Posts in the “Lake Tekapo” category...

From Sea to Sky: Christchurch to Tekapo

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Amongst the elevated company of the Hubble, the Leviathan of Parsonstown, the Great Canary and the Magdalena Ridge, it’s perhaps no great surprise that little old New Zealand’s best effort at astronomy is a telescope called John. Or, more accurately, the Mount John Observatory, but somehow John – not even Little John or Big John – seems to suit New Zealand and its twin-drawered dishwasher contribution to modern life.

John then, as we’ll call it, may be no titan of the astronomical aristocracy, but John’s surroundings are pretty impressive. The journey from Christchurch is initially largely unremarkable. The passage along the Canterbury Plain, parallel to the Pacific coast, is notable really only for the pristine and handsome cattle that seem to pepper the verdant pastures. There are a series of small towns with those ubiquitous names from the old country – Huntingdon and Hampstead to mention but two.

At Geraldine, the road turns West and, ahead, the foothills of the Southern Alps gently hove into view. This is MacKenzie Country, an area of farmed lowland and increasingly desolate higher ground which, sparsely populated though it may be, possesses a definite beauty against an approaching backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

The road peaks at Burke’s Pass, before slowly losing altitude again towards Lake Tekapo, a sensible day’s drive with comfort breaks from the city. Where the road meets the lake is a village of the same name, but really it’s the expanse of water that’s the star attraction.

For those familiar with the infinitely more-visited Lakes Louise and Maligne in the Canadian Rockies, the iridescent blue-green of the waters which results from the suspended glacial rock-flour contained therein will be instantly recognisable. It’s more obvious from viewpoints with slight elevation over deeper waters, but it’s stunning nonetheless.

On the lakeshore stands the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd, notable not only for its diminutive size, but also for the fact that the altar window, in recognition of the beauty of the landscape outside, is a wide, clear expanse of glass rather than a traditional stained-glass barrier to the view.

Nearby, the shepherding theme is continued with a stone-plinthed bronze of a border collie sheepdog, looking out across the lake.

It’s John that remains the star attraction in Tekapo however, in every sense of the word. Passing through the village and its small collection of tateramas, petrol station and cafes, a road branches right and skirts the lower slopes of Mount John, before turning again to climb the least formidable spur of the mountain and, eventually, gaining the summit at a carpark and café which abuts the observatories.

Guided tours of the complex are available for those who can book in advance but, for the casual visitor, the views across the lake and village, across MacKenzie Country to the East and towards the Southern Alps in the West are, not to put too fine a point on it, quite breathtaking. That you can also grab a cappuccino and look through a telescope is even better and, apart from the café provender, it’s free to enjoy.

To give John his official title, he’s the Mount John University Observatory, run by the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. The location here, high up and away from any major centres of industry and population and therefore air and light pollution, makes Tekapo one of the very best places to view the night sky without the hindrance of man-made interference.

It doesn’t take a radio-telescope to note the difference between the quality of the location and the ‘norm’ to which we might be accustomed. Simply looking skyward after dark in Tekapo reveals that the starscape above is far from backed with inky blackness, but is instead a swirling mist of whites and creams and greys, punctuated with the brightest studs of planetary reflection. It’s a glimpse of the many Worlds which may lie out there, from one of the remotest parts our own.


Peppers Bluewater Resort – Tekapo

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

John’s back yard is not blessed with an abundance of accommodation options, but the recent arrival on the scene of Peppers, an Australian resort operator, did provide an attractive option. Having stayed at one of their domestic properties some years ago, experience suggested that it would be a solid choice.

The resort has been developed in the popular Antipodean manner of individually-owned investment properties, managed by a hospitality company. The Bluewater Resort could almost still be in its wrapper, it’s so new, and the specifications of both fixtures and fittings cannot be faulted in any way.

The studios, apartments and townhouses all feature full kitchen facilities, sleek bathrooms and spacious, comfortable living areas.

Bedrooms are just as tastefully appointed.

The gently sloping aspect means that, whilst some of the units enjoy glimpses of Lake Tekapo from their balconies and terraces, it’s best to accept that the aesthetic strengths of the property are actually mostly within.

