A tranquil trip to Lake Tekapo

The night sky above the Mt John Observatory, Tekapo.Photo by Fraser Gunn.
The night sky above the Mt John Observatory, Tekapo.Photo by Fraser Gunn.
Peppers Bluewater Resort has its own mini-lake. Photo by Sally Rae.
Peppers Bluewater Resort has its own mini-lake. Photo by Sally Rae.
The Alpine Springs hot pools are shaped in the configuration of the local glacier lakes, with...
The Alpine Springs hot pools are shaped in the configuration of the local glacier lakes, with views across Lake Tekapo. Photo by Sally Rae.
Lake Alexandria is a picturesque spot near Tekapo. Photo by Sally Rae.
Lake Alexandria is a picturesque spot near Tekapo. Photo by Sally Rae.

Think of Lake Tekapo and images of a quaint church and a bronze statue of a collie dog immediately spring to mind.

It's Saturday night and I'm queuing for Saturn.

The queue extends beyond one of the funny-looking observatory domes on the top of Mount John, overlooking the Lake Tekapo township, and the night air is chilly.

Chris, one of our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides on the Earth and Sky stargazing night tour, has already described the 1degC temperature as "nice and toasty".

"Believe it or not, this is a warm night.

"We're loving it.

"It's better than doing a tour in minus seven," he says.

A woman emerges from the dome and declares Saturn to be a "little weenie thing", while the woman in front reckons she can't see anything as she peers through the telescope.

And then it is my turn.

Initially, all I can see is darkness and I fear my fledgling career as an amateur astronomer is over before it began.

But then suddenly, there it is, the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest planet in the solar system - complete with rings - and about 980 million kilometres away.

Bingo - I'm impressed.

They are big on stars and planets in Tekapo, with a working party pursuing the quest of establishing New Zealand's first starlight reserve in the region.

The initiative aims to protect and control the amount of ambient light surrounding the observatory so people can learn about the night sky to better understand and appreciate the environment both above and around them.

Established in 1965, the Mount John Observatory is the principal site for astronomy research in New Zealand, situated below one of the clearest skies in the country.

It is calm and cloud-free the night we visit, perfect conditions for astronomy.

Star-gazing is clearly a very popular activity as the Earth and Sky office in Lake Tekapo's main street is bulging at the seams when we check in at 7pm.

Two buses transport us to Mt John and there is also a later tour.

Chris first gives the "naked-eye tour" and helps us navigate the southern night sky using laser pointers, accompanied by an entertaining and informative commentary.

The sky is a mass of stars as he points out Jupiter and Saturn, which is "looking gorgeous", the bright stars Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri and the four stars that comprise the Southern Cross.

We are then free to wander around, looking through some seriously powerful telescopes, getting assistance from astro-photographer Fraser Gunn in taking images of the stars or warming up with hot chocolate in the candle-lit Astro Cafe.

Then it is back on the bus and back to Peppers Bluewater Resort for pumpkin pie and a glass of very good 2008 Earth's End Pinot Noir.

The resort has 142 rooms, including studio rooms and one, two and three-bedroom villas, with the interior and exterior decor matching the distinctive Mackenzie landscape.

Our room is stylish and comfortable, and boasts possibly the best hotel bathroom I have seen, including a bath you could just about swim lengths in and underfloor heating.

The view - looking across to the beautiful Lake Tekapo - is a ripper and the resort is the perfect place for a weekend getaway or longer luxury stay.

Dinner in the resort's Rakinui Restaurant, prior to heading out stargazing, has a midwinter Christmas theme.

There are wreaths on the walls, Santa hats on the fireplace, crackers on the tables, tiny coloured lights strung outside and Christmas music playing.

In keeping with the Christmas theme, I choose Rudolph's cousin - venison seasoned with cranberry salt and served with brandy sauce, sweet and sour red cabbage and mixed roast vegetables.

The service at Peppers Bluewater is matched by that at the Alpine Springs, Spa and Winter Park, where staff went the extra mile for my friend.

In her haste to get to Lake Tekapo, she forgot to bring any footwear other than a pair of very expensive Briarwood knee-high boots - not the sort of boots suitable for clambering around the winter park's new snow-tubing park.

After hearing of her predicament, one of the reception staff kindly lent her sneakers for the afternoon.

Now that's customer service.

First up is snow-tubing, a new attraction which is proving extremely popular on the 100 by 50m slope.

Simply sit in or lie across a tube, push off and away you go, hurtling down the carved half-circle track, before dragging your tube back up the slope and starting all over again.

It is great fun.

Next is ice-skating on the new 26 by 56m artificial rink or, in my case, "Zimmer-frame" pushing around the ice until I feel comfortable enough to go unaided.

A certain Dunedin primary school principal spots me and roars with laughter.

The ice rink caters for public ice-skating as well as ice hockey and curling from early April until mid-September.

Figure skating is becoming particularly popular in the district.

Snow and ice sports over, it is time to retire to the welcoming warmth of the hot pools.

Shaped in the configuration of the local glacier lakes - Pukaki, Ohau and Tekapo - the pools are fed by underground spring water, with temperatures from 36 to 40degC.

Private pools are planned in the future.

With a boutique day spa also on site, Alpine Springs is a great destination for all the family, particularly with combo deals for activities.

No trip to Lake Tekapo would be complete without the obligatory visit to the Church of the Good Shepherd - the tiny place of worship on the edge of the lake and, arguably, one of New Zealand's most photographed buildings - and the statue commemorating the collie dog.

David Clark, a volunteer on duty in the church, says daily visitor numbers can swell to several thousand over summer.

Outside, a man politely asks if I can refrain from taking a photograph for a few moments.

His wife has been waiting 15 minutes to try to capture a people-free image - not an easy task.

A trip to Mt John during the day is well worth the short drive, rewarded with spectacular views of Lake Tekapo and the surrounding Mackenzie landscape - the Astro Cafe even has "astronomical" sandwiches - or continue along the Godley Peaks road and take a detour to picturesque Lake Alexandrina.

Whether it's relaxation or recreation you're after, there's a lot to like about Lake Tekapo.





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