Wanaka is a beautiful town near Queenstown. With a stunning clear blue lake (Lake Wanaka), surrounded by mountains, a tree growing inside the lake (*the* Wanaka Tree), and a small town feeling, it’s sure to make anyone fall in love with it. We had 2 weeks there in November 2017 – and here’s our guide to Wanaka, New Zealand, for families with kids
I need to say this because it’s true: it’s a SMALL town. Very small, very residential. Not everyone likes small places, so I thought I’d get this out of the way up front to avoid any problems.
Wanaka vs Queenstown
I don’t know if you’ve gone through our Southern Lakes region post, but if you have, you know that I’m not a fan of Queenstown. It’s far too touristy and expensive. The lake, even though it’s Wakatipu, the same from Kingstown, feels dirty and smelly there while it’s lovely in Kingston.
So of course, I like Wanaka better. Wanaka is also very touristy and expensive, but it’s not even close to Queenstown levels.
Wanaka is smaller, there aren’t too many options for anything BUT there is everything. If you want to do some grocery shopping, you’ll have one supermarket. There are a few restaurant options, a bookstore, a couple of drug stores. Many hostels. And etcetera.
Even though it is a very tourist oriented place, there are many locals there, so the prices, although high, aren’t as exorbitant as in Queenstown.
Where to stay in Wanaka with kids
We spent our days in this house. It’s a huge house, it can accommodate around 100 people (just kidding, but it can surely have 15 people nicely). It’s a bit far from town, but I enjoyed the exercise. It shouldn’t be so much fun if the weather isn’t nice, or when we were walking home with the groceries, but we liked it. It’s super well equipped and we dealt fine with it. The limited internet was the only ‘problem’ because we couldn’t let the kids watch Netflix or do their online courses, but other than that, fine. And we had the visit of the occasional spider – we don’t mind them much, except when they creep on us while we’re not expecting.
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Where to eat in Wanaka with kids
We didn’t eat out too much because we were a 30-minute walk away from the town (and the nearest restaurant) and, well, we didn’t have a car for most of our days there so it was easier to cook than to go grab something to eat.
But we still managed to try a few places, of course.
- BoaBoa is a cheaper option there, with almost no space to eat in. We loved grabbing a fish & chips and having it on the benches in front of the shop. The little sparrows and ducks usually came around to ask for food and we usually tossed them a few pieces of chips and maybe a piece of fish here and there.
- Doughbin is a pie-shop right next to Boa Boa. We ate there once and it was lovely. A bit full, though. Their pies receive awards every year and they really were good.
- Patagonia serves chocolate. And desserts. And ice cream. They’re usually very full and the lines take forever but it’s good sweets.
- Black Peak serves gelatos. Good ones. The store is small and the lines are usually long but it’s good stuff, worth trying once. Or twice.
- Water Bar is the only dine-in place we visited. The food is good, but I hate that the indoors part of it is full of super loud music (not always, only if you’re lucky like we are) and the outdoors is just full of inconsiderate smoking people. If you go, consider visiting for lunch because dinner options are more limited – I mean, no Caesar salad, really.
- Spice Room is an Indian restaurant, and we love Indian food. We chose the take away because it’s a small restaurant and we’d just spent the day out so we were pretty dirty and tired – not the best time to take 4 kids to a restaurant. Well, the food is good, it just takes very (VERY) long to be served. They told us 30 minutes but they took around an hour to make ours.
What to do in Wanaka with kids
There isn’t really A LOT to do except for hikes, paragliding, helicopter rides, and water sports. The hikes were a bit too long for us (mostly over 3 hours return or it took us an hour to get to the starting point of the hike, so it wouldn’t be wise to take a 5-year-old to a 2 hour-hike after taking one hour walking to get there. Heli rides would be way too expensive, as well as paragliding, so we didn’t have much left.
But we didn’t let that spoil our days, oh no.
