Hankering for a blissed-out wilderness escape to blow out the cobwebs in the Mackenzie and savour wide open spaces? The year-round beauty, glorious topography and sweet seclusion of the Mackenzie powers its magnetic appeal. Here’s a recommended line-up of tried and tested signature wilderness stays to stimulate your senses and leave you feeling refreshed and revived. Just four hours’ drive south-west of Christchurch, Aoraki/Mt. Cook is permanently cloaked in a glistening snow coat – even in the height of summer, so the promise of postcard scenery is all part of the package. In fact, much of the Mackenzie region, which enjoys an altitude over 700 metres above sea level, boasts snow-draped landscapes deep into spring.
Proudly New Zealand & family owned, the Hermitage Hotel, Aoraki/Mount Cook is a hotel legend with a stirring history spanning 137 years. The first Hermitage was built in 1884, under the direction of Frank Huddleston, who was appointed ranger for the Mount Cook area because of fears that local vegetation would be destroyed by grazing and burning. This initial accommodation house was set near the base of the Mueller Glacier, beside White Horse Hill. Successive building took shape to cater to the swelling demand, with the latest addition being the spectacular high-rise Aoraki wing, that took shape 20 years ago. The present Hermitage looks out past White Horse Hill to the Hooker Valley and Mount Cook.
Exterior of the Hermitage Hotel. (Photo / Hermitage)
The Hermitage is an unrivalled base to intimately explore the natural wonders of the national park, with a variety of accommodation, dining and activity options. The on-site Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre comprises a museum and theatre, lustily showcasing the colourful history of Aoraki/Mount Cook, our most famous adventurer and the backstory of this illustrious hotel. Hillary was involved in the development of the centre before his death and don’t miss the statue of Hillary permanently gazing towards Aoraki/Mount Cook, one of his favourite peaks, stands outside the hotel. The ascent of Mount Cook’s difficult south face in 1948 was Hillary’s first great mountaineering achievement, and also became the training ground for his Everest triumph five years later and subsequent Antarctic expeditions. Enjoy some cinematic alpine thrills in the custom-designed theatre, which also includes a Digital Dome Planetarium. Dine in style in the Panorama Room, for an a la carte dinner experience, where locally-sourced New Zealand cuisine is paired with premium views of Aoraki.
You can’t go wrong with the Mt Cook Alpine Salmon Chowder or Mount River Farms Venison Loin. Book a Premium Plus room, on the 9th and 10th levels of the Aoraki Wing, for an elevated and unobstructed perspective on the mountain magic. Even the chronically lazy can feel at one with the scenic splendour from this pampered perch.
Routinely decorated as New Zealand’s greatest day walk, the Hooker Valley Track is a gentle 3 hour jaunt. Leading up the valley with unbelievably good viewpoints like Alpine Memorial, you’ll traverse golden tussocks, swing bridges, get up close with the Mueller and Hooker Glacier, and be rewarded with celestial views of Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps. In summer, the added spectacle of wildflowers like the famed Mount Cook buttercup, heighten the spectacle.
Interior of the Hermitage Hotel. (Photo / Hermitage)
I also love the Kea Point Track, which starts from The Hermitage, and can be easily knocked off within 2 hours. It’s also a relatively flat walk, emblazoned in golden tussock and subalpine grasslands, leading you to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall. The walk culminates with a close-up panorama of Mt. Sefton, The Footstool, Aoraki and the Mueller Glacier lake. As I experienced, the monastic silence is only pierced by the thunderous booms of calving ice, breaking away from the glacier at its terminal.
Another must-do walk is in the Tasman Valley, a quick 8km drive from the Hermitage. The short 40 minute return starts from the Blue Lakes Shelter, slinking past the lakes to a viewpoint of the Tasman Glacier face. The vivid blue water is frequently speckled with icebergs floating by, particularly at this time of year, adding to the untamed drama of this stunningly enjoyable walk.
If you really want to splash the cash, Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat is the top-shelf option for secluded luxury, where many a celebrity would retreat to, prior to Covid. Oprah Winfrey stayed here after shooting on location with Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, several years ago. Situated on the western flank of Lake Pukaki, this astonishing body of glacial-fed water sparkles like a giant jewel. The one and two-bedroom villas have unblemished views of the lake and outdoor hot tubs bubbling away at all times. It will set you back $1000 a night for two adults, with breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner included.
