International travelers visiting New Zealand go to Queenstown; Kiwis go to Wānaka. Like its better-known neighbor to the south, Wānaka has spectacular outdoor pursuits, breathtaking scenery, and a buzzy lakefront. But this is where the two towns diverge: Adrenaline-fueled Queenstown increasingly caters to foreign visitors (members of its seasonal workforce frequently have English or American accents), while Wānaka leans in the other direction, creating an oasis of localness that has made it an under-the-radar capital of the Kiwi lifestyle. Now, in-the-know overseas travelers are catching on.
Most activity hums along the southern edge of the area's eponymous glacial lake, where a tidy township of cafés, boutiques, and wine bars echoes the pockets of quiet sophistication found in cities like Wellington and Auckland. You could spend a morning sifting through boutiques like 47 Frocks, which stocks homegrown labels like Zambesi, known for its asymmetrical, funky silhouettes, and the very cool Deadly Ponies accessories brand. A good spot for lunch is Scroggin Coffee and Eatery, a standout among Wānaka's high-end café scene with a cheery vibe and an abundance of blond wood. Order a specialty sandwich, made with braised venison sourced in Fiordland, with chimichurri on a house-made croissant. Cap it off with a strong espresso, known locally as a short black. Then take a late afternoon stroll around the cerulean lake's western edge, and return to town for dinner at the chic, dimly lit tapas bar Kika. Owner and chef James Stapley, who came home to New Zealand after a stint in several Michelin-starred kitchens in London, shows off the versatility of the area's produce in dishes like cacio e pepe Cloudy Bay clams on crispy spaghetti.
Beyond the lakefront, Wānaka is a year-round destination for adventurers and wine lovers. In winter, skilled skiers and families alike crowd the runs at Cardrona and Treble Cone, where sheep cling to the lower slopes. Over at Soho Basin, avalanche-trained guides lead exclusive groups of 20 serious skiers a day through backcountry terrain; the trek is followed by a three-course lunch, served mountainside, of kingfish and rare beef prepared by chefs from celebrated local winery Amisfield. Come summer, the reward after a six-hour hike up Roy's Peak, whose ridgeline has awesome views of nearby Mount Aspiring, is a bottle of award-winning Pinot Noir at Rippon, where vines tumble down to the shores of the lake. At the family-owned Maude Winery, which overlooks the still waters, cheese platters pair nicely with the surprisingly savory Riesling on a terrace where there are blankets at the ready should the temperature dip.
Regardless of when you come, it is nice to know that the area's accommodations have kept pace with its other high-end offerings. Twenty minutes from town, sustainably minded Lake Hawea Station has a range of luxury cottages and villas set across a regenerative farm where kunekune pigs wander between swimming lakes and sheep paddocks. Closer to the action, Mahu Whenua (meaning “heal the land” in Māori) is a homey five-room stone-and-timber lodge (formerly the home of Shania Twain) on a working farm set on New Zealand's largest private conservation estate. The property looks on to a deep river valley where harrier hawks and bush falcons swoop for prey. As you watch the scene from your balcony here, it's hard not to feel an urgent and spiritual connection to the land—and a desire to protect it. Consider that feeling, known in Māori as kaitiakitanga, or “guardianship,” a sure sign that this area has resonated with you in all the ways that matter the most.
This article appeared in the March 2024 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler