Queenstown or Wanaka? You really can’t go wrong. A lot of travel guides compare the two lake towns, so thought I’d offer our take after visiting them both on our South Island adventure. Plus, I’m telling the story of us hitchhiking and an incredibly fortunate fender bender if you want to skip ahead 🙂
Why are Queenstown and Wanaka often compared? Proximity is a given. But also, the landscape is very similar in the two towns – with the center of the town built around a lake, surrounded by stunning mountains. We’ve been saying that the climate and landscape in the Auckland region reminds us a bit of Hawaii (lush, green, rainforest-like with high humidity) – but we were amazed to find that much of the South Island is quite the opposite, and actually more reminiscent of Colorado or maybe even Switzerland. Similarly, in the winter, both Queenstown and Wanaka transform into full-blown ski towns.
Since it’s already published in our last blog, let me just say again… Wanaka was probably our favourite stop. But this was a total sleeper pick. We had no idea what to expect from this cute little town. It’s dubbed a “mini Queenstown,” and not as sleepy as we thought.
Queenstown is way more built up. It has the advantage of being by a big airport, with so many great shopping, restaurant and bar options. It’s known as the adventure capital of New Zealand… you can’t miss the fact that every third storefront is a booking agent for bungee-jumping, paragliding, jetboating, skydiving, etc. But it’s actually a bit frustrating how inundated it is! Unless you’re an adrenaline junkie with lots of cash to throw around, I suppose.
We were so excited for a bit of luxury (we stayed in a hotel!) in Queenstown that our expectations for neighbouring Wanaka were pretty low. But with perfect weather, great food, amazing hikes, and our own adrenaline-pumping hitchhiking adventure, Wanaka was hard to top. It was also at the beginning of our trip, so maybe that had something to do with it.
But our trip to Rob Roy Glacier is what makes Wanaka the most memorable for us…
A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Wanaka
On our last day in Wanaka, we were absolutely determined to hike the Rob Roy Glacier Valley track. It was described as being equally spectacular to Mt Cook! But it wasn’t until dinnertime the night before that we realised the entrance to the trail was down an unsealed, gravel road…and that we’d be in breach of our rental agreement by driving down it. Brett has co-workers who took a camper down this road, and described the drive with discouragingly horrible noises to imitate their experience.
After consulting the receptionist at our Holiday Park, we looked into taking a tour or renting a car. But neither panned out. So she suggested we hitchhike! The road deadends at Mt. Aspiring National Park and the entrance to the hike, so it is as safe of a hitchhike than any.
I’m telling you – DO NOT drive this road in a campervan. Not disclosing how I know that, but trust me, you’ll be gritting your teeth for 30 horridly uncomfortable minutes on the unsealed road… until you’re stopped by a river crossing. If you do get that far in a campervan, you’ll pull off, and after a quick chat with other determined hikers, you’ll find out this is only the first of nine fords.
…so we hitched. After about the sixth crossing, our first ride (university students) abandoned their car. Our second ride was a girl our age as the passenger, and her mom who powered through the fords like a champ. We made it to the trail!
And the views at the top of the hike were not one bit overrated. Waterfalls roared all around us as the massive glacier came into view. It didn’t hurt that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Just spectacular.
Hitchhiking is a great option, but if you want a more safe, guaranteed way to get to the trail, I promise they’re worth the money.
Other transport options:
- Rent a car from Adventure Rentals and select “Glacier Class” – $86/day
- Catch the Tramping Shuttle from Alpine Connexions – $40/person
Wanaka Highlights included:
- Seeing the famed “That Wanka Tree” growing out of the lake
- Relaxing by the lake in the sun, while taking in mountain views
- Lakefront cocktails and the most amazing stone-grill dining experience
- A grueling hike but perfect photo opp atop Roy’s Peak and hitchhiking to Rob Rob Glacier
- Wine tasting at Rippon Valley Vineyards
Queenstown Highlights included:
- A break from the campervan staying in a “resort” and being upgraded to a lakeview room
- SO many food options. Besides Fergberger (a one hour wait!), our favourites were Bespoke Kitchen brunch, dinner at Blue Kanu, plus the selection at Smiths Craft Beer Bar
- ALMOST conquering two escape rooms — without killing each other
- Gondola ride and spectacular views
- Beating Brett at mini golf