Indeed, it has to be said that the look of the whole place from the outside is somewhat unusual. Someone, somewhere, has obviously done a bit of mood-boarding and Googling for local flora, but possibly never actually set foot in Tekapo itself. For the effect of the hues selected to stain the buildings, and the rather stark landscaping and planting, has the effect of rendering the place less of the feel of a luxury resort, and more of Ice Station Zebra or a prototypical Moon base.

A beacon of building beauty it is not, and it’s also worth pointing out that, quite apart from the subjective reaction to the look of the place, this is another example of a marketing department not really having any idea what it’s being tasked to sell. Or perhaps, once again, some enthusiastic but inexperienced copywriter, overseen by a less-than-conscientious manager, has been allowed to liberally use this word ‘Resort’ without actually having a clue what the word means.

In this particular case however, it seems startling that no-one in authority in the Peppers organisation hasn’t stopped and thought, actually, you know what, this Peppers Resort we’re developing over at Tekapo: well, actually, it’s not a resort at all. It’s some villas and apartments with a restaurant. We’re not digging a pool. We haven’t got a gym. There’s no spa. We haven’t got room for a shop. There’s no grass in the budget for a golf course. In fact, basically, it’s a top-notch motel with cooking facilities.

But no, no-one said that and heaven help holidaymakers who don’t delve too deeply into the listed amenities and make the mistake of assuming that this ‘resort’ might follow any kind of internationally-accepted level of facility provision. Not even John would keep folks interested for more than a few hours; I do hope that no-one’s booked in for a week.

Back to the good points however, and the fact that these luxurious accommodations not only came at a good rate, but that rate included a dining credit for the on-site restaurant.

And, just for a moment, another not-so-good one when, having checked in and been given our not-terribly-professional ink-jet printed dining credit slips of scissor-cut A4, I get a call from the office to say that we haven’t paid. It transpires that Stella Resorts, the company somewhere behind the sales and marketing of Peppers, have conspired to mess up their own darkly-prehistoric payment system, which demands oddly-calculated deposits and residual balances, which cannot be combined into a full pre-pay or merely guaranteed with a credit card to settle on departure as, oh, most of the rest of the World manages.

Having seen the relevant confirmatory credit card statements already, and being comfortably ensconced in our comfortable villas, the embarrassed sounding lady on the phone was politely advised that we had indeed paid, were here, were going nowhere and that she could fight her employer’s luddite administrative policies without further recourse to me. And then I had a lovely bath.

Dinner in the main building’s restaurant is a pleasant though brightly-lit affair, with equally bright and friendly service from the mostly sub-continental staff. The menu is far from extravagant but nicely judged in its coverage of meat and fish, fowl and vegetarian and the quality of ingredients and preparation well above what might be expected from the location and volume of business.

Perhaps the only thing that stuck out rather obviously was that this was clearly a cost-driven menu, with the result that different dishes, depending on the cost of the ingredients, were vastly variable in size – with the menu description itself giving no particular indication of this. Thus the meat dishes were positively gargantuan; the fish little more than dainty. If the order-take staff don’t proactively point this out, there’s always the scope for disappointment.

Returning to the villas, the night sky was an incredible sight to behold, for all the reasons that had led John here too. Unfortunately, the view was particularly spectacular because no-one had bothered to turn any of the resort lighting on, so the route home was followed more by touch and feel than glowing filament.

Checkout the following morning was problem-free; the accounts department having presumably totted up their byzantine debits and credits and assured themselves that our loot was indeed in their vaults. A quick chat with the Receptionist about the lack of lighting the night before, and a noted failure of the housekeepers to dust beneath some of the ornaments and Audio Visual equipment in the villas was met with genuine concern, and the information that the cleaning contractors had very recently been changed thanks to a number of similar issues. The new cleaners were making their way around as and when villas were vacated, he said, which seemed entirely plausible.

