If you love driving and the great outdoors, a trip to New Zealand, especially to South Island is an absolute must. New Zealand has always been the second choice holiday destination when compared to her more popular and highly promoted neighbour Australia, but no more. Post the LOTR (Lord Of The Rings) era, the country has become a choice destination opening her doors to reveal its many natural wonders, friendly people, great outdoor lifestyle and some wonderful eateries that I fell in love with on my last visit.
I headed to New Zealand in April this year over Easter – a lovely time to enjoy Autumn weather for the Kiwis. And the plan was to spend 5 days in the South (particularly on Mount Cook) and 5 days in the North (Auckland) visiting family.
Coming out from Hong Kong, it was an 11 hour journey – almost like flying from Hong Kong to Europe! I decided to head first to Queenstown as one of our objectives was to run in the Aoraki, Mount Cook Marathon. My plan was to run in the 5km Front Runner Race with my daughter whilst my husband signed up to run the 21km half marathon. In the past three years, we’ve tried as a family to plan our holidays around a running event. Mainly to encourage and support my husband who took part in his first half marathon running around Lake Kawaguchiko at the base of Mount Fuji in 2011 and also to make sure that we worked towards a healthy goal before and during each binge holiday.
Driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook with a Stopover at the Kawarau Bunjy Centre and the Ladybird Hill Salmon Farm and Winery
A reliable car and a good GPS are your best friends on any driving holiday. I recommend that you book these in advance. We used THRIFTY which had some good deals and I made the booking when we booked our flights which turned out a wise decision as we were rewarded with an upgrade when we landed at the airport and arrived at the THRIFTY Counter which was easy to find, just past Customs.
To get to Mount Cook (3775m above sea level and New Zealand’s highest peak on South Island) you have to drive from either Queenstown or Christchurch. The drive from Christchurch is a longer one to reach Mount Cook so with limited holiday time, we opted to land in Queenstown and then drive about three and the half hours to the Hermitage Hotel Chalets which we also pre-booked ahead of our visit.
Our drive started in the late morning the idea was to stop for a late lunch and drink at a Salmon Farm and winery along the way, a favourite with locals which was also about an hour’s car ride from our Hotel. The GPS was amazingly easy to navigate and the scenery – worth the whole drive!
Along the way we stopped at the world’s first commercial bungy jumping centre at Kawarau, just outside Queenstown on the way towards Mount Cook. The Kawarau Centre is where the whole idea of jumping off a bridge started 25 years ago (yes, in New Zealand) and they offer solo or tandem jumps that are 43 m down into the roaring river below.
There are also three zip lines which I opted going on as they looked much safer and it only required you to sit down while a line pulls you 130m quickly down the same river from one end of a ledge to another.
About an hour later, we drove into Omarama to have a quick drink at the Ladybird Hill Cafe, Restaurant and Winery. This lovely stopover also houses a Salmon farm where you can try your luck catching salmon and have the restaurant cook your catch. There is also salmon – smoked or sashimi-ed as hot doeurves along with a selection of the wineries wines on sale and for tasting.
With the evening on the way, we drove straight to Mount Cook Village to check into our cozy Chalet reservations at the Hermitage. There are actually a number of other places that you can stay (budget dependant) if you are going up to Mount Cook Village but if you are going during a holiday season remember to book ahead as they are quite quickly snapped up. The Hermitage Hotel sits on the top of Mount Cook and it was a snap decision for us only because it was the host hotel for the marathoners. It also marked the start and end point for the run and was the host venue for all the runner’s pre-run briefings and post-race activities. Connected to the the Hotel is the Edmund Hillary Centre, a very highly rated Tour and Visitor centre with a Planetarium where one could book an evening tour to see the stars or book a tour to the Tasman Glaciers, both of which we booked ourselves into.
Booking at the Chalet instead of at the main hotel was a great idea. Parking was just in front of our charming cabin that could easily sleep 4 to 5 people. Wifi is not free but otherwise, the cabin is fully equipped with a small fridge, stove and kitchenette that you could easily cook a substantial meal in.
We, of course opted to explore the quality eats – all within driving distance of the Hotel and Chalets and ended up driving around the corner to have a hearty dinner at the nearby Backpacker’s Lodge Bar and Grill.
Sir Edmund Hilary’s Centre, Glentanner Park Centre, Peter’s Lookout and Twizel
If you have the kids with you or if you need a wet weather plan, a tour at the Planetarium at the Sir Edmund Hilary Centre is what I would recommend. This Centre is relatively small and right at the end of the Hotel’s gift shop which is probably the only shopping venue in the village. But in terms of booking your activities on Mount Cook – this would be your first stop as spots for activities like a Star Gazing or Glacier Tour fill up fast. If you are up for a real adventure the other thing to do is to book a helicopter ride to the glaciers and land on one of them and after that take a guided walk around the surrounds.
