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NZ: 5-day Mackenzie Country road trip!

The Mackenzie country is a beautiful part of New Zealand and is best seen slowly. Like a fine red wine with a rich beef stew, slow down and spend a few days drinking deeply of the fresh air and twirling in circles, like I did on my self-drive road trip.

South Island roadtrip

If you’re an international visitor to NZ please have a look at DriveSafe about what it’s like driving on our roads before you get behind the wheel!

Day 1 – Christchurch

Fly into Christchurch, rent a car and head off for Tekapo, via lunch, about 1 hour 45 minutes away, in Geraldine. Geraldine is a tiny town with some hidden treasures like Barkers, the fruit juice, jam, sauce and chutney company. Pop into their store and pick up some delicious tastes for your week, or take them home for gifts to the jealous ones you’ve left behind. 

Have lunch at Verde, which is set back off the road with a country garden and a great array of homemade food.

About half an hour from Geraldine, The Wee Smokehouse ( formerly Fat Albert’s Smoke House) is worth pulling on the brakes for. Alison and Keith smoke salmon, duck, venison, chorizo and you can call in and pick up something – or order a hamper online and have it ready to pick up on your way through.

Then another half hour on and you’ll arrive in beautiful Tekapo.

If you’re planning to stay a night or two in Christchurch before you set off, here are my picks for where to stay.

Where to stay in Tekapo

Tekapo is a booming little town set on the lake and consequently you are spoiled for choice when it comes to places to stay. I checked out several properties and stayed in two. Jump onto Tekapo Holiday Homes and you’ll see over 40 houses available to rent. They range from a trendy one bedroom with a concrete floor and a wood burner for those chilly wintery nights (Mary Hut), to large family homes for bigger groups.

Tekapo accommodation
The wintery view from my veranda at Mary Hut

Day 2 – Tekapo

Start with breakfast at Run 77. It’s one of very few cafes in this tiny town, and fortunately they do a great flat white plus their homemade muffins are fab.

Then head down the lakeside to Tekapo Springs, which could keep you and the kids occupied for the whole day! In the winter they have an outdoor ice skating rink where the local kids hockey team was practicing when I went for a look (not a skate, please note!) Interestingly (fact for geeks) the cooling system that keeps the ice frozen provides enough extra power to heat the three outdoor hot pools. And speaking of which, make sure you have your togs (swimming costumes for my non-NZ readers 😉 because the pools are inviting, positioned to take full advantage of those lake and mountain views.

Tekapo hot springs
Hot pools with a view!

If it’s pampering you’re after, I can wholeheartedly recommend you have a massage at the spa. Sonje, the spa manager, has an incredible way of blending her technique with the music. I only wish I had booked a longer treatment!

Snow tubing is another really fun activity for young and old! Take your rubber tube up the moving path up to the top of the run, jump in and woooosh! In summer they have an enormous inflatable water slide on the ice skating rink.

With only a few restaurants to choose from I’d head to The Tin Plate for dinner – about two doors along from Run 77! (Told ya this place was small).

If the weather is clear, book a star gazing tour with Dark Sky Project, formerly Earth and Sky, if it’s cloudy, cross your fingers because you’ll be back in Tekapo at the end of the week.

Mt John telescope
You can see Saturn’s rings through the big telescope in this hut!

Day 3 – Mt Cook

Leave Tekapo for mighty Aoraki Mt Cook – about an hour and a half drive away.

If it’s nice stay, stop at The Helicopter Line at Glentanner Park for a sightseeing heli tour to the top of the mountains! The sky was blue and snow was glistening white when we lifted off from the airfield and choppered over the braided Tasman river to settle on a snowy flat for 15 minutes of photos. It’s gobsmacking up here! This is spendy (from $235 to $620) but when else will you get to land on a snowy mountain top with views like this?

Mt Cook heli
Not a bad day in the office!

If the weather is not great, save this for tomorrow and continue on up to the Hermitage Hotel where your window looks onto moody Mt Cook. On a good day you can see the snowcapped peak. Sometimes it hides behind low clouds and mist. I had a good day!

Note: the Hermitage will reopen in September.

Hermitage Hotel
My room with a view at the Hermitage. Not too shabby!