Final Verdict for the Peppers Bluewater Resort: 7.0/10. Few of the villas have a view of the blue waters and the property is, by no stretch of the imagination, a resort of any kind. That said, the accommodation is supremely comfortable, very well specified and the location halfway between Christchurch and Queenstown is ideal. Service is friendly and genuine. The restaurant food was better than expected, but ultimately Peppers will have to think carefully about their marketing if they are to avoid disappointing customers and, at the same time, encourage repeat custom and recommendation. Finally, Stella Resorts (whoever they may be) need to sort their archaic payments system out too.

Hype, Hope, Hank and His Hangover – Tekapo to Queenstown

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

In recent years, New Zealand has developed something of a reputation: a place of uncommon obsession with the notion of hurling oneself off, under, down or through cliffs, caves, bridges, towers or thin air; and the veritable crack house of this addiction is the formerly sleepy, lakeside resort of Queenstown.

It’s questionable what the Victorian founding fathers of Queenstown would have made of this modern-day mania but, arguably, it was they themselves who set the ball rolling when they gave rivers names like ‘Shotover’ and mountain ranges ‘The Remarkables’. Frankly, then, it was probably inevitable that similarly extreme-sounding thrills would be sought by their lycra, rip-stop polyester and lifejacket-clad descendents.

The town is now a mecca for the World’s backpackers and thirtysomething corporate sabbatical-takers. It features in and on almost every piece of marketing material pumped out by the tourist board. It is, in every possible way, used as a magnet to lure the tourists in the face of the otherwise pedestrian reputation of Kiwi culture.

Now, ever since ET hit the big screen, I’ve had something of an aversion to anything which is hyped. Hype is necessary, in my jaded eyes, only when the underlying quality is questionable. And so it is that, despite previous visits to New Zealand, this would be the first time that the much-hyped Queenstown had featured in an itinerary – and now only because we needed to kill some time.

The drive from John is another easy day, passing such one-horse towns whose horse died many a long moon ago as Twizel and Omarama. Indeed the latter has moved with the times and converted itself with admirable versatility into a one-sheep town – specifically a mega-merino called Shrek, whose ‘fame’ would appear to be fairly limited to strictly sheepy circles. Accusations that he is merely a gimmick to fleece passing tourists would be scurrilous and, what’s more, a baa-rely humorous joke.

In actual fact, both Twizel and Omarama were actually established quite recently, to service the intense hydroelectric power generating activity in the MacKenzie Basin. Believe it or not, there are even some quite unusual points of interest in these towns; there are no ditches or kerbstones next to the roads in Omarama, for example, as the town is designed to be temporary and to be returned to farmland at some time in the future. Accordingly the tarmac is profiled in an unusual way to avoid the need for the missing kerbing and ditching, so much the better to remove without trace, apparently.

The most impressive attraction en route is however, and without a shadow of doubt, Lake Pukake. Half way between Tekapo and Omarama, its blue waters are the first thing to catch the eye from a distance, but it’s only after a further few miles of driving towards the lake that the really stunning views appear.

At the junction with Hayman Road on the right, marked only by a Salmon Farm sign, it’s suddenly apparent that nature has conspired to orientate Pukake so that it forms a perfect aperture in the mountains through which to view Mount Cook – the highest of all New Zealand’s peaks. As the main road is not blessed with safe stopping places, take the Hayman Road turning and there is ample space immediately to pull up and then walk down an access track to the lakeshore.

There are a couple of alternative routes on to Queenstown after Omarama, but a pleasant detour is to the up-and-coming town of Wanaka, which sits alongside the lake of the same name. Wanaka, reportedly, is much as Queenstown was before ‘adrenaline’ was ‘invented’ there, and is a very pleasant little place with far less of the soon-to-be-experienced congestion of its near-neighbour.

Locals appreciate the lower-density development, and also that the shallower waters of the eponymous lake make it warn enough for Summer swimming. In recent years, a few of Queenstown’s businesses have opened Wanaka outposts, including The Cow restaurant which has almost been replicated brick-for-brick. There’s a verdant foreshore park backed by myriad bars and restaurants, some good shopping in stores specialising in New Zealand clothing labels, a very fine wine shop and the usual selection of cafés and coffee shops. Carefully developed, Wanaka has the bones of both a very successful holiday destination and a most attractive place to call home.