With a Runner’s briefing planned for us at the Hotel in the evening of Day 2 and a long day of driving behind us, we decided to keep the tours for another day and instead take it easy by just driving a short distance around Mount Cook Village to familiarise ourselves with the key points for the Run. After breakfast, we headed about 21km away from the Village to the start of the 21km marathon at Glentanner Park Centre along the scenic Lake Pukaki. This Centre has a small information centre where you can book helicopter tours and is also offers good facilities for Campervan parking. It also rents camping facilities and basic lodging units and is home to the Tasman cafe which has a good all-day dining menu and a lovely outdoor area for evening BBQs (on certain weeknights) which means that you can eat alfresco under the wonderful blanket of stars which is supposed to be at the clearest point on the planet, under New Zealand skies.
We drove another 21km from this point (42km from the resort) to Peter’s Lookout where the start of the Full Marathon was to flag off. Beautiful and scenic, Peter’s Lookout offers probably the BEST and most expansive view of Mount Cook and its surrounding area from Lake Tekapo to the Mount Cook Village.
After taking many beautiful snaps, we headed another 45 minutes by car to the nearby sleepy resort town of Twizel for a quick lunch. The town is tiny with a few restaurants, a super market and a few shops.
Run Day, The Mountaineer’s Cafe and an Evening Of Star Gazing
Woke up to glorious Autumn weather on the Run Day. If you have never done a fun Run on a fairly straight road with the mountains in front of you and the air cool and nippy then I highly recommend this one as a first! It was a first for me and my 9 year old daughter as we happily completed the 5km Front Runner.
In its first inaugural year, the Aoraki Mount Cook Marathon and Fun Run is a great run for families with a 5km, a 10km and a half and full marathon and if you are interested in participating next year – google the name of this site to look out for dates. After the Run and about two hours of rest and refreshments, we were ready to go out for a late lunch at the nearby Mountaineer’s Cafe. So much to like about this great little restaurant with its log cabin feel and good food!
After replacing half the calories lost on the Run, we headed back to our log cabin retreat for part 2 of our siesta and then went back to the Sir Edmund Hilary Centre for a Star Gazing tour that started at the Planetarium. Really liked the well-explained, entertaining and interesting look at the night sky and how to recognise the various different constellations. It was too bad that it started to drizzle afterwards which meant we were given a partial refund for the fact that we could not take up the second half of the tour outside under the actual blanket of stars. Definitely something I plan to return to do only because it is at this place in New Zealand that the night sky is supposed to be the darkest and clearest to the naked eye.
Glacier Tour and Lake Tekapo
On our last day at Mount Cook, we headed out early in the morning for a half day tour to explore the Tasman Glaciers by boat. I rate this activity as the key highlight of my entire visit to New Zealand. We took a bus out from the Hotel to the embankment beyond the glacier lake. There we hiked a good 25 minutes to the lake where we boarded a motorised boat with maybe 15 other like-minded adventurers.
There is nothing to describe the extreme serenity you feel with nature on board that boat on the glacier lake. No other tourists or people for miles around – just you and the elements and coming up besides a 3000 year old glacier to touch it. I learnt in that one afternoon why glacier water is so blue – and that is because there are particles in the water that actually reflect the sky on the water – a naturally occurring optical illusion and a reminder of the beauty outside the concrete jungles that we live in.
After dropping back at the Hotel, we headed out by car for lunch to another small alpine Village – Lake Takepo – an hour’s drive in the other direction from Twizel! Less sleepy than Twizel, you probably need about two hours maximum for a meal and walk around in this village which has more restaurants, lodges and accommodations for people who just want to enjoy the lake side venue and the outdoors. Find a decent number of restaurants from grill houses to Japanese and Italian.
The Drive Back to Queenstown and on to Auckland
After breakfast the next day, we started our two plus hour drive back towards Queenstown airport to catch a connecting Jetstar flight to Auckland. On the drive back, we stopped at the Goldfield Mines – no doubt a tourist attraction but right next to the Wildearth Outdoor Kitchen and Cellar Door, a lovely bistro and winery where we enjoyed some clams and a glass of vino before resuming our drive.
Our last stop before the airport was for a lunch date at the Amisfield Winery. If you want to make a final pit stop for a lovely meal and some great wine before leaving South Island, this would definitely be the choice venue. HRH William and Kate made it one of their stopovers in April when they visited New Zealand.
If you’ve been inspired to make a visit – we recommend you look here for a South Island holiday!