Lately, I find myself muttering things like, I remember when this place was only this big. Is this a sign I’m getting old? I’ve been lucky enough to call New Zealand home for nearly a decade, which means I’ve watched plenty of places change, grow, and evolve with the times, especially when it comes to tourism.
Lake Tekapo is one of those spots.
Eternally popular, Tekapo was positively heaving with tourists until the borders closed. Like so many of our South Island towns, when the tourists left, they became quiet. But tourists don’t make a town, and Covid didn’t destroy the heart of this iconic lake town. Tekapo, like all of our favorite places, endured.
Since one of my dearest friends Hollie of Mountain House Creative, moved there a few years ago, I found myself again stopping and spending time in Tekapo as I once did when I first moved to the South Island. To visit Tekapo is to see one of my favorite parts of the South Island.
The past few years have given Tekapo a chance to breathe and settle. Nestled in the heart of the central South Island, in the Mackenzie Country, Tekapo has earned its place among the most iconic New Zealand views.
Before the pandemic, Tekapo was one of those buzzy small South Island towns that drew people in like a magnet. But the past few years meant it was quiet, like really quiet. This means it’s never been a better time to visit! From incredible scenery, lots of adventure, dark night skies, and the kindest locals you’ll ever meet, I was so happy to spend several days here soaking it all in. And when Tekapo puts on her winter coat, well, there is nowhere more beautiful!
Here are some of my favorite photos from a winter getaway to Tekapo – enjoy.
1. Take in the stunning views along the lakefront
My last adventure to Tekapo was back in July, the heart of our winter. Because of its dry, arid, inland climate, Tekapo sees some of the coldest winter days and hottest summer days. Crisp winter mornings in Lake Tekapo are just so beautiful.
Call me crazy, but I think Tekapo is the most beautiful in winter, especially when there is a lot of snow.
The bright turquoise lake is set against golden grasses that lead up to the snowcapped Southern Alps. Our highest mountain, Aoraki / Mt. Cook, is visible in the distance. Perched perfectly on the shores of the lake is the enigmatic stone church. It’s the most famous church in New Zealand, that’s for sure. Not that we have a lot compared to where I grew up in the Bible Belt of America.
Lake Tekapo gets its iconic bright turquoise blue color from the super fine glacial powder suspended in the water. The mountain glaciers grind rocks into fine dust on their journey toward the lake. The lake often reflects green in the clouds above on a cloudy day.
Always take some time to walk along the lakefront and soak up the stunning mountain views.
2. Curl up and be cozy at Aldourie Lodge
The view from the front door of Adourie Lodge in Lake Tekapo is just about as good as it gets!
A stone’s throw away from the famous Church of the Good Shepherd, with some of the best views around, Aldourie Lodge delights and surprises all. On the lakefront in the oldest part of Tekapo in one of the oldest houses in Tekapo, Aldourie Lodge invites you in, making you not want to leave. Nestled on the shores of Lake Tekapo, in an era of unprecedented development all over New Zealand, there’s something so lovely about being able to stay in historic spaces.
Here you can stay in Aldourie Lodge itself, a beautifully renovated cottage that sleeps six, next door in the Awa Cottage, which sleeps four, or in the Sealy Street Studio, sleeping two. When you visit Tekapo, try and stay here.
3. Grab the best coffee and chill out at the Jack Rabbit Cafe
I’ll let you in on a secret, the best coffee and views in town are from Jack Rabbit Cafe, right across from the footbridge. As a writer, I always look for cafe spaces that feel cozy and inviting. The vibe and comfort levels are just as important to me as the coffee and food.
With heaps of space, Jack Rabbit is the kind of place where you can hang out for hours with friends, hide away with a good book on a rainy day, or bring your computer and do some writing.
You can’t go wrong here with epic outdoor seating overlooking the lake and fairtrade organic coffee.
4. Go for a scenic flight around New Zealand’s highest mountain
In recent years one of the must-dos when you visit Tekapo, is to take a scenic flight around the iconic mountains. If you think the views from the ground wow you, just wait til you hit the skies. Air Safaris is a Tekapo institution, flying around the mountains here since the 70s. Family-owned and operated, they fly in fixed-wing small aircraft and helicopters. Both are amazing.
The trip you want to do is the epic Grand Traverse, which flies over the stunning high country stations and braided rivers. You’ll pass by Aoraki/Mt. Cook, along the alps and the glaciers, including the Tasman Glacier. Eventually, you’ll cross the divide to the West Coast by Franz and Fox Glaciers before heading back to Tekapo. The helicopter version is an hour-long flight, the Mt. Cook Franz and Fox Magic tour is just as amazing and includes a snow landing.
