If you’re travelling through the mountain areas of the central South Island, then you’ll almost definitely end up in Lake Tekapo at some point. It’s one of the most popular South Island tourist towns and the surrounding area, known as the Mackenzie Basin (or Mackenzie Country), is full of interesting sights. Mountain vistas are the name of the game in these parts and I’ll aim to show you some of the best places to see them. Keep reading for all the best things to do in Lake Tekapo (the town) and the Mackenzie Basin!
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The Best Things to Do in Lake Tekapo
These places are all either in Lake Tekapo itself or a very short drive away. Lake Tekapo is a good place to base yourself if you’re spending a few days in the area and there is quite a bit to do in town.
Church of the Good Shepherd
The Church of the Good Shepherd is surely New Zealand’s most photographed church, which means it can get overrun. It’s best to see it either before or after the tour buses arrive, with sunrise being the perfect time. The church sits right next to the lake and is located in town, so it’s very easy to visit.
Mount John Observatory
This small mountain overlooking Lake Tekapo is either a short drive from town or an hour’s walk. The views at the top, and from the road up there, are stunning – if you’re short on time and can only do one or two things in Lake Tekapo I’d highly recommend going to Mount John Observatory. There’s a cafe up there too — such a cool spot for a coffee!
This is also one of the spots where you can stargaze in Lake Tekapo. Tours start from town and take you up the hill where (assuming the sky is clear) you’ll get front row seats to the galaxy. Lake Tekapo is a dark sky reserve, meaning there is little to no light pollution – stargazing in New Zealand won’t get much better than this.
The Peninsula Walkway
The Peninsula Walkway is another one of my favourite things to do in Lake Tekapo. It’ll take around two hours to complete and the views, especially in winter, are as good as you’ll see in the region. If you’re feeling a little lazy you can drive to a small car park (just before Adrian’s Place, which is marked on Google Maps) and walk up the hill, which is the end point of the hike.
Lupins are big plants (part of the legume family) with bright purple and pink flowers and they can be found in Lake Tekapo in summer. The best time to see them is late November / early December and they do make for an interesting foreground to the mountains beyond.
You’ll likely be doing some hikes if visiting this area (including Mount Cook National Park), so a relaxing hour or two in a hot pool could be just the ticket. Tekapo Springs is one of the most popular Lake Tekapo attractions and is located a short walk or drive from the main part of town.
The Lakefront area in Lake Tekapo (the town) makes for a good spot to grab some takeaways and eat your dinner or lunch. You can get a view of the lake from a couple of the cafes and bars, but the town is set back quite far from the lake – so much room for development, I guess! There are also tracks which take you all the way from Tekapo Springs to the camping grounds at the northern end of the foreshore.
Lake Alexandrina / Lake McGregor
These twin lakes both feature camping grounds and are a short drive from town (past the turnoff to Mount John / the Peninsula Walkway on Godly Peaks Road). It’s worth going for a quick look after visiting those place – there are a couple of short tracks above the Lake Alexandrina which offer up great views of both, as well as Lake Tekapo in the background.
The drive out to Mount John and Lake Alexandrina is highly recommended, but the other side of the lake (the road to Double Hill Ski Area) is also fun to drive. You’ll see plenty of lake and mountain views and you won’t have to share them with many others!
Where to Stay in Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo has a lot of great options for accommodation. We recommend choosing a hotel that’s within walking distance from the lake, a view of the lake or the surrounding mountains. Some great hotel with great views and within walking distance from the Lake Tekapo lakefront include Grand Suites Lake Tekapo | Peppers Bluewater Resort | Mantra Lake Tekapo | Galaxy Boutique Hotel. There are also some good motels and holiday parks (with cool cabins) situated close to Lake Tekapo Lakes Edge Holiday Park | Lake Tekapo Village Motel. Staying in a holiday home is also fairly common, check out Star River or this Designer Cabin – with outdoor bath! If you’re looking for a hostel option, there’s YHA Lake Tekapo, located close to the lake.
Things to Do in the Mackenzie Basin
The Mackenzie Basin / Mackenzie Country region starts close to Fairlie (2.5 hours from Christchurch) and goes as far as Lake Ohau (I think – the borders are a bit confusing) and includes some of the prettiest (and bluest) lakes in New Zealand.
Lake Opuha, near Fairlie, is a man-made lake / dam and is especially scenic in winter. You can drive the gravel road to the dam for some of the best views in the region, or head to the lake front where hopefully you’ll see snow-capped mountains reflected in the calm water.
New Zealand doesn’t have a massive food culture, but pies are the exception. We love our pies in New Zealand and Fairlie has some of the best in New Zealand. Try the roast pork and apple sauce pie, or any flavour from Fairlie Bakehouse – so good!
Located between Fairlie and Lake Tekapo, the tiny historic settlement of Burkes Pass is home to some cool old buildings and Three Creeks, a little shopping area which looks straight out of a long-lost era. It mainly specialises in vintage products (with a big car theme) and is a fun place to wander.
You’ll pass by Lake Pukaki, New Zealand’s bluest lake (I imagine – I haven’t quite seen them all) when driving between Lake Tekapo and Twizel or Mount Cook. There are lots of places to stop and enjoy the views, with the best section being along the scenic road to Mount Cook.
Twizel makes for a good (aka cheaper) alternative to staying in Lake Tekapo. The town itself is alright but isn’t quite as pretty as its more famous friend. It is a lot closer to Mount Cook though, so if you’re planning to do some hiking in that area and then continue to Queenstown via Lindis Pass it’s a good option. There are a few walks in and around town, with my favourite being the tracks around and above Lake Ruataniwha.
The drive to Lake Ohau is one of the most scenic in New Zealand, assuming you do it in winter when there is snow all around. I haven’t done it in summer but I’m sure it’s still nice. The lake itself is stunning and there are a few walks to do. There’s also a ski field if you happen to visit in winter or early spring.
Lake Poaka is the closest freedom camping spot to Mount Cook and is the perfect place to stay if you want to save some money (and have a car or tent to sleep in). It’s a short drive down a rough gravel road and there is heaps of room to park up – it’s a very peaceful spot!
Mount Cook National Park
Don’t visit the Mackenzie Basin and not visit Mount Cook National Park! Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand and the national park features some incredible places to see in such a small area. The best way to see this area is on one of the many hikes. The Hooker Valley Track is the most famous but also check out the Red Tarns, Mueller Hut and the Kea Point Track.
The Tasman Glacier Track is another short walk I highly recommend. It goes up to a viewpoint overlooking Tasman Lake and Glacier and then down to the edge of the lake where you should see some icebergs. Such a pretty spot!
We haven’t been to this place yet but it’s on the list. It seems like a really nice place to drive and camp if you have a self-contained vehicle. It’s pretty off the beaten path but I’ll let you know more about it in the next few months.
After reading this post (or let’s be honest, just looking at the photos) I’m sure you’ll agree that this region is one of the most iconic in the country and should be close to the top of your South Island itinerary. If you need more help planning your trip or want to ask me anything about travelling in New Zealand, leave a comment below or shoot me an email.
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