Before the snow comes down in Wanaka

By Scott Kara

Sleep with your curtains open in Wanaka. There's nothing better than waking up to the colours of the leaves against the mountains and the lake.

The trees are yellow at the moment. The colours of autumn are only just starting to come on, says taxi driver Owen Wright. "You're two weeks too early," he says.

The leaves will be red and golden soon, just in time for the town's Southern Lakes Festival of Colour, which starts tomorrow.

Like many visitors to this area, I fly into Queenstown. But unlike most visitors, I never see that town. Oh well.

The drive from Queenstown to the more laid-back Wanaka has, in Owen's words, some "stunning" sights. "I use that word too often, I need a new one, but you can see why I love driving round this area," he smiles.

First up there's the spectacular drive over the Crown Range road - a very windy, narrow shortcut between the two towns - to the Cardrona skifield and hotel, then there's the famous bra clad fence and just before you get to Wanaka there's a quick glimpse of Mt Aspiring on the left.

The guy sitting next to me, who is here for the Wanaka Wearable Creations Festival on tonight and tomorrow, says he climbed the mountain eight years ago.

He's no spring chicken either.

"It's killed six people already this climbing season," pipes up Owen.

It's just on dusk as we arrive at the Lakeside Apartments - swanky, house-sized abodes with views looking over, and up Lake Wanaka. They would be great for a family, but even better as a getaway for a big group of friends wanting to cook their own yummy dinners, as well as sampling the excellent restaurants nearby.

There's a chill in the air and the snow isn't too far away. It's one of the best times to visit Wanaka because it's quiet. That's why two lovely 80-year-old lasses from Britain are here.

"Are you here on business?" one of them asks me, giving me a tap on the shoulder, as I devour the rib-eye steak at Relishes Cafe on the lakefront.

"We're on holiday. Not bad for two 80-year-olds eh?"

Ask these two and they'll tell you Wanaka is doing a good job of promoting itself as a four-season destination with autumn events like the Festival of Colour and the Wanaka Wearable Creations.

And as Philip Tremewan, the director of the festival says: "It's a beautiful time of year. It's why Grahame Sydney is painting his paintings here and why Brian Turner is writing his poems here."

The festival is a celebration of the arts and includes music from Goldenhorse and Te Vaka, dance and theatre acts, exhibitions by photographer Jane Ussher and artist Michael Tuffery, a natural history film festival and seminars from Grahame Sydney and NZ war correspondent, Peter Arnett.

Wanaka is an arty town, and in winter it's a ski town, while in summer it's hot and beautiful. But Wanaka - especially in autumn - is simply a great place to relax, either with friends, family, or that special someone, and eat out on fine food, visit wineries and sightsee.

In the Wanaka CBD, everything is on tap - restaurants, pubs, shops, a supermarket and even chains like Subway and, ahem, Shooters. The latter even gets the "Oh my God" reaction from locals.

For breakfast try the corn fritters or full brekkie at Cafe Gusto right next door to Lakeside. Upstairs from there is Missy's Kitchen - owned by Tony Lynch and Brenda Jessup - which is hip as hell with views up the lake to Mt Aspiring. Sit yourself down, next to the smouldering fire, in Missy's cosy lounge area where a starter of salt and pepper squid and a glass of the local wine is a must.

Missy's atmosphere sums up Wanaka - relaxed and cruisy. Even though major development in the town is inevitable, you can tell there's a lot of people wanting to maintain that quaint laid-back vibe.

But like Simon Stewart, from Lake Wanaka Cruises, so simply suggests: "People are still being born and they have to live somewhere."

And what better place to live than Wanaka?

To see the lake properly, and to give Wanaka a whole new perspective, go out with Simon on his sexy luxury catamaran, Dual Image. You can bring your own wine and beers - I shared a few with some friendly Australians - or afternoon tea is served during a half-hour stop at Stevenson's Island. DoC use the island to breed and nurture weka, but you'll be lucky to see any on the 10-minute walk through the bush to a lookout with views further up the lake.

Also out on the lake, Simon points out the peninsula where a housing development was proposed and then quashed. I agree with him, it would've spoilt the view up the lake from the Wanaka township.

That's the thing about Wanaka, there are few stand-out, wow, type houses. Yes, there's money, and lots of it, but the development - so far - isn't too harsh. There are no grand monstrosities on tops of hills. But it's only a matter of time, says Simon.

One of the houses poised highest on the hills around Wanaka is the homestead at Rippon Vineyard (about a 20-minute walk around the lake from town).

Rippon was started by Rolfe and Lois Mills in 1975 when they planted their first vines, which today creep down the gentle hillside to the lakefront.

Second generation winemaker Nick Mills isn't round today. He's taking a few days off before harvesting starts.

But Jim Hart, who's manning the cellar door sales today, says like many of the vineyards round here - Amisfield, Chard Farm, Gibbston Valley, Mt Maude, among others - Rippon grows grapes under extreme conditions.

He reckons it takes a certain type of person to master it and that's why the winemakers from Central Otago tend to be a "bunch of characters".

"It's winemaking on the knife edge, but it's totally about what will grow, and riesling and pinot noir love it here."

Apparently, Rippon's philosophy is to produce wine as good as the view from the vineyard. Going by the taste of other local wines, that's what winemakers do round here. It's some of the best scenery in New Zealand, and they've bottled it.

* Scott Kara travelled to Wanaka courtesy of Lakeside Apartments.

Getting there

Air New Zealand and Qantas fly direct to Queenstown from Auckland. You can also fly from Christchurch where there is a daily flight to Wanaka as well as flights to Queenstown. Once in Queenstown get a transfer with Wanaka Connexions over the Crown Range. Wanaka Connexions, ph (03) 443 9122.

Accommodation

Lakeside Apartments
mailto:info@lakesidewanaka.co.nz or website: www.lakesidewanaka.co.nz

Eating

There are several restaurants and cafes in Wanaka. Try Missy's Kitchen for something fancy, cool and a wine list to die for, Relishes Cafe if you're feeling more casual, and Cafe Gusto for an all-day brekkie. Alternatively, with Lakeside Apartments' expansive kitchen, and a grand dining table, visit the supermarket and cook your own. You could even brave the BBQ.

Events

Southern Lakes Festival of Colour from tomorrow until May 1, including Goldenhorse, Don McGlashan, Te Vaka, art and photo exhibitions including Jane Ussher and Michael Tuffery, the natural history film festival, plus a seminar by veteran NZ war journalist Peter Arnett.

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