mean that there is no room for innovation, and any toast isn’t complete without a little fizz from family-owned Aurum Wines, the only makers in this part of the valley to make a Champagne-style wine, but one that offers a fruity palette representative of the Otago.
One of the most glamorous and frivolous ways to explore Lake Wanaka is on a Funny French Car tour, especially if you want to sample some more of those wines. I travel aboard a 1954 mauve Citroen Traction Big 54, and rarely have I seen sights with such flair. Deane and Julie have lived in the region for more than 17 years and, having trained as a car painter and renovated many vehicles himself, Dean has a passion for the vehicles and the scenery that’s infectious. He takes me to one of his favourite spots for dinner, a highlight a little further down the road at Wild Earth. Just a short drive from Wanaka the Cromwell basin is famous for its fruit, and owner Quintin has been growing grapes here for 10 years. Good fruit makes good wine, and the Pinot Gris in particular is gorgeous; fruity but not sweet, crisp but without the acidity, and perfect as part of their tasting platters.
Six different wines are paired with fresh and local dishes such as hare atop parsnip mash, seared salmon and pineapple chutney, paua (sea snail) risotto, orange and courgette salad and pork belly with polenta, all served on slate and timber, followed by date, coconut and cocoa truffles to rival any Swiss chocolate maker (and I would know, I gorged on plenty that evening).
The scenery continuously startles me with its beauty, but the best way to really appreciate the stunning landscape of Lake Wanaka is by air: from a Tigermoth Bi-plane ZK-ALJ, no less, flown in service for the first time in 1941 as a military trainer. I’m flying with Classic Flights and I have to admit I look the part: dressed in a warm leather and sheepskin jacket and Biggles-style goggles. Seeing the hand on the altitude dial move to the right as the wind blows in your face is a thrill that not many experience, especially not with a background of snow-dusted mountains, streaks of clouds and a sunshine haze that sheers off the mountains surrounding the turquoise lake.
Peter, the pilot and owner, tells me how grown men often sob as they reminisce, but even without memories it is an emotional experience. The beauty of the vista is heightened by the exhilaration of flying in such a nostalgic vehicle and the hangar is a treasure trove of vintage aircraft and the associated kit, as well as letters and newspapers that reveal a personal side to the events that these wartime planes were part of. Reading them is as heart warming as it is breaking. Flying among these clouds in these wings over Lake Wanaka,through the Matukituki Valley and Glendhu bay, and along the Clutha River is a privilege indeed.
For more wings head to the Warbirds & Wheels museum, home to everything from WWI SE5A planes, the WWII Battle of Britain hero Hurricane , and a more modern Strike master which was only withdrawn from service in New Zealand in 1991. Thirty classic cars from 1918 to 1969 comprise the wheels component of the collection. I find myself drooling over a Harley, re-enacting Gone With The Wind as I gaze on a 1934 Dodge DR Sedan and utterly amazed at a 1916 Packard Twin Six Semi Collapsible. As well as the elegance and style of the design, and the astounding machinery and manufacturing, its the stories behind the planes and vehicles at the museum that capture visitors. This is one of the reasons that, in addition to sheer rarity, the 1934 ModelJ Duesenberg featuring a Le Baron sweep panel, dual-cowl sports phaeton body is the pride of the collection. Originally it was owned by Hollywood actress Carole Lombard, and has been described by many as one of the greatest American cars ever made. It’s certainly beautiful, and one of many that owners and locals have lovingly renovated.
With views of the stunning Southern Alps, Wanaka Alpine Lodge has been the spot where two comfortable nights’ sleep have refuelled and re-energised me. The lodge is homely yet chic, large rooms, day beds and crisp white walls reflecting the illuminating light that fills these parts.Owners Ian and Yvette bake NZ Afghan biscuits, offer tea and coffee at all hours, and impart their advice freely. Both have travelled extensively, but made Wanaka their home,and I’m told that many do come to the town and are ignited by a feel that it is the right place to settle. In Maori folklore Wanaka is a point where spirits connect; in 2014 it’s a place for all activities, from the sedate to the active, relaxing or thrilling, wings or wheels.
I leave Wanaka aboard Ian’s Trike, on my own Wanaka Trike Tour; its shiny burgundy style causing glances and waves from everyone we pass on the high road back to Queenstown. Wrapped up warm on the 1300cc Rewakostunner, through snowy Cardrona at 1,265 feet, windingslopes down steep hills, through grassy tussocks as wedescend into the Frankton Valley, the breeze and bright lightare invigorating, the experience thrilling, and the journeytotally mind-blowing – though I can’t help but feel a littlesad to leave behind Wanaka and its wonder.
NEED TO KNOW…
The town of Wanaka is located on Lake Wanaka, the fourth largest lake in New Zealand, 70 km from Queenstown Airport. Dine at The White House and Wild Earth, the latter being one of many wineries in the Cromwell region. Visit Wild Earth, Aurum, Georgetown and many others with Funny French Cars or Wanaka Trike Tours, both of which also offer bespoke itineraries. Fly in vintage planes at Classic Flights and marvel at wings and wheels at the Warbirds and Wheels Museum, both of which are based at Wanaka Airport. Tired from all that activity? Rest at Wanaka Alpine Lodge.
For more information visit lakewanaka.co.nz.