So much has happened since my last post and I have a lot of retroactive writing to share with you but in the meantime, let me time travel a bit and bring you up to speed on my whereabouts. Last you heard from me, I had hiked around Lake Waikaremoana and spent my birthday with generous strangers. Since then, I traveled south to Wellington, the jump off point for all South Island-bound ferries, where I couched surfed with a lovely Kiwi girl tackling her post-university quarter life crisis. With great anticipation, I ferried to the South Island where I camped in the Marlborough Sounds and ran part of the Abel Tasman Great Walk. After my second annoying hostel experience in the span of a few weeks, I decided no more.
I had been enjoying the freedom that came with living out of a car and having no commitments or responsibilities but I can’t deny my deep desire to be somewhat productive and have some sort of stability. I wanted a job. I wanted a community. I wanted friends that lasted more than two nights. It was time for me to settle into the better part of my year in New Zealand in my dream town: Queenstown.
Except it turns out I hate Queenstown. I’m sorry, I do. I don’t want to simplify the town with blanketed hatred but I had heard such wonderful things about the town before arriving and it tragically failed to live up to my expectations. Google images of Queenstown and tell me it doesn’t look charming and perfect.
Queenstown is labeled the Adventure Capital of the World, which seems fun until you realize every adventure available in Queenstown might also bankrupt you. To me, Queenstown feels like Disneyland. It’s expensive. It’s filled with tourists and the few people who live there seem constantly fatigued with the party town reputation. If you like habitually staying out until 7 am at bars where your shoes stick to the floor and you pay $12 for a shitty beer, you’ll enjoy Queenstown. If you’re a grandma, like me, it’d be wise to have a Plan B.
On my way down the West Coast to Queenstown, I had spent a few days in Wanaka, about an hour drive north of Queenstown. I had my eye on Wanaka because it’s home to Roy’s Peak, a mountaintop that had tipped me off to New Zealand years ago.
I was surpassed how much I loved the town when I passed through. It was big enough, with just over 5,000 people and while there were certainly tourists aplenty, it offered the same jaw-dropping landscapes without the commercial resort town vibes of Queenstown. It felt like a place I could live but before I got a job and an apartment, why not make a big loop through the South Island just to be sure Wanaka is the spot for me? Admittedly, I did not get to the entire South Island but I did leave Queenstown for Christchurch to visit a friend, swept up to Kaikoura then drove all the way back to Wanaka.
Despite hundreds of miles and days of driving, the timing turned out to be perfect. I had applied for a barista position at a local cafe in Wanaka being fully cognizant of having zero barista skills. Sure, I like coffee. Yes, I’d like to learn. But I knew there was no way I could fake my way around an espresso machine. Coffee people are fussy (read: pretentious) and at the time, I could barely tell you the difference between a flat white and a latte.
What’s a girl who’s desperate for a job to do? Attend YouTube University. YouTube can pretty much teach you how to do everything you’ve ever wanted to learn. Photography, baking, woodworking, dog training, hair cutting. You name it, someone lunatic on YouTube is waiting for you to find their tutorial. I spent a full night learning about espresso machines, taking notes and fooling myself into thinking this would work.
When I arrived at my trial for the cafe, I nervously tried to explain that no, I technically didn’t have barista skills but I’m keen to learn. The owner told me not to worry, a regular old FOH cafe position had just recently become available and it seemed I’d be better suited for that. Cue the huge sigh or relief knowing I would no longer have to pretend to be a coffee pouring wizard. The trial went fine and I got the job which turned out to be much easier than getting an apartment, but that’s a story for another day.
I’ve spent the last four weeks settling into a routine, making friends, and taking advantage of the bottomless opportunities for adventure right in my backyard. If you’re thinking of settling in New Zealand, read on to find out why Wanaka should be at the top of your list.
1. The Views
Wanaka sits at the southern part of Lake Wanaka, New Zealand’s fourth largest lake covering 74 square miles. The town sits in a glacier-carved basin and provides stunning views of the peaks that dominate Mt. Aspiring National Park. Having spent a lot of time in Colorado, I’m no stranger to dramatic peaks but I’ve never seen anything like the mountains in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. While the Rocky Mountains are no doubt impressively tall, it seems you have to drive thousands up into the hills to get the full glimpse of just how impressive they are. In New Zealand, the mountains rise from (almost) sea level, creating a world where majestic mountains seem to pop up from nowhere. For many of these views, you don’t even have to work to see them. Just being in the town provides visitors with the perfect scenery.
2. The unlimited access to adventure activities
Wanaka is filled with incredibly fit and adventurous humans. Everyone seems to be a super-human athlete who can casually handle any extreme mountain sport. The town is filled with cyclists, runners, swimmers and climbers who never seem all that impressed with stories of physical exertion. Oh, you biked 80km yesterday? That’s nice. You hiked for three hours in the middle of the night to sit on top of a mountain to take in the first rays of the new year? Yep, okay, neat. I went paragliding on New Years Even with a group of avid paragliders and my tandem pilot not only competes in the world's toughest paragliding races (yes, those exist) but he's also training for his umpteenth Ironman Triathlon.
After one particularly harrowing day at work, a coworker noticed my distress and asked how I was doing. I shot him an exasperated look and said something along the lines of, “Oh just great. I’m going to go jump off a bridge after my shift.” In the U.S., this comment would suggest that I’m about to die and while yes, I realize I was being a sarcastic shithead, I was amazed at how unfazed my coworker was. Instead of showering me in the pity I was craving, he simply said, “Oh yeah? Which one?” Because that’s a thing people do here for fun. Regularly.
The plethora of accessible outdoor activities paired with the extremely late sunsets (almost 10:00 pm!), there’s really no excuse to stay shut up inside.
3. The People
I feel weird talking bad about tourists since I’m by no means local and don’t pretend to have any deep seated pride in the town, but Wanaka noticeably has more locals living here than many other South Island towns I’ve visited. Given their size and location, this is pretty impressive. Make no mistake, it’s a very rich town and it gets its fair amount of transplants but there’s still a huge community of people who have lived here for years with no intention of leaving anytime soon.
Part of the appeal of moving to a new country is to be immersed in a new culture. As I traveled through the South Island (home to only 1 million Kiwis), I was starting to worry I’d have to sacrifice my desire to meet locals due to my inescapable pull to the mountains.
Living in Wanaka, I don’t have to face that sacrifice. I’ve made friends with heaps of Kiwis and working in a locally adored cafe allows me to be even more fully immersed in the local community. With that said, moving to Wanaka has been a stark reminder on how easy it is to romanticize small towns. I grew up in a town similar in size to Wanaka and left mostly for the sole desire of the opportunity to live anonymously if I desired. After seven years of big city living in Chicago, I began to miss a tight-knit community and the joys of never being farther than a mile from anything in town. Within days of moving to Wanaka, I was quickly reminded how easy it is to get caught up in small-town gossip and while your neighbor may be quick to lend you a hand to move, they will also notice if you happen to stay out late a few nights or spend the weekend out of town. It’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make, obviously, but that’s not to say it wasn’t an adjustment.
After a shaky few weeks of settling in, I’m thrilled to be diving head first into my new life in Wanaka. I already have so many stories and photos to share which I promise to share soon (hello, new year's resolution). If you’re looking to quench your thirst for glimpses of Wanaka in the meantime, you can always check out my Instagram, a social media platform I’m much more consistent with.
Have you been to Wanaka? Do you have any must-see / must-do sites and activities?