My favorite part is soaring over the iconic red mountaineering huts in Mt. Cook National Park. Sitting at 2200m, Plateau Hut looks directly across the vast Grand Plateau icefield to the east face of Aoraki/Mt Cook. Perched on the world’s edge, the Grand Plateau icefields drain into the Hochstetter Icefall, descending down to the Tasman Glacier. This hut will be abuzz with climbers on their way to tackle New Zealand’s highest mountain in the summertime.
5. Pick up a book or two at Petronella’s and the local gallery upstairs
My new favorite bookstore in all of New Zealand is right in the center of Lake Tekapo – Petronella’s Gallery Bookstore. I can’t even begin to describe how much I love a thoughtful, well-curated bookstore. They make me so happy.
I easily spend an hour or so walking up and down the aisles picking things up and putting them down until I have a perfect selection – five is always my limit, which is high in New Zealand, considering how much books cost here. But funny enough, no matter my financial state (and how broke I am), I always make sure I can buy a book.
To me, books are as essential as food and rent – can you relate?
I drive through Tekapo often these days on my trips to and from Wanaka to Lyttelton as I check in on my shop NODE. I always make sure to call in to visit Petronella’s for some inspiration. Upstairs you’ll find a stunning gallery featuring fantastic art and iconic Tekapo gifts. Lovingly cared for and tended to by local Wilma, places like these are the heart and soul of our South Island towns. I hope, as a global culture, we never stop reading.
6. Check out the incredible night skies with a private stargazing tour
Tekapo is famous for many reasons, but perhaps the most well-known is that it sits within the largest dark sky reserve in the Southern Hemisphere. The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is comprised of Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin. There are strict rules around light pollution, which blocks out the sky. This means Tekapo is one of the best places in New Zealand to watch the stars.
The stone church with the Milky Way twinkling above is one of the most iconic images of Tekapo and one I finally shot for the first time on this trip. When you visit Tekapo, you’ll see how popular this is.
Joseph Pooley is a local expert photographer who offers private stargazing tours and astrophotography workshops right here in Tekapo. With Alpha Crux Stargazing, he comes to you with private, bespoke stargazing tours all around Tekapo. With a high-powered telescope and laser, you can learn and view the stars with an expert right where you’re staying; how amazing is that?
Because I’m also a photographer, I was curious to learn more about deep space photography, something Joseph is an expert in (check out his Instagram to have your mind blown). I learned so much, most of which was that it’s really complex and time-consuming, but the reward is worth it when you get those iconic, nebular-like photos of distant galaxies. Here’s my first attempt at deep space photography, the Eta Carina Nebula, which pretty much Joseph shot and edited, and I watched.
7. Soak your bones at the Tekapo Hot Springs
I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve never met a hot pool I didn’t love. Tekapo Springs is a must-visit on any South Island adventure to visit Tekapo.
Shaped and named after the Mackenzie region’s iconic lakes, it’s the perfect place to park up for sunset, especially in the winter. I love it here. There’s something so delightful about relaxing at a spa, something I reckon we all could be doing more of these days.
Tekapo sits 720 meters above sea level, one of the few alpine environments with a town here in New Zealand. While the hot pools in Tekapo aren’t geothermal, they are filled from an exceptionally pure underground source. There’s also a beautiful spa, stargazing at night, an ice rink in winter, and saunas, of course.
8. Go for a fantastic feed at Reflections Cafe
If I had to pick a favorite meal in Tekapo, it would definitely be at Reflections Cafe. It was so good that I ate there twice in three days.
Super cozy with roaring fires, great views over the lake, and one of the best menus around, you won’t be in want of anything here. So many restaurants in tourist towns have high-priced menus with repetitive menus. Reflections Cafe breaks the mold with some incredible dishes. After a long chilly walk, I parked by a window and stayed for hours reading in the sunshine.
Get the sizzling pork belly – you won’t regret it.
9. Go check out Lake Alexandrina
There are many famous lakes around Tekapo, by one of my favorites is the smaller Lake Alexandrina, just outside of town. An iconic South Island high country lake, it’s spring-fed instead of glacial-fed, meaning it’s a darker color than nearby Lake Tekapo.
Famous for fishing, I know it well as a protected wildlife area. Home to many native birds and no boats or engines makes Lake Alexandrina incredibly serene and quiet.
It’s the perfect place to get away and go for a walk.
10. Marvel at the hoar frost phenomenon
Lake Tekapo is one of the few places in New Zealand where you might encounter the phenomenon of a hoar frost. Have you heard of it? Yeah, me neither.
Come wintertime, on freezing, still nights, sometimes a dense fog rolls in from the hills. The water freezes on everything the fog touches, revealing an icy landscape. It looks like snow, but it’s frost. Everything it touches sparkles. Obviously, this means icy roads too. A hoar frost is one of the few things that can close the road around the Mackenzie Basin in wintertime.
Tekapo is one of the best places to experience winter in New Zealand. To visit Tekapo is to experience a completely different side of the South Island.
Have you been to Tekapo before? Would you travel here in winter? Spill!