I’m ashamed to admit that during my first two years in New Zealand, despite a number of trips to Queenstown, I had never thought about visiting Wanaka. It was suggested I pick up a hire car at Queenstown airport and make the drive across. When I reached the turn-off to the Crown Range Road and saw the steep incline, I realised I wasn’t going across anything, I was going up and over. Probably a good thing that I didn’t know this was the highest main road in New Zealand, reaching an altitude of 1121 metres. I arrived in Wanaka white-knuckled from gripping the steering wheel. However, that glorious view of the namesake lake as I drove in was enough to wipe away the challenges of the drive (1 hour 45 minutes for me would probably be just over an hour for you). I was later told I could have taken the much easier route through Cromwell, so at least the drive back would be less hair-raising.
Bistro Gentil was to be my first taste of Wanaka. Head chef Mario Rodrigues delivers a modern French affair, using fresh seasonal produce from the kitchen garden in a thoughtful and diverse menu. Family-owned wine company Maude has recently joined the bistro and presents afternoon tastings. As the late afternoon sun slipped behind the snow-capped Roys Peak and the Southern Alps, I enjoyed a selection of the luscious Maude Reserve Range and a perfect dish of mezcal-cured Ōra King salmon, served with an avocado mousse, shaved fennel, pear and balsamic gel and candied chilli.
76A Golf Course Rd, dinner Tues-sat, 6pm until late, bistrogentil.co.nz
Maude tasting room open Thurs-mon, 12pm-5.30pm, maudewines.com
The sun had gone by the time I returned to my room at Edgewater, and the thrill of waking to find myself right on the water was enough to inspire an early stroll along Lake Wanaka’s edge. How lucky the locals are to have this pristine environment to enjoy. I headed off in search of breakfast in an almost Zen-like state. With French doors that open out onto what is fast becoming a familiar lake view, Relishes Cafe, one of the original cafes in Wanaka, did not disappoint. Run by brother and sister Toby and Tash along with Tash’s husband Paul, Relishes serves culinary fusions with a Kiwi touch for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I almost went for the mānuka hot-smoked salmon, fennel-roasted potatoes, caper butter, poached egg, horseradish yoghurt and rocket, but decided on the edamame, avocado and mint smash with haloumi that had been marinated in chilli and lemon, served on their brilliant chargrilled super-seeded loaf.
99 Ardmore St, Wanaka, relishescafe.co.nz
You can not visit Wanaka without checking out the Cardrona Distillery, nestled in the Cardrona Valley between Wanaka and Queenstown and run by husband-and-wife team Ash and Desiree Whitaker, together with Desiree’s parents Alvin and Judy Reid. They currently produce single malt vodka, whisky, orange liqueur and gin, all made from scratch on site. The buildings and the copper stills are impressive, as is the story of how they got there. Take the classic tour from grain to glass for $25 and you’ll understand the fascinating process of creating artisan spirits, and be able to taste the Cardrona range. I fell in love with the Rose Rabbit Elderflower Liqueur. Top it with some bubbles to make a wickedly intriguing cocktail.
2125 Cardrona Valley Rd, Cardrona, cardronadistillery.com
Back to Wanaka central for lunch at the Federal Diner, where the locals like to hang out and fuel up. Owners Brona Parsons and Emilie Brosnahan have built this business off the back of their successful catering company Raspberry Creek, serving up quirky diner fare using organic eggs and free-range meat in a large, friendly space. You need to be quick to snaffle a cheese or date scone as when they’re gone, they’re gone. A new addition is the takeaway deli next door, providing meals on the go. No stodgy toasties or soggy salads here – think roast apple, fennel and rocket with candied pecans or balsamic marinated strawberries, prosciutto and feta. Dinner Wednesday through Sunday features bigger, bolder flavours and pretty much something for everyone.
47 Helwick St, Wanaka, federaldiner.co.nz
Time for a beer. I choose one of the new players and head over to Rhyme and Reason. Co-owners Jessica Wolfgang and Simon Ross considered a number of possible locations in Australia and New Zealand for their brewery and bar before deciding to settle in Wanaka. It’s open 12 till late, Monday to Sunday, catering to the hardened craft beer enthusiast as well as those of us struggling to move beyond an IPA, and head brewer Jessica loves nothing more than the chance to take you on a tour. You may be surprised by a bit of live music in the tap room and if you’re lucky, you might get a first taste of a new Rhyme and Reason conception.
17 Gordon Road, Wanaka, rhymeandreason.beer
Dinner at Kika is a must-do when visiting Wanaka. Within a year of opening, owners Francesca Voza and James Stapley claimed a coveted entry in the Cuisine Good Food Guide for 2017. Tapas-style modern Italian is the restaurant description, but that doesn’t prepare you for Stapley’s exciting menu. I suggest you choose the “Just Feed Me” option and place yourself in the hands of the very capable Kika team. You will receive three small dishes, a main, two sides and a dessert, plus three wine matches. Mahurangi oysters with blood orange mignonette and citrus granita, roasted cauliflower, pine nut furikake, whipped tahini and Medjool dates, sole with grapefruit chermoula, crispy fried white beans and fennel, and strawberry and basil cheesecake were a few of the dishes that turned up in my lucky dip. I left very late, and very happy.
2 Dunmore St, Wanaka, kika.nz
I decided I could skip breakfast. Yes, I know, most important meal of the day, but I just couldn’t face it. Lunch was scheduled at the Big Fig and at 7am, after all the eating and drinking of the past day and a half, I could not imagine digesting even a very small fig. Big Fig turned out to be slow food served fast on the Wanaka lakefront. Co-owner Chrissie Lahood brings her Lebanese heritage to the menu as well as a lifetime of sharing home-cooked food, packed with the flavours of the Middle East. I love the idea of the “small, medium and big” share plates here, offering comfort in the form of spicedup free-range chicken, slow-cooked lamb shawarma, pomegranate beef cheeks and the best meatballs I’ve had since my last trip to Spain, as well as meat-free share plates with bold and gutsy vegetables. Open seven days for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
105 Ardmore St, Wanaka, bigfig.co.nz
My trip ended at the Wanaka Artisan Market. Held under a historical tree alongside Bullock Creek, this small artisan market and its stallholders deliver a taste of local, fresh and handmade. I was delighted to run into Cuisine Artisan Award winners The People’s Bread Co selling their 100 percent wholegrain sourdough. A leisurely stroll unearthed seasonal artisan produce, impressive pastries and cakes, locally made arts and crafts, fermented goodness, local wine, stunning fresh herbs and a gorgeous array of pickles, preserves, jams and curds. Runs every Thursday afternoon, year round. wanakaartisanmarket.co.nz
Wanaka left me with an overwhelming sense of its community. As is the case in most regional towns, the people who grow and cook the food are hands-on and in it for the long haul. It is these local people who make it special. Of course, they have the added bonus of living and working within a magnificent landscape that gives them great pride and pleasure. I could live here.