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I've been spending quite a bit of time in Wanaka lately by reason of romance and I’ve discovered not everything to do there is spensy or swanky, plus, the locals are a bunch of fabulous weirdos.
For a visit combining riding, imbibing and some very social climbing, why not try:
Hawea River Track
Bike through Wanaka’s new northern suburbs - briefly wondering how you’d find your house if it was dark given they are all almost identical - out over the Albert Town bridge to meet a trail that runs for 11km alongside the Hawea River, crossing fields of yellow grass, through shady avenues of trees, cool blue-green swimming holes dotted along the way. Sit on a hot flat rock as willows sweep their skirts in the water, dip your tootsies and listen to the river plunk and gurgle.
A feature of the track is the Hawea River Wave, two river waves of varying strengths purpose-built at Camphill Bridge for kayak, body boarding and surfing enthusiasts. It’s eminently surfable when the dam is releasing - locals rush out here after work with their surfboards and this bucolic riverbank goes full Bondi, with surfers in wetsuits everywhere looking to get their stoke on. Check Hawea Whitewater Park - Central Otago Whitewater Inc for the educational or recreational flows, or the Otago Regional Council website.
Reaching Hawea, guts it up the hill as the wind whistles a welcome, and maybe bypass the huge pub on the corner blasting ’80s rock and head instead to the little Hawea Store and Kitchen for some lunch upstairs. The blackened corn and salmon salad is a-ma-zing.
Tubing the Clutha
Ratty told Mole there was nothing half so worth doing as simply messing about in boats, but he obviously couldn’t get his paws on a tractor inner tube.
Grab an inflatable unicorn pool toy, a lilo, and float, float on ... on sunny weekends you’ll see groups of friends, fathers and sons floating down the river, trailing a hand.
Hop in at the beginning of the Outlet Track by the motor camp and be sure to exit at the camping ground before the Albert Town bridge, and always wear a lifejacket.
Glendhu Bay camping ground
Wanaka locals’ idea of going on holiday is reversing their caravans out of the driveway and making the 10km drive from town to camp here for a couple of days.
The lakefront is safe for the kids to swim and sheltered from the wind, the views of Mt Aspiring are kick-ass and there is a fantastic new mountain bike park accessed from right across the road.
Glendhu MTB Park doesn’t have a chairlift - you’ve got to ride to the top of the mountain under your own steam - but it’s worth it for incredible, Roys Peak-rivalling views.
Tradition decrees you must jump in the lake at Glendhu Bay at the end of your ride.
The place to people-watch, drink a refreshing pint, eat cheese-and-jalapeno-covered chips and talk to random strangers. Starting with just two or three, the tables at Kai multiply into an amorphous mass on Friday and Saturday nights or during happy hour on weeknights, as people from all walks of life are absorbed into the conversational fray: off-duty hospitality workers, guides, climbers, mountain bikers, hunters and artists ... the swarm engulfs tables, chairs and spreads over the footpath, creating a crowd boasting a disproportionate amount of casts and slings. True locals drink from glasses with their names engraved upon, small dogs lunge at skateboarders’ ankles. A great source of entertainment can be found in the traffic pacifiers installed on the road directly across - the crowd periodically letting out a roar when a car with lowered suspension grinds atop one or someone on a bike or board gets sick air.
Driven past by oblivious tourists on their way to Treble Cone, this valley is one of the best climbing areas in the country. Look left and you’ll spot people hanging off the side of the crags. Some of the country’s best climbers cut their teeth - and other things - here; hence the name.
Like any sport that is daft and dangerous, beginners are warmly welcome, and the routes have great names like Do I have to?, Sloppy Drunk and Gorillas in the Schist. A day out climbing is a super social one involving picnics on blankets, music playing and happy chat every now and then interrupted by a shriek or a burst of filthy language as comfort zones are tested.
Gorgeous, more gorgeous, then gobsmacking - take a drive from Hawea to the Doc car park at Dingleburn Station, the beginning of a picturesque bike ride with views up the lake to the Hunter Valley that becomes astonishing as you round the corner and take in the bluffs. Skinny, steep and scary, parts feel like being in a documentary about the world’s most dangerous roads. Sweat, you will. Blub, you might. Swim you must, lakeside at Dingleburn flats. Get in quick though, the Hawea sandflies are a particularly nasty breed.
Discover your brew colours
Away from the shoreline promenade, down a dusty street in the industrial area populated by car mechanics and CrossFit studios, you’ll find not one but two craft breweries. Ground Up Brewing has its own Burrito Craft food truck, serving the antithesis of fitness-obsessed Wanaka fare, the Cheese Burger and Fries Burrito - which tastes even better washed down with a Space Cowboy. A hop, skip and lunge down the street is Rhyme and Reason, where you can complement your pint of Joy Rider with a burger ferried overhead in the basket of a mini chairlift.
Welcome to Wanaka. If you’re anything like me, your visit will involve shedding tears, conquering fears and saying ‘‘Cheers!’’ with absolutely no need to form an orderly queue.