The journey from Dunedin to Wanaka or Queenstown takes you through a variety of little towns and landscapes. By car, it takes between three and three-and-a-half hours, unless you decide to stop along the way. It’s a journey I have been on countless number of times, but one I never tire of.
From Dunedin, the first little town is Waihola, a sleepy lake town that has a holiday-feel all year round. It’s a popular place for boaties, and during the summer months, the lake teems with people, jet skis and boats. There’s a small fish shop where you can buy fresh salmon and blue cod, or freshly-battered-and-cooked fish and chips (best eaten on the shore of the lake, as long as it isn’t windy!).
Past Waihola, the next place you could stop is Milton. Most people don’t stop here, but if you feel like Subway, by all means do. Of note is the big kink in the road, which is apparently from roadworkers’ planning to meet in the middle, from either end, and each working to their own right side. Otherwise, poor Milton gets a bit of a bad wrap from Dunedinites, mocked for its slogan, “Town of Opportunities”. Because it’s not, sadly.
Lawrence is a pretty little town along the way; stop for giant ice creams at the first dairy you come to, or for delicious teas and cakes at The Wild Walnut Café. Legend has it that a pair of circus lions were once on the loose in Lawrence, plus it lays claim to being New Zealand’s first free Wi-Fi spot – phoar!
After Lawrence, you’ll drive for about an hour before hitting Roxburgh, the next most-likely place to stop (aside from Ettrick in the autumn, for deliciously sweet pumpkins). Unless you’re travelling through on a Sunday, you should really stop for a world-famous Jimmy’s pie, although there are a few other takeaway joints further down the main street. Roxburgh is also a good place to stop and let the kids stretch their legs in the playground (conveniently located opposite Jimmy’s).
Not far past Roxburgh is Alexandra; you’ll know when you’re approaching as the hillsides suddenly become full of schisty rock formations and wild thyme. Known affectionately as ‘Alex’ (and why not?), there are loads of nice cafes and bakeries along the main drag, as well as a few in the town centre. Look out for Jack Frost lurking in the corner of the playground. During September, there’s the annual Blossom Festival, and the summer months see local tourists flocking to holiday homes and camping grounds in this dry, hot paradise.
Merely ten minutes from Alex lies Clyde, a sleepy township that is slowly growing and gaining in popularity. The old township was flooded when the Clyde Dam was built, and lies deep below Lake Dunstan. The Post Office Café has a great reputation and is a good spot for taking children, and there are a number of gorgeous old buildings to be seen.
The drive from Clyde to Cromwell is breathtaking, and never fails to take my breath away. As you wind along beside the vividly-coloured lake, the mountains open up before you, and the hills to your right become parched and dry. The lake is a popular spot for water skiing and boating, and there are sheltered bays for swimming in. We often stop at a bakery or the supermarket in Alex, and have a picnic lunch in one of the viewpoints above the lake.
Cromwell is landmarked by the giant fruit (and one year, when there was an infestation, with a giant wasp), and is known for it’s beautiful stone fruit during summer. However, if you do stop for fruit, don’t go for the biggest, busiest stalls – the best fruit is to be found in the little stalls (some still with honesty boxes), or on the back roads (the best cherries are on the back road to Bannockburn!). Cromwell is home to a new speedway, and is a good halfway point between Wanaka and Queenstown.
At the main T-junction, turn left to head towards Queenstown and Bannockburn, or right for Wanaka and Hawea.
Bannockburn is home to some of the country’s best (in my opinion, anyway!) wineries, along with stunning vistas. You’re spoiled for choice here, but we always stop at Carrick (they also have a divine restaurant with an awesome kids’ menu), Mt Difficulty, Amisfield, and Desert Heart.
A new cafe has recently opened in Bannockburn – The Kitchen Bannockburn – and while Tall found the menu a bit confusing, I liked that they were open to making virtually anything for kids (except for deep-fried anything).
From Bannockburn, it’s roughly an hour to Queenstown, depending on how many stops you make along the way – for wine, cheese, bungy jumping, sightseeing, jet boating… My personal recommendations for wineries are Peregrine and Chard Farm; Gibbston Valley is by far the busiest at any given moment, popular with tour groups and big buses, but apart from the wine cave, I don’t think it’s worth the stop (although they do make a mighty fine – but very expensive – Masadam cheese which you can buy from the Cheesery).
If you choose to go right at that T-junction, you’ll be in Wanaka in roughly 45 minutes. There are wineries to stop at on the way (Aurum does a lovely dessert wine; The Lazy Dog has a nice cafe), as well as various other sights; you’ll also pass through Luggate which is a quiet (very quiet!) little spot with a camping ground that gets packed over the summer months.