Wanaka Feature

The Town That’s Not For Us

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Dalene & Pete Heck

The tiny little nuggets of land in the South Pacific that make up New Zealand have been on our to-do list for a long time, and most specifically, the southern of the two main islands. Not to disparage the northern half of the country that we never got to see, but we are forever drawn to peaks that dwarf us. They provide the temperate climate we are most comfortable in and invigorate us with reminders of our home.So when blogging colleagues contacted us earlier this year to offer to play matchmaker for a housesit they could no longer take, we hesitated only briefly, and only because it was forcing us to plan much farther ahead than we are used to (a whole six months, if you can believe it)! But when we finally said yes, we were very glad we did. Two adorable dogs and a cranky old cat to keep us company for two months, and with mountain ranges right outside our door? Paradise.

At least it started out that way.

Wanaka is a small town of just over 5,000 people, an hour away from the more popular adventure destination of Queenstown. We expected it to be New Zealand’s equivalent of comparing Alberta’s Jasper to Banff and we weren’t far off on that assumption. Wanaka offers many of the same amenities on a smaller scale, and in all honesty, is a prettier town. We quickly fell into a lovely friendship with the owners of the home we were to take care of, and settled in just a few minutes walk from the waterfront and not far from the centre. It felt familiar, comforting, and relaxing.

Our days were so incredibly quiet compared to our last few months and we quickly fell into a routine that was welcome and needed. The very best part of our stay came in the form of the three furry little bundles of pure joy. Two walks a day for the dogs meant exploring the area more than we probably would have otherwise, and with such dynamic scenery and a variety of paths available, we never tired of it. The dogs were playful and oh so good, plus the walks offered us a break from tackling the work we had let pile up while cavorting around Africa. Such is the typical pattern we’ve developed: travel until near exhaustion for a few months and then settle down and bury ourselves behind laptops. We fell into a cozy groove and were very productive. We rested and nestled.

But so it came to be that after our two months in Wanaka, we were ready to leave. And not solely because of the itchy feet that perpetually plague us (although that is always an issue), but there was just something about our stay that was disagreeing with us.

I hesitate to say anything adverse about Wanaka because I have to question whether it was the town, just a handful of the people, or even ourselves that caused our stay to be less than the all-out spectacular we anticipated. Somehow, negative energy just seemed to follow us.

Part of it was a rough patch we endured in our personal and work lives. Another part was an odd vibe we felt from the town – many of the residents we met lived up to the warmth expected of Kiwis, but a handful of others made us feel less than welcome. We felt, undoubtedly, some sort of competitive vibe among some of the creative types we met (we’re not alone – a bit more on that in this post). Some conversations we had were so incredibly awkward we began to question the impressions we were giving. What were we putting out there? What did we say to make people act that way towards us? We have never felt the need to ask those questions of ourselves before.

And like most humans tend to do, we dwelled on the pessimism.

It is difficult to strip one experience from another, to decipher the root cause of our feelings given the various forces at play. We don’t want to assign blame or tell others not to visit as it is a stunning location with a lot to offer tourists. As a community, we just don’t think it is for us. And that’s okay, it’s not something we can expect from every single place.

It just really surprised us.

Ignoring all other issues, we at least happily indulged in the beauty that surrounded us and had no problem enjoying ourselves. We climbed a nearby mountain, road-tripped often, and enacted new business plans to more firmly secure our future. I was also routinely thankful for the company of the sweet pets as I competed for Pete’s time against the mountain landscapes and the brilliance of the Milky Way (she begged his camera’s attention nightly and won often, that wily celestial minx). With two months to balance work and play, Wanaka served as an excellent base.

And that is one of the best things about housesitting – it lets us explore an area from every angle, all the while recuperating from rapid travel by playing house for the first time in many months.

We deem it a successful stay, even though a bit distressing. But that’s just the way it is sometimes.

how to do it

While this particular housesit came via a personal connection, there are many websites out there to help match homeowners with housesitters. Want to get into housesitting and live rent-free around the world? Pick up our ebook for all the juicy details on how to get started and get discounts to some housesitting websites that are worth more than the cost of the book.

