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South Island: Alpine Lakes Journey


By Concrete Playground
September 12, 2018
By Concrete Playground
September 12, 2018

Even the most seasoned traveller will find it hard not to audibly gasp at the beauty of the alpine lakes region of New Zealand's South Island.

You can easily see the dramatic, changing landscape of the alpine lakes in a short space of time with a drive from Christchurch to Wanaka and Queenstown via Lake Tekapo and the Mackenzie region. Encounter the Southern Alps standing like sentinels and growing larger as you enter alpine New Zealand. Admire lake upon lake of emerald and brilliant blue waters as you drive south through the Canterbury plains and farmland. Discover the vineyards and waterfalls and walks at varying length. The drive itself is beautiful and if you fancy yourself a photographer, allow time for (the many) scenic stops. There is so much to be seen, tasted and experienced on this journey, you really need some local knowledge to give you the full lowdown.

Read on to start planning and creating your own customised journey with our itinerary builder below.


Any time of year is beautiful in this region. Though, autumn — which runs March through to May — is particularly sensational. It has its own flavour with the rich golds and reds of the changing leaves tempting wannabe artists, especially at Arrowtown. The days are warm, full of sunshine, and conducive to getting out and about.


Christchurch is the gateway to the South Island and a charming experience in itself. There are 13 daily non-stop flights to Christchurch from Australia’s main airports. After taking time to explore the city, set out on your adventure southwest toward Wanaka and Queenstown via alpine sights and experiences at Lake Tekapo, Aoraki and the Mackenzie region.


Allow $100–$150 a day for petrol, worthy entertainment and cheap and cheerful eats, and if you tend to enjoy the finer things in life, give yourself upwards of $250 a day to take some bigger adventures, find some luxe ways to relax and eat some truly sensational food.


Lake Pukaki. The largest of the three roughly parallel alpine lakes (Tekapo and Ohau are the other two), Pukaki owes its distinct blue colour to very finely ground rock particles from the glaciers. Park at the southern end and look down the lake to see Mount Cook rising majestically up at the other end.

Plan Your Journey Through the Alpine Lakes

Track down the must-visit local haunts.

Alpine Lakes

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Alpine Lakes

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    Venture Through the Alpine Lakes

    Do as the locals do.

    The Food

    From sky-high cafes to authentic Indian fare, here's how to eat your way through the alpine lakes.

    1. Minaret Station

    Taking a helicopter to lunch sounds over the top — we hear you. But this is a once in a lifetime kind of meal set high in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

    2. Astro Cafe

    Sip your flat white 1000 metres above sea level surrounded by 360-degree views of the Mackenzie Basin.

    3. The Spice Room

    Ask for one of the two top booths by the fire, settle in and relish in the fresh, wholesome flavours offered at this Indian restaurant in Wanaka.

    4. Francesca's Italian Kitchen

    Dig into warming, authentic pizzas and pastas indoors or out at this Italian restaurant right by the waterfront in Wanaka.

    5. The Old Mountaineer's Cafe

    Have a locally sourced feed and take in breathtaking views at this iconic cafe in the Aoraki Mount Cook Village, opened by famed mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary.

    The Drink

    Sample the goods at Cardrona Distillery or take a tour of Rippon Winery — wine or beer lover, we've got you covered.

    1. Gin and Raspberry

    When it’s time to kickback, enjoy a signature gin and raspberry on the bar’s balcony, offering some of the best views in Wanaka.

    2. Lalaland Lounge Bar Wanaka

    Expect views, house-made limoncello, daily happy hours and a great taste in music at this bar dedicated to cocktails.

    3. Cardrona Distillery

    Tour this family-owned artisanal distillery in Cardrona Valley, then taste test the variety of spirits made with pure South Island water.

    4. Rhyme and Reason Brewery

    Sample local beers, play giant Jenga and even realign with a Sunday morning yoga class at this brewery and bar in Wanaka.

