There’s no denying that Queenstown, New Zealand’s best-known resort destination, has a lot going for it. But locals will tell you that Wānaka, its more understated neighbour just an hour’s drive north, is the South Island’s real jewel. And with its dramatic mountains and expansive lake, this charming town has enduring appeal.
Happily, it also has some remarkable lodges and private homes where you can enjoy the alpine surroundings like a (very well-heeled) local. If you’re planning a visit to Wānaka, put these luxurious stays on your hit list.
Down a long driveway in a quiet part of town, The Dacha isn’t so much a house as an extraordinary private compound.
Positioned a few hundred metres above Lake Wānaka, The Dacha has 180-degree views of the ever-changing deep-blue lake and snow-dusted mountains from every room with no other human or building in sight.
The five-bedroom lodge built from cedar and local schist is surrounded by gardens of native kanuka and can be rented together with The Banya, a self-contained cottage that privacy-seeking teens will love.
There’s a heated pool, spa and an outdoor table set on a rise in the garden – sit here and take in a view that is mesmerising whether the day is sunny or stormy. At night, the sky is jet-black and blanketed with stars.
The house is split into two separate wings (one ideal for children) linked by a corridor lined with a library of hundreds of books covering everything from Narnia to Grisham.
Dacha means “second home” in Russian so it’s fitting there’s a kitchen built for entertaining and a five-burner barbecue in a covered outdoor room.
Located on a hillside at the point where two spectacular alpine lakes meet, this accommodation’s distinctive angled roof mirrors the peaks of nearby mountains.
Mt Isthmus has four suites and comes with its own concierge and personal chef. Plus, there’s space for up to two helicopters to land on the lawn at the same time.
Inside it’s all polished concrete, strong angles and contemporary art softened by sheepskin throws and touches of gold. Linger by the pyramid-shaped glass fireplace, reading about local artists such as Central Otago’s Grahame Sydney.
Or tackle a five-hour return walk to the eponymous Mt Isthmus for even more sublime views of Lake Hāwea and Lake Wānaka.
Literally translated as “healing the land”, Mahu Whenua is the country’s largest private conservation estate and staying here in the South Island’s fabled High Country is all about connecting with nature.
Owned by music producer Mutt Lange (who briefly made his home here with former wife Shania Twain) the 5500-hectare property made up of four farms stretches from Wānaka to Queenstown.
Even without venturing far from your suite, one of five in the stone-and-timber lodge, you’ll see harrier hawks and bush falcons swooping for prey and hear native bellbirds chirping against a backdrop of waterfalls.
Luxuriously comfortable with oversized chandeliers, copper bathtubs and fur throws, this is a place that could easily have taken itself too seriously. Instead there are some unexpected touches, such as a huge sign at the entrance that says “Sweet Az” mimicking a popular Kiwi saying.
Linger in Mahu Whenua’s great room playing chess, dine on locally sourced ingredients and wine in the main lodge or borrow one of the property’s e-bikes before heading deep into the tussock-covered valley along a trail where the silence is almost total.
Borrowing from Japanese architecture, at Whare Kea Lodge it’s all about clean lines, steel and glass dramatically framing a show-stopping view of the lake and mountains.
Owners Martyn and Louise Myer (of the Coles-Myer dynasty) once ran Whare Kea as a high-end hotel but it can now only be booked by private groups of up to 12 for a minimum of three nights.
The Myers are passionate supporters of the arts so if you can wrest yourself away from the ever-changing vistas you’ll find works by local and international artists hanging on the walls of the lodge.
Each room has views as well as walk-in wardrobes, underfloor heating, writing desks and Bose sound systems (and there’s a private chef available if you wish).
Oh, and Whare Kea is the only New Zealand lodge with its own mountain-top chalet. The fully equipped chalet at 1700 metres on the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park is only accessible by helicopter.
The only way to reach Minaret Station is by helicopter – and the owners like it that way.
Guests board at Wānaka Airport and 15 minutes later find themselves in a dramatic glacial valley that has been farmed by the Wallis family for 50 years; the view is so stunning that it invariably causes a sharp intake of breath.
At the head of the valley, the lodge itself consists of four luxury cabins and a central homestead where guests come together.
Expect restaurant-quality three-course meals featuring the farm’s own venison and lamb and highly celebrated Central Otago pinot noir while sitting around a blazing fire.
But a stay at Minaret is not about the lodge – it’s about the incredible experiences guests can have while being ferried around by helicopter. That might be eating crayfish on the side of a glacier caught moments earlier by your pilot off a wild West Coast beach.