Wanaka sunset

Wanaka: Films, frustration and fantastic sunsets

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After three chilled-out days in Queenstown that consisted mostly of eating ridiculously large hamburgers, afternoon drinking and riding on jetboats, it was again time to move on. I’d been surprised by the place – my memories from previous trips were of an over-priced tourist trap, but this time it didn’t feel like that at all.

The rest of the country seemed to have caught up cost-wise, and while there were plenty of backpackers and other visitors around, this time I was one of them. As always a change of mindset made all the difference, and as we drove out of town I found myself regretting that we hadn’t stayed for longer.

Wanaka view

There are two ways to get from Queenstown to Wanaka, our next destination. One option is the longer, fairly flat route via SH6. The other is about half the distance, takes a little less time and involves driving over a mountain road that was only fully sealed about ten years ago. It’s the highest paved road in the country, has dozens of zig-zag turns, boasts some incredible views … and I’d never been on it before.

It wasn’t a hard decision.

After a short stop in the restored gold-rush town of Arrowtown (very pretty, too many tea rooms and tour buses for my liking), we turned onto the Crown Range Road and headed upwards. Now, in my opinion, I was taking things remarkably sedately. For my two motion sickness-prone passengers, however, I’m pretty sure the journey felt more like this:

Still, having a couple of vaguely nauseous travel companions did give plenty of excuses to stop and take photos along the way.

Half way up the Crown Range

Gravel flicked from the wheels as we pulled into the carpark at the top, a noticeable chill creeping in even before we opened the doors. At over a kilometre above sea level, that probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Top of the Crown Range

Opting not to take the tempting multi-hour hiking tracks that headed off into the mountains, we soon continued down the other side. Spying a familiar building as we drove through the tiny township of Cardrona, it was time for yet another photo stop.

Cardrona Hotel

This iconic old pub is well-known to all Kiwis over a *cough* certain age. It featured in a long-running series of TV adverts for the local Speight’s beer brand, where a crusty old Otago farmer would prop himself up on the bar and gruffly dispense advice to a younger counterpart. There’s a little piece of New Zealand trivia for you. You’re welcome.

Wanaka is a smaller, sleepier version of Queenstown – although it’s easy to see development in progress here as well, with new townhouses and fancy lakeside bars slowly pushing out the battered holiday homes and fish and chip shops that I remember from childhood holidays. We were only in town for a couple of nights, and after dropping off our bags at the local YHA, headed down the road to catch a movie.

New Zealand has a remarkable number of boutique cinemas for such a small country – I’ve no idea how they all stay in business but somehow, wonderfully, they do. Between the three of us, on this trip we’d been to Cinecafe in Akaroa, the single-movie Fiordland Cinema in Te Anau and now the Cinema Paradiso in Wanaka. I’m a big fan of little theatres like this – they’re always a bit quirky, and very different to the large, generic cinemas you find in shopping malls around the planet. Best of all, you can almost always get a decent beer to accompany the show. Perfect.

After a couple of well-spent hours watching Silver Linings Playbook (a great movie, by the way) in the company of home made cookies, ice cream and the front half of a Morris Minor car, we headed back to the hostel to catch up on a bit of work. As the sun went down that evening, however, any thoughts of writing went quickly out the window…

Wanaka sunset

After a restless night’s sleep on the squeaky bunks, we dragged ourselves out of bed the next morning to pay a visit to one of Wanaka’s more interesting attractions. Puzzling World Wanaka has been around for ever – I definitely remember being lost in its maze at least 25 years ago – but seems to keep updating itself to keep things fresh. It’s a hodge-podge of illusions, holograms, a large outdoor labyrinth – even a Roman-style toilet, all springing from the somewhat warped mind of well-known New Zealand skeptic Stuart Landsborough.

The hologram hall is stuffed full of large, somewhat creepy 3D pictures that change as you walk past them. I think it’s the green glow that makes things seem particularly eerie.

Wanaka hologram

Well, that and the clowns, of course. Nobody likes clowns.

Clown hologram, Wanaka

If the moving holograms hadn’t quite freaked you out enough, there’s an entire room full of faces that seem to follow you as you move around. The effect is disconcertingly real…

Hall of following faces, Wanaka

From there you wander through a couple of very oddly-proportioned rooms. The first one sits at a fifteen degree angle, but apparently since our brains can’t really deal with that, they straighten up our view of the floor … which means that everything else starts looking rather strange. Water flows uphill, a child’s swing hangs out from the ceiling, people standing up straight look like they’re about to topple over. All very weird.

The next room, though, is even more fun. I could describe it in detail, but as always, a picture is worth a thousand words…

Big Lauren, tiny Dustin

We may have spent a lot of time in this room. Just saying.

One of the more recent additions to Puzzling World is the ‘Illusion Room’, with around 20 different sculptures and artworks that aim to finish off the confusion started by the previous exhibits. Some are better than others, but overall the room is surprisingly well done. It’s light and airy, and easy to lose half an hour in. So we did.

Lauren on seat

And then, the part that all some of us were most looking forward to – the maze. Apparently one of the first modern mazes, the idea is that you have to get to the top of each of the four towers before finding your way to the exit. It sounds simple in theory – but on a hot, sunny day and with a middling sense of direction, I can vouch for the fact that it isn’t.

Still, at least I actually followed the instructions … unlike a certain somebody who soon got sick of walking in circles and headed straight for the emergency exit. I won’t name any names. Or point out that there’s a photo of her a couple of inches above this paragraph.

For two of us, then, the maze was actually rather fun. Sure, it’s frustrating and regularly infuriating, but there are a lot worse ways to spend the better part of an hour … and a great deal of satisfaction when you do make it back into the gift shop for a cold drink.

Maze in Wanaka

And that, other than an afternoon stroll to the top of Mount Iron, was our time in Wanaka done. We’d had a fun, relaxed time in the town, which was exactly what we’d been hoping for. Things might have changed a bit from the dilapidated cabins and takeaway stores of my younger days, but the place hadn’t lost any of its beauty or charm. If you’re in the area, it’s well worth finding an extra couple of days in your itinerary to spend here.

Next stop: glaciers!

Both Puzzling World and Cinema Paradiso were kind enough to provide us with complimentary tickets in exchange for a review.

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  1. We hitchhiked through Wanaka in the beginning of our trip in 2005. Nice scenery, good to see that it has not changed. Must be great for you, too, after breathing heavily polluted air in Asia. Luckily it is not that bad here in Costa Rica either. Happy travels!

  2. Central Otago is one of my favourite places – especially in Autumn with all the amazing colours. Your photos do it justice – especially the vividness of the colours which has always been part of the landscape in that part of the world.

    In January 1976, Christine and I (and a very young David) were on holiday in Queenstown and decided to drive to Wanaka over the Crown range in our Triumph Toledo. All went well until on reaching the top clouds of steam began erupting from the radiator. We had to sit and admire the view for quite a while before quietly driving down the other side. Strangely we came the long, flat, way home!