You can expect all the trimmings of a luxury lodge at this retreat, from plush décor and elegant furnishings to inspiring views and the velvety darkness of the Dark Sky Reserve. Another star-turn is the retreat’s purpose-built Pukaki Wine Cellar and Observatory. Guests can enjoy a glass of wine or tot of whisky stepping into the adjoining observatory, equipped with a retractable roof and telescope to gaze in awe of the Southern stars. There’s also a range of on-site wellness treatments at your disposal to rev up the restorative factor to your Mackenzie getaway. It’s the pinnacle of indulgence.
At the southern end of Lake Pukaki’s luminous brilliance, Lakestone Lodge enjoys a prized hillside vantage point, with a long direct vista north to Aoraki. Exclusively located just above the southern shores of Pukaki, this contemporary off-grid, solar-heated eco retreat has been ingeniously designed to maximise the panoramic views. Polished concrete walls emit heat from the solar panels. The dominant colour of the walls is painted in metamorphosis, mimicking the lake’s hue perfectly. Eye-catching artwork is dotted around, there’s plush sofas and a roaring fire. Every room and bathroom, with luxurious bathtub, reveal unobstructed views over the lake and Southern Alps, with your own private courtyard to boot.
You could not get a more primo location to marvel over the setting sun’s goodnight kiss to Aoraki, as wispy orange clouds hug the ranges. Every nightly spectacle is unique, from the benign glow of a golden sunset to the tumult of a mountain storm tumbling over the alps. The creature comforts are laid on thick, from the delicious freshly cooked breakfast to mouth-watering evening dining, pre-dinner drinks, free wifi, heli-pad, complimentary bikes and spa treatments. A star feature, when ogling the universe, is the outdoor fire pit, wedged next to a mini-infinity pool and its illusory effect of seemingly flowing into the lake. Mike and Anna are charming, personable hosts who will treat you royally. Heartland hospitality at its best.
Just south of Lake Pukaki on SH8, Twizel offers a variety of novel accommodation stays, backdropped by the pageantry of Ben Ohau Range and its endless procession of peaks, marching north towards Aoraki. It is a sight to behold. A wondrous legacy of the hydro projects, the gleaming canals of electric blue water that liberally lace the region, replete with salmon and trout, are a spell-binding sight. Their other-worldly hues fast change shade with the shifting light. By Ben Ohau Station, there’s the novelty of walking through a stream that winds underneath a canal through a tunnel. Water running underneath a bigger body of water! Adjacent to Ben Ohau Station, the undulating expanse of Ruataniwha Conservation Park serves up a spree of scenic walking options, including the cinematic grandeur of “Pelennor Field“ as seen in Lord of the Rings, and shot on Ben Ohau Station, at the foot of the mountain range. Ben Ohau Range’s reflected glory in the glossy canals behind Twizel is particularly sensational - I snapped away like a mad thing.
Inventive, boutique enterprises continue to pop up all over the Mackenzie. Just down the road from Ben Ohau Station, Skyscape is a pint-sized accommodation bolt-hole, which consists of three off-grid, solar and gas-powered luxury glass pods, on Omahau Hill Station. Ultra-chic and eco-friendly, SkyScape is designed to maximise the extraordinary views of the Mackenzie Country both day and night, with the bedroom sheathed in glass, so you can lie back and get lost in the wide-eyed wonder of the constellations above. Set amid a rumpled landscape and recessed into the ground, the beds have been purposefully positioned at ground level, as if you are sleeping in the tussocks.
The glass-roofed bedroom is complemented by a grass-roofed kitchen and bathroom, effortlessly blending into the terrain. Outside, in a sunken courtyard, you can relax in a 2m long stainless steel-cedar bathtub. No chemicals are added – just pure heated water – sourced from a nearby spring. A gourmet continental breakfast is provided, including muesli, yoghurt, fresh fruit, bread, juice, tea and coffee. An evening dinner platter or salad is available on request. SkyScape is a celebration of the Mackenzie landscape, the beautiful sunrises, night sky and the priceless allure of wide open spaces and silence.
Another distinctive Twizel offering, nearby on Glen Lyon Rd, is Kahu Cottage, nicknamed the Night Sky Cottage, complete with hot tub. This character holiday home, evokes the timbered charm of a high country hut, but is exuberantly loaded with all of your contemporary comforts. You certainly won’t be roughing in this stylishly furnished cottage.
All of these exceptional accommodation experiences in the Mackenzie are listed on www.booking.com No matter where you are travelling, nor your budget or accommodation preference, bag a memorable stay and a great rate, with total flexibility and convenience.
Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.