    5. Rippon Winery

    Make a stop at Wanaka’s oldest vineyard. Also, it’s allegedly the most photographed vineyard in the world, so you know it’s a stunner.

    The Adventures

    With skydiving, canyoning and snowboarding more,get your heart pumping among some stunning nature.

    1. Skydive Wanaka

    Take in six lakes, glaciers, Mount Cook, Mount Aspiring and the wide blue yonder 15,000 feet above Wanaka.

    2. Cowans Hill Walkway

    An easy five-kilometre round trip, this bike ride around Lake Tekapo is an idyllic way to see town, lake, mountain and local fauna.

    3. Mount Dobson Ski Fields

    Two hours from Christchurch, three from Queenstown and 30 minutes from Tekapo — these ski fields offer beginners a perfect spot to learn to ski or snowboard.

    4. Wildwire Wanaka

    Venture up the highest waterfall via ferrata in the world at Twin Falls, then brave the glacial waters in one of the hidden pools beneath the falls.

    5. Glacier Explorers

    Discover this three-in-one adventure including a short hike through alpine scenery, jetboat trip across Lake Tasman and a sensory encounter with some icebergs.

    The Escapes

    Spend the day in a hot spring or recharge at an eco-friendly lakeside retreat — this list of things will keep you relaxed.

    1. Hot Yoga Fusion

    Elevate that heart rate, flush those toxins and go a bit deeper into that warrior three at this hot yoga studio in Wanaka.

    2. Tekapo Springs Hot Pools

    Come during the day for a dip surrounded by views of Lake Tekapo and the Two Thumb mountain range or at night for a stargazing soak.

    3. Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat

    Recharge in the wilderness among the trees at this eco-friendly, luxury retreat situated in the heart of the Te Waipounamu World Heritage area.

    4. Tekapo Springs Glacial Spa

    Look to the spa and book a facial, massage, pedicure or manicure ahead of time and combine it with a pool pass to float away any remaining tension.

    5. Roy's Peak

    You need to be pretty fit to tackle this one, though you don’t need to do the full 16-kilometre, five to six-hour journey to see some spectacular countryside.

    The Outdoors

    Spend the night stargazing while soaking in hot springs or take a mountain hike and get back to nature.

    1. Southern Alps Scenic Flight

    To really appreciate the grandeur of the Southern Alps, take to the air on a scenic flight from Wanaka, Tekapo or Mount Cook.

    2. Mount Iron Loop Track

    Ten minutes from the buzz of Wanaka’s lakefront, take this 6.5-kilometre walk through scenic views and fragrant manuka bush.

    3. Mount John Summit Circuit

    Walk the three-hour loop track up to the summit of Mount John and take in 360-degree views of the dramatic Lake Tekapo scenery.

    4. Tekapo Springs Stargazing

    Make the most of the Dark Sky Reserve and do some stargazing from the comfort of a hammock floating in the Tekapo Springs hot pools.

    5. Mount John Observatory

    Spend the night gazing at the Milky Way in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, where light pollution is strictly patrolled for your viewing pleasure.

    The Culture

    There’s a quirky thrift shop and a vintage car museum. Get your culture fix with these five activities.

    1. Wastebusters in Wanaka

    ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ is the name of the game at this community-owned enterprise selling second-hand, quality clothing, books, games, sports gear and retro treasures.

    2. The Picture Lounge

    Peruse (and maybe purchase) regional and international landscape, travel, adventure and fine art images by a selection of NZ photography talent.

    3. Church of the Good Shepherd

    Swallow your pride and grab a selfie at NZ's most photographed building set against the bright teal waters of Lake Tekapo and snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps.

    4. Gallery Thirty Three

    Discover NZ painting, sculpture, glass, ceramics or jewellery, curated by the passionate team at this gallery dedicated to contemporary NZ creators.

    5. Warbirds and Wheels

    If planes, trains and automobiles are your thing, pay a visit to this historic little museum complete with a retro cafe and fireplace at the Wanaka airport.

    Venture Through the Alpine Lakes

    Do as the locals do.

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