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  1. Wow that is surprising to hear – what a shame. Wanaka has been somewhere I have wanted to live when I move back home for a while although it probably wouldn’t be possible anyway because of the lack of job opportunities there. Waikiki island is also high on my list (and the weather is better)

    1. We’ve gotten a couple of comments privately from people who understood what we felt there – I wish we could say it was just us but I’m beginning to be sure it’s not. Such a shame! Such a beautiful town.

  2. I really enjoy your blog. Winter is coming to our little corner of Canada and New Zealand has always been on the list to visit.

    When you enter a new community, do you use meetup to find people to hang out with? We’re wintering in Mexico this year and I’ve found a few internet nerds like me to practice Spanish and drink Starbucks and talk blogs though both FB and MU. I’d imagine in a town of 5000 it must be different to find compatible humans…if only 1 in 100 are like minded you’re looking for the few interesting ones I guess.

    Would love to hear more about your income streams! 🙂

  3. So sorry to hear this guys. I’ve only spent a little bit of time in Wanaka and although many people dwell on it, it wasn’t my favorite place. Maybe because everybody said it would be awesome or maybe because it has been “hyped” overall and received way too many visitors. I hope however that you will get to explore more of New Zealand because after having been all over the world (well, to a lot of places) it’s still in my top 3 of most beautiful places. And good luck with your dad … I know what it’s like. Mine’s turning 87 tomorrow (he was 53 when he got me) and he has been in the hospital various times during my travels. It’s always hard when you are not around and can’t be there for him but I’ve learned the hard way those are sacrifices one makes when traveling a lot…

    1. Thanks Antonette! I wondered, too, if our high expectations played a bit of a role in how we eventually felt about the place. We tried to go in completely neutral as we normally do but everyone RAVES about it so much, like you said!

      We did get to road-trip all over the south island when our housesit was done and it definitely is a beautiful place!

  4. Ah, that’s too bad that some bad juju came during your visit to Wanaka. It’s so disappointing to hear because New Zealand is one of my favorite places in the world. I lived in Wellington for six months and pine to return.

    At least your three furry friends treated you with love and I’m sure the only questions they asked centered around food and play.

  5. Sorry to hear you met with some less-than-supportive people. Whenever we encounter odd behaviour on the road, I always wonder if it’s a cultural thing? Like, am I just misunderstanding someone’s intentions because I don’t get their way of doing things?

    Anyway, this is what makes the travelling life great. If you don’t like a place, or it just isn’t a fit for you, you can move on to something new and different having grown a little in the process.


  6. Stunning photos! I come from a small town and I think this is some kind of a thing among small communities (in the developed countries, I mean). People are afraid of strangers, they don’t trust them and they also jealous of whatever those strangers have accomplished. Don’t dwell on it too much and don’t take it personally.

    1. That is so true Jo – I came from a small town too so I totally get what you are saying. I guess I just didn’t expect to feel it so abruptly and often. So disappointing!

  7. You are not alone in these “vibes” you got in Wanaka.I am a kiwi and I lived in central Otago but I always found Wanaka to not have a lot of…I da know?…soul?.All the people with money move there and they tend to be abit reserved.As the other person commented,it is a small town thing I think ( Even though a lot of them are from Auckland!:)

  8. The photos look beautiful and I would have loved having pets for a little while. I’m feeling a little frustrated by this post though because you’re alluding to things without really explaining them…and I’m curious knowing nothing about Wanaka. Are the people unfriendly? Are they unfriendly towards the two of you because you are popular bloggers or just unfriendly because you are outsiders? Sometimes small towns are very insular places.

    Maybe you don’t want to get into specifics. But one thing I always say is that in the end people always make the difference in liking or not liking a place. We may go somewhere because of wonderful scenery or a special highlight, but any place we spend significant time in will be shaped by the people we meet.

    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Hey Frank – I do understand your frustration, but I didn’t feel comfortable with calling specific people out, nor do I believe it’s fair to speculate on why they treated us this way. Like I said, maybe it was our demeanour, or maybe they were even just having a bad day themselves. Unlike some other bloggers, we don’t blog just for the sake of being controversial, and so we want to consider carefully what we say.

      However, since publishing this, we’ve gotten a few private messages that suggest it has to do with the fact that we were just outsiders. And if that’s the case, then the title sticks – it’s just not a place for us. Like you said, people can make all the difference.