There is a lot to do waaaay out here at the foot of Mt Cook, whatever the season. In fact summer is the high season here because Mt Cook is not a ski mountain. It’s too steep for that. Instead there are lakes and glaciers for hikers, picnickers, photographers and those who just love the fresh air.

Mt Cook
See the cloud over the peak of Mt Cook? Gale force winds!

The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, attached to the Hermitage Hotel, is filled with memorabilia from the great explorer and humanitarian and there’s also an impressive digital dome planetarium showing starry night movies in 2D and 3D as well as documentaries of mountaineers and their work.

Sir Ed Hillary, My Cook
Sir Ed is immortalised here

Book a 4WD Tasman Valley Argo Tour from the hotel and go for a ride in an 8-wheeled buggy to see the Tasman Glacier with short walks to take photos of this spectacular part of the world.

Day 4 – Twizel

Leave Mt Cook today (and take that heli tour if you missed out yesterday) then head back to the Tekapo Twizel Road (SH8) but turn right to Twizel. You thought Tekapo was small? This place is tiny!

Head to Shawtys for a coffee – or sliders and pizza if it happens to be lunch time! They also have a really good dinner menu.

High Country Salmon Twizel
Pick up your sashimi or salmon pate here!

Just 5 minutes south of Twizel is High Country Salmon where salmon are raised in pens in the glacial waters of the Wairepo arm. The natural water flow keeps their cages clean and they are fed daily with little fish pellets.

I know this because tourists can feed them from little pots of pellets waiting to be thrown in the “visitors” pool. When the staff threw bucket loads into the larger pools it was like a scene from Austin Powers and the killer sea bass! New Zealand salmon feed doesn’t contain antibiotics. (You can read about their food here >>)

Where to stay near Twizel

Head back towards the Mt Cook turnoff because tonight’s accommodation is the luxurious Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat.

Built by ex-Wellingtonians Kaye and Luke Paardekooper, they have two B&B rooms in their own amazing house, but drive down to the lake edge and they’ve built a two bedroom cottage with open fire, and hot tub outside on the snow-covered lawn. It also has a massage room for your own use (you’ll need to book a few days in advance for a therapist), and a sauna. Pure luxury! Pure seclusion (in case you’re a celeb!)

Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat
The bedroom WITH A VIEW and spa/sauna of Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat

Day 5 – Tekapo

Drive back to Tekapo today (because one day wasn’t long enough!) and this time stay at Peppers Hotel. They also have a restaurant (which serves a pretty mean steak).

If you didn’t get to Tekapo Springs Spa on day 1, do it today! Then you really must head to the CUTE Church of the Good Shepherd for a photo op. It’s a Tekapo icon and in spring is surrounded in lupins.

When I was there I got accidentally involved in a marriage proposal! (Read my post here about being johnny-on-the-spot >>)

Tekapo church
Tekapo’s Church of the Good Shepherd is perfect to propose in front of!

If the sky is clear then later tonight will be a great time to join Earth and Sky Tours and go up to the monstrous telescopes at the top of nearby Mt John to gaze at the stars, planets and the moon.

I actually saw Saturn’s rings and of course the moon’s craters. I could have stayed peering through the telescopes for hours. Except it was jolly cold. Fortunately they know your urban puffer jacket won’t cut it and will provide some serious warm weather gear.

Lunch or coffee up Mt John at Astro Cafe is well worth doing for the most incredible day time views of where you’ve stood gazing heavenwards. It can be VERY windy up here, so hold on to your hat (and your earrings!).

Astro Cafe Mt John
The killer from Astro Cafe on top of Mt John

Day 6 – Back to Christchurch

On your way back to Christchurch, if you love paintings and want to see where one of New Zealand’s finest scenery painters does his work, stop at The Garage Gallery, in Kimbell, just before you get to Fairlie.

It was literally a car repair shop and today is a gallery curated by Chris and Lulu Taylor who show (and sell) several local artists work including Nathanael Provis’ amazing river and mountain paintings. Oh if only I had a spare 5K!

Nathanael Provis
This humble gallery is full of fabulous NZ art

And that, my friends, is how I spent my five days driving around stunning Mackenzie Country!

OR instead of returning to Christchurch, continue on to Queenstown through Central Otago and visit Cromwell, Clyde and Wanaka.Save

Clyde Central Otago
Clyde main street

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!