Friday, December 4, 2015

Wanaka

On my first trip to New Zealand in December 2000, I met a vigorous aging Brit on the bus to jet boating. (He probably wasn't that much older than I am now.) It was his 4th trip to New Zealand, so I was curious about his favorite places. 

We were in Queenstown, a spectacular fjord with turquoise lakes, a popular ski resort I've passed through many times but never warmed up to. Why travel all the way to New Zealand to go somewhere like Aspen or Tahoe? 

Flying in this morning, the flight attendants joked about not being allowed to photograph Taylor Swift's private plane when she was in town last week. 

Anyway, I wish I remember all of Robert's list, but the place that intrigued me most was Wanaka. I made it there six months later on my next trip. 

That trip was one of my least-planned adventures, 5 weeks in the off season with few reservations. I looked through postcards in the bookstore and decided to go to Abel Tasman based on a picture. (If you've ever seen Abel Tasman you understand why.) 

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Wanaka is an hour from Queenstown but laid back and peaceful. Less known for bars and resorts than the old movie theater Cinema Paradiso and Puzzling World where I spent a rainy day wandering through mazes and playing games. There's a yarn store and Paper Plus is still selling calendars and notecards. 

Last time I stayed at the Purple Cow hostel with a view of the lake and read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter books. The films hadn't come out yet (I saw the first one seven months later, New Year's Eve in Melbourne), but they'd been shot nearby and I've always thought of Wanaka as a magical place. 

So I'm glad to make it my first stop, after too many years away. 

Wanaka has grown too. If Queenstown has NZD$3 million properties and new traffic circles (aka roundabouts), Wanaka has resorts too. I ate lunch at one today, still reeling from 3 flights. 

A tony group of tall men drank beers and then headed for the lakefront and vanished. The servers were confused: they thought the party was staying for lunch. But no: they were on a helicopter pub crawl. 

There are other changes in the past 15 years, noticeably more Chinese tourists and more Asian immigrants. The public toilets talk. There's public wifi in some of the streets (take that, San Francisco!), and a lot more wineries. 

But the view is as breathtaking as ever, and everyone I meet thinks I live here. It's late spring and the hillsides are filled with lupin and lambs. Strawberries are in season again. 

The main attraction is still the bright blue water and glaciers and kite surfers leaping high into the air. Thank you, Robert Harris, wherever you are.