  9. You two are two of the friendliest, likeable people I know in fact. Sounds like some jealous types maybe? Don’t let them get to you. Their problem not yours!

    You should come to Liverpool, it’s friendly here! 🙂


  10. Aww… to cut short a trip in a town as beautiful must have been disappointing. Glad the adorable pets made for some lasting happy memories at least 🙂

  11. Tom and I are at a housesit now and one thing that we have found to be universal about housesits is that they take you places you probably wouldn’t have gone to otherwise. Countries, towns, or even just a neighborhood that you wouldn’t have stayed in otherwise. We have also felt that not every place we have visited for a housesit was a place we would want to go back to, but it is always such a great opportunity to get work done, recharge and get some quality per time in. It sounds like you had all of that in spades even if you probably wont be visiting this spot again in the future 🙂

  12. We really enjoyed your honesty in this post, it’s something we are trying to do more and not just sharing “how beautiful” it was etc. but more emotionally how the experience was. Superb photos also! 🙂


  13. Hi. I really liked the honesty of your post. It just that in my life, I have experienced lots of ups and downs. Via the internet, there seems to be either everything is just fantastic or the opposite, lots of hate. I enjoyed reading your balanced and nuanced report of your feelings. You seem genuine and open. Thank you for posting this report.

  14. What a nice, honest post. And such a true statement, “They can’t all be.” This can apply to so many things. My sister is currently living a life she loves in India, but a friend of mine quickly commented that although it seems fabulous it would make her extremely anxious to live a nomadic lifestyle like my sister does.

    Also I totally laughed at your 6-month advance plan for your trip…I am so last minute when I plan our trips, it makes me happy to know I’m not the only one that likes it that way! 🙂

  15. It must have been a weird feeling for you guys! We’ve visited small places that were inundated with tourists and felt locals were more tolerant than friendly, Wanaka sounds like that but more subtle. Good thing you enjoyed the location and had sweet pets to care for:) Stunning scenery, it does look like home!!!!

  16. Sorry to hear of your less than stellar time in Wanaka. Loved my 3 weeks traveling in New Zealand, but had heard great things about Wanaka, so went with maybe too high of expectations. It was peak summertime season, had a hard time even finding a room, so the nice people I met were mostly other tourists. Only spent a few days there, but Diamond Lake/Rocky mountain hike was one of my favorites. Thanks for sharing your pics & stories! It’s amazing that you covered so much ground with 3 pets to care for! My sits with one or 2 dogs, I’ve been pretty house bound, as owners have only allowed up to 3 hours away, and without a car it’s hard to do much in that time. Do you always rent a car on your house sits? And do the animals come along?

    1. Most of the housesits we take, use of the homeowner’s car comes with it – we rarely take a sit without that being a part of the deal (unless public transportation is super easy or we are inner city). We took the animals along on all of our hikes that they could handle (up to an hour) – otherwise we had about 6-8 hours to explore during the day or after their dinner. Lots of time to explore!

  17. Bummer that you didn’t jive with such a beautiful place, but it happens and as you say, it’s hard to say what the cause is. Better to brush it off and be on to your next fabulous destination!

    I have thought a lot about whether I will ever quit my career and travel full time – the biggest drawback would be not having a dog – so this housesitting seems like a great way to nurture the animal lover in me 🙂

  18. Hey I am sorry you didn’t have the greatest experience in NZ. Sometimes you end up in a great place but surrounded by the wrong people. As we travel around it is amazing to see the different feeling of places,attitudes of the people within the same country/region/city.

  19. I’m a kiwi and even kiwis sometimes find Wanaka to have an aloof air about it. But there are plenty of other friendly small towns here with stunning scenery. When I travel I like to avoid doing the tourist thing and get to know the grassroots people of a country.
    I lived in Queenstown and worked in the tourist industry in the 80s it was good then but now it is so touristy that it has lost it’s soul. A case of too much of a good thing maybe.

  20. Dalene and Pete,
    I’ve traveled to NZ quite abit, one of my favorite places, but it’s been exclusively the N Island. The weather is great and people are friendly. There are even mountains to see and climb. Check it out sometime….?

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