The next place of interest is the tiny settlement of Cardrona, with its restored (or perhaps never-changed?) hotel and attendant shops. A good job is made of arresting passing traffic, with some strategically placed vintage vehicles catching the eye and lending the place a slightly other-worldly feel. It’s a good place to use up a few more megabytes of the memory card, anyhow.

The final approach to Queenstown necessitates the ascent of Crown Range Pass, the highest sealed road in New Zealand and from which there’s a splendid view of this corner of the Southern Alps, before the road descends again and presents more teasing vistas, which become less wilderness-like and more pastoral with every break in the trees or twist of tarmac.

As the town is neared, the traffic builds steadily with increasing swarms of clapped-out, graffiti-liveried campervans driven by backpackers who’ve not recently had to pilot anything larger than a rucksack, jostling for space with rental-car drivers unused to driving on the left, tour buses disgorging hordes of grockles at inconvenient moments and all manner of commercial traffic utilising what remain the area’s only through-routes.

Any natural beauty is therefore temporarily but wholly obscured by the battle for asphalt-space and the desperate avoidance of campervan collision. Indeed, it’s only when the centre of town or, more specifically, the lakeshore is reached, and the safety of a car park achieved, that the view seems to open up again.

While Wanaka is dominated by leisure-orientated businesses, Queenstown has to serve as the commercial hub of the region and therefore its range of facilities is both more comprehensive and prosaic. Ultimately, then, whilst its physical surroundings are slightly more spectacular than Wanaka’s, the ribbon development of motels, hotels, apartment blocks, industrial and trading estates, and more chain-store like town-centre retailing makes it ultimately a less picturesque place in itself.

For the non thrill-seeking, it also has to be said that there is not a great deal to do in Queenstown outside of the Winter ski season. True, there are some significant attractions accessible only from Queenstown, but they’re not actually in the town itself. The two principal town-based attractions are therefore firstly the TSS Earnslaw, built in 1912 in Dunedin and transported to Queenstown by rail in sections to Kingston. From there, following reassembly, she sailed under her own steam up Lake Wakatipu and she now plies the lake from the town’s wharf.

The second attraction is the Gondola ride which, weather-permitting, affords a birds-eye view of the town and the surrounding Remarkables.

It’s also worth mentioning the Botanic Gardens, a short walk from the town centre, which incorporate an ice rink, a tennis club, well-tended flower beds, a memorial to Scott and his Polar Explorers and, most notably, a ‘frisbee-golf course’ which seems to hold the attention of at least some visitors. Briefing sessions on the rules and protocols are held regularly in the entrance car park.

The trail which traverses the lower levels of the gardens, below and through the woods, affords expansive views of the surrounding mountains and of the town itself, from a position of comparative peace and calm.

However, the number one destination for day trips from Queenstown is Milford Sound, the cover girl of most glossy marketing for the South Island. Vertiginous cliffs soar from the waters of this sinuous West Coast fjord, laced with cascading falls running the gamut from little more than wisps of wind-blown spray to thundering torrents of solid water crashing into the sea below. At the head of fjord, Mitre Peak is an iconic backdrop and the star of postcards and holiday snaps galore.

There are, however, two factors to bear in mind when planning a trip. The first is that, whilst Milford is only 90 kilometres from Queenstown as the crow flies, the only road is a typically-tortuous circumnavigation of the mountains in between, and ends up being a 5 hour coach or car trip. Each way.

The second is that this is a hybrid alpine maritime environment, which brings with it the prevalence of really unpleasant weather, as the moisture laden sea air hits terra firma, is forced up over the mountains and, in so doing, cools, forms clouds and then rains like there’s no tomorrow.

From a sight-seeing point-of-view then, this can conspire to create a very long day out, the highlight of which is seeing nothing very much other than the lower reaches of waterfalls emanating from solid, cliff-cladding clouds just above. And, for this privilege, the coach company will still have charged a hefty sum.