It was summer, so we managed to squeeze a few things in but if it were winter, I think walking. Haha.
Spend time at the lake
Who cares if it’s cold? Lovely crystal clear fresh water – irresistible. We NEEDED to go for a swim.
Trust me, you get used to the cold after a bit – if you keep moving, it’s even best.
I don’t recommend you to swim during winter because, you know, it’s cold and snowy, but during late spring, summer, and early fall, oh, yes, please.
There are little fishes swimming about and *the* Wanaka tree to be explored. Go on and try it. My kids were pretty amazed that the water wouldn’t hurt their eyes (they’re only used to sea water) and had a lot of fun.
The pebbles (it’s mostly rocks and no sand) are a bit painful to get past, but after a few steps in the water, you reach the sandy part and it’s only joy. It’s shallow for a loooooong while, no waves, so it’s great for kids learning to swim.
If you get tired, there are a quite a few playgrounds around, so you could always go play a bit and return to the water when tired.
And then again, if it’s winter, you can try making pebbles bounce on the water – one of my kids’ favorite things to do when there’s water around!
So we’ve wanted to try SUP ever since we were in Canada and just now had the chance (seriously 6 months later). Paddle Wanaka is right in front of the lake, making life easier for people like us, that decide to do stuff in the moment.
We didn’t get them on the first try because the stand-up paddleboards were always rented out, but then at the second time, we got it. And we loved it so much that we had it for 2 hours. We actually only did it standing up for around half-an-hour but we had a lot of fun with the kids on it paddling around. It could’ve been a kayak to do what we did, really, but it was great doing the SUP even for a few moments.
If you want to try SUP, I definitely recommend that you book online before going there – it’s almost always rented out. For kayaking, not so much as their supply is a lot bigger.
They’re there from 8 am to 6 pm. During winter, they only show up if you book, so think about it and bring a wetsuit.
It’s the other thing to do in Wanaka. Think of a trick art museum with a giant maze and some really cool puzzles for people to try.
João (12) has been wanting to visit it since the last time we were in Wanaka and we never really managed to so this time we made an effort. It’s not close to the town, so you’ll need a car to get there (or a taxi, whichever works best – though it is pretty hard to find a cab for 6 there).
We spent around an hour in the Illusion rooms (they’re quite big, actually) and over an hour to get out of the maze. We’re below average – they said most people manage to find their way out in an hour but not us. Haha. João did – though not the rest of the family. Even the toilets are a lot of fun, so try them! – if you have smaller kids, you need to know that all that time is spent walking around in a giant maze, with nothing but walls to look at, so think if they’re not gonna be bored. Coral (5) loved it, but she was quite tired and impatient in the end.
It also has a lot of stairs and bridges, so it’s not suitable for prams or wheelchairs.
In around 2 hours you manage to see everything, but I’d keep another 2 hours to play in the cafeteria and take some cool photos around (including outside).
A family pass costs NZ$ 69 for 4 people in 2017.
A walk through History
Right on the walkway by the lake, there are tiles with pieces of history written on them. My kids found them fascinating and we often stopped to read them. Fun for kids who read, because even though I was reading them for Coral (5), she didn’t like it.
Watch the stars
The sky in Wanaka is gorgeous! So may stars, pretty unbelievable. It was summer this time, so it wasn’t dark until after 9 pm – the kids had already gone to bed. During the other seasons of the year, the sun sets a lot earlier and the stars are just as beautiful. It’s worth spending a few moments watching them shine.
I have no photos because we were too busy actually looking at it – we forgot.
Okay, so this is the end of our little guide to Wanaka for families.
Below is our table!
- City / Country
- Minimun Stay
- $ ~ $$$
- Best local transport option
- Do we recommend it?
- Wanaka / New Zealand
- 2 days
- The town is fine, but the activities are more suited for an older kid – not toddlers and preschoolers
- Walk or car, depending on what you’re doing
- SUPER safe
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