I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. – Nathanial Hawthorne
We set our sights on making it to Queenstown the minute we landed in New Zealand in November. It started looking a bit impossible as the flights from Wellington to Queenstown during the summer months (Dec-March) cost more than flying from Seattle to Hawaii, not to mention the astronomical lodging costs during peak season. We kept dreaming and then it happened.
After we arrived on the South Island for our time on an organic farm in Nelson, an opportunity arrived in our in-box to house sit in Wanaka. Where is Wanaka? Having never heard of the town before, we started our research and discovered it was less than an hour from Queenstown. There were still many unknowns and we truly relied on the excitement we have for exploration to calm our nerves. As the picture-perfect lakeside town of Wanaka came into view, it was love at first sight and our gateway to Queenstown.
Wanaka is known as a popular summer and ski resort town in the Otago Region but for us, it will always be the perfect place to spend autumn days. After getting settled in our beautiful home away from home, we hit the trails. From Mount Iron to Diamond Lake, the Upper Clutha River Track to the Sticky Forest, we were mesmerized by fall’s prismatic show around every bend.
We actually had to talk ourselves into going to Queenstown for the day as we were completely taken by Wanaka’s many enchantments. After driving over the highest main road in New Zealand intersecting the Crown Range, we descended into Queenstown. We felt immediately in need of elbow room, as lines careened out of cafes and jet boats darted across the lake like fishing spiders. The old town was dwarfed by new developments and multi-level hotels and resorts. We didn’t last long before we piled into the car and headed to a more peaceful spot for lunch.
We took a deep breath when we arrived in historic Arrowtown and sat by the river watching people successfully pan for gold, cheering with every fleck revealed by the glistening afternoon sun.
As a teenager, I was lucky enough to go to Queenstown with my host family as a Rotary Exchange Student living in Sydney. I spent a week completing the Milford Track and the perspective I gained on that hike changed my path forever. This trip, I felt confused, with my kids at my hip, wondering why this experience felt so drastically different. The “wild last hitching post” feeling before heading into the wilderness was masked by McDonald’s and KFC.
Queenstown Lakes Region is growing rapidly, with the population increasing by 50% between 2005 and 2015. It is a frenetic rate of change for any region and it was tangible. As we stood on the Kawarau Bridge and watched people bungee jump at the birthplace of the sport, we felt better. But it wasn’t until we wound our way through wine country and back to Wanaka that we knew we were home.
Signs of significant growth are also sprouting throughout Wanaka but the community is strong and the small-town vibe is completely intact. It is as if the people that call Wanaka home know what a gift it is to be there and their joy and appreciation of the nature around them resonate throughout the area.
We thought our destination was Queenstown. We learned that the path revealed itself as soon as we detached from “making” it happen. Wanaka was the Queenstown of my youth. It was exactly what I wanted my kids to experience and if we had flown to Queenstown months ago, we would have missed it. Trusting the vision without forcing the way is a lesson worth learning in every port …