The clever money, therefore, is on an air tour from Queenstown to Milford, which takes only half a day, avoids the obligatory coach-tour stops at en-route tateramas and deposits the passenger at a smaller landing stage for a far quieter cruise than those incorporated in the coach itineraries.

The cleverest bit, however, is that if the weather is rubbish and therefore the views of Milford will be compromised, then it also means that the weather will render flying impossible too, and no monies will be expended.

So it was that Air Milford was contacted to arrange a charter, with the instruction from their office that we should call to confirm our arrival in the area the day before the planned flight, and at that time an indication of the weather forecast would be imparted. Following that instruction to the letter, Hank the helpful owner advised that the cloud cover had been too low for the last two days and that flying was very unlikely tomorrow. He’d monitor the situation though and suggested calling again at 7am for a definitive answer.

He’d obviously checked the forecast and made his decision later that evening however, for the ever helpful Hank sounded distinctly hungover on the phone just after dawn the following day.

Somewhat disappointed, but also pleased that not a cent had been wasted, we had an early breakfast and watched the coaches pass by outside, taking their loads off for a foggy day in the fjords, which improved our moods no-end.

Instead then, we headed to Arrowtown which, despite the mountain-top cloud which prevented flying, was warm and sunny. A short drive from Queenstown, Arrowtown is really a village – little more than a single street of early-colonial buildings beside the Arrow River – but one of New Zealand’s few intactly-surviving gold-rush settlements.

It serves its visitors well, however, with a wide selection of quality shops, restaurants and cafés as well as more utilitarian facilities like the picturesque public library.

A short side-trip takes visitors up to the Coronet Peak ski area, closed outside of the winter season but with an open car park from which the view extends for miles in a mountain-backed 180 degree panorama.

Now, when the TSS Earnslaw arrived in Queenstown, it did so having been brought to Kingston, at the Southern end of Lake Wakatipu by rail. A section of that railway track still remains and, with the clouds which had stalled the Milford Sound flight descending rapidly, a ride on the Kingston Flyer from Kingston to Fairlight seemed like a sensible plan.

The drive from Queenstown passes the town’s airport and then the Kawarau Falls, close by which the new Westin Queenstown will open in 2010. The next waypoint is the access road to The Remarkables Ski Area and, from thereon in, the road hugs the shores of Lake Wakatipu as it snakes beneath the cloud-covered mountain tops. Fifty minutes or so later and the valley broadens slightly as the lake comes to an end at the village of Kingston.

As is so often the case in New Zealand, signage for what one might be assumed to be a fairly major tourist attraction (and therefore the intended destination of less-than-locally-knowledgeable folks) is limited, however since there is very little else of note in Kingston, it’s not an onerous challenge to locate the tiny station building and adjacent car park – helped of course by the steady plume of smoke from the vintage steam engine.

The uncharitable might suggest that the Kingston Flyer is, in itself, a microcosmic representation of the whole of New Zealand. It goes from nowhere to nowhere much else, at a glacially-slow pace, with no apparent purpose or self-concern. The line, from one end to the other, is a mere 14 kilometres in length – but takes half an hour for the hissing beast and its attendant snake of variously appointed carriages to clank and lumber along it.

And then it comes back, very much in the same manner but, erm, in reverse.

A flyer it is not, but a less jaded observer might however notice that the Kingston’s carriages are actually ahead of their time. To prove the point, witness the following, per British Airways service class nomenclature:

World Traveller –

World Traveller Plus –

Club World –

First Class –

Notwithstanding the lack of obvious practical achievement in travelling aboard the Kingston Anything-but-Flyer, the whole experience is rather charming. The rocking and rolling of the restored carriages is gently soporiphic once the rhythm is tuned into and, assuming that eyelids remain rolled up, the carriages themselves are wonderfully detailed.

Passengers can wander freely between them, look out on the retreating scenery from the open platform at the rear or stand on the similarly open stage at the front, immediately behind the engine’s tender and in direct line of fire for the passing smuts and sparks from the iron horse ahead.


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