Wild and Precious Wanaka, New Zealand
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? You may have heard this question before; it’s borrowed from the poem “The Summer Day” by the American poet Mary Oliver. It’s a simple enough question, but it does speak to the core of those of us who are soul searchers and explorers in our own way. But, thirty-one years on this planet and I still don’t know the answer. I do know, however, that two weeks in remote Wanaka, New Zealand brought me closer to finding out.
I felt the summer sun bleach my hair and tan my skin. I paused with my mountain bike on the banks of the Clutha River. I saw stars in the Milky Way. I shared dinner with friends on a balcony, taking in the view of Lake Wanaka under an ancient sky. There’s a reason why Backroads’ New Zealand Bike Tour and Walking & Hiking Tour both visit this special place. After two weeks in Wanaka, here’s what I learned about stepping away from the ordinary and coming back to the start of your one wild and precious life
An hour’s drive from the Queenstown airport, Wanaka is an active, small town nestled close to Roy’s Peak on the shores of Lake Wanaka. You can follow two routes from Queenstown. One is the steep and winding Crown Range Road, with exquisite mountains and high altitude. If you’re uncomfortable driving this stunning yet daunting road (remember, Kiwis drive on the left!), you might prefer the longer, but relatively flatter, route via Cromwell.
Beautiful and expansive, Lake Wanaka is central to the town of Wanaka’s way of life. People walk or cycle along its edges and lay out on its beaches, reading, picnicking and eating ice cream. Children laugh and jump off the docks into the warm water. I wanted to do so as well, but not wanting to disrupt their games, I settled for a swim from the shallow shore.
One morning a friend and I rented kayaks from Lakeland Adventures, a friendly family-run business located right on the water. We kayaked the hour out to Ruby Island then pulled our boats onto the sand to look out over the aquamarine waters we’d just crossed. Another evening we returned to Lakeland for stand-up paddleboarding among the sailboats as the sun turned to twilight. It was my first time ‘supping’… I’d always thought of it as a ‘slow’ activity, but I quickly appreciated its Zen- like rhythm after a long day of mountain biking.
Some of my favorite memories of Wanaka are of wonderfully casual meals with friends, that were just right after a day of activity. If you can grab a table at Kai’s at happy hour, you can watch the day fade over the lake while enjoying some toasty potato wedges with sweet chili sauce, as the Kiwis do. And the feta and lentil vegetarian burger at Red Star was the best I’ve ever had. Neither is fine-dining, but they fit the laidback just-come-off-the-lake lifestyle.
In Wanaka, I felt relaxed and happy, engaged and captivated. I pedaled to the lavender farm and savored the sweetness of honey-lavender ice cream out in the sun by the gardens. I cycled to Rippon Vineyard and Winery for their guided wine tasting of first-rate Wanaka wine. And I took a cruise out on Lake Wanaka to hike on Mou Waho Island, where, almost unfathomably, I stood on a little island in a lake on a bigger island in a lake on an even bigger island in the middle of an ocean.
So then, tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Go to New Zealand. Go to Wanaka. It’s a good place to start.