IF YOU WANT STUNNING SCENERY THEN HEAD TO NZ’S SOUTH ISLAND AND THE POSTCARD-PERFECT MT COOK NATIONAL PARK
It’s the stairway to heaven … but you’ll have to put those legs through hell first. There are 2200 dauntingly sheer steps on the Sealy Tarns Track, most of which seem to have missed the memo that they’re actually ladders. But it’s not the steep ascent that will steal your breath – it’s the view from the top. Mirrored in the surface of still lakes, a white-cloaked Mount Cook is playing peek-a-boo through the clouds. Nowhere does scenery better than New Zealand and it doesn’t get more dramatic than the South Island’s ruggedly beautiful Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, where I’ve stumbled on a postcard perspective of the country’s highest mountain from a far more attainable vantage. My calves may be complaining, but my exertions, bookended by bottomless hot choccies and deliciously trashy TV in the cosiest of hotel rooms at The Hermitage, are dwarfed by the efforts of those whose feet have taken them all the way. The 3724m skyscraper was first conquered by Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham on Christmas Day, 1894. Memorial books in the region’s visitor centre are heavy with the names of hundreds who haven’t been as lucky. You don’t need to risk blisters, let alone life and limb seeking the summit, to experience the magnetism that inexorably lures mountaineers Hiking options in the park are unparalleled and the most popular tracks are very well-maintained. The crisp clime ensures they’re not the sweaty slog they would be back home, while the scarcity of poisonous bitey things gives you the confidence to take the path less travelled. The Hooker Valley Track is the one often seen splashed over Instagram, a scenic smorgasbord that meanders in the midst of monster peaks over three swing bridges and through fields of sunny-centred alpine buttercups. The map says it’s three hours return, but make sure you factor in a fresh photo op around every corner. The Tasman Glacier Track offers the most panorama for your puff – an easy, flat 30-minute walk will take you through a rocky lunar-like landscape to the lake at the end of the glacier. The icebergs, like ghost ships in a milky harbour, are a sobering reminder that the Tasman Glacier is shrinking, some sources say by a very visible 480 to 820 metres a year – melting at an ever more rapid rate. In the ’90s when I first visited this region, tourists trekked up to terminal faces (the end point, in layman’s terms) of New Zealand’s famous glaciers; now you’ll need help to get up close and personal. Mount Cook Glacier Helihike can drop you on white ice, opening a portal into all your frozen fantasies. Hitch a chopper ride to 1200 metres above sea level to spend up to two hours exploring the glacier’s otherworldly surface with a professional guide, wiggling through eerie blue caves and crossing sinuous streamlets. After my fill of fresh air in the alpine playground, I headed to the nearby town of Lake Tekapo, which specialises in rest and reward. Appease your aching muscles in Tekapo Springs’ sprawling hot pools, where they’ve recently introduced the only guided hot pools and star gazing experience in New Zealand. Part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the sparkly scene is set by some of the clearest, darkest night skies in the world. The guided tour combines astronomy and storytelling and finishes in a 38-degree hot pool where you can contemplate the glittering canopy from a floating hammock. Once revived, get back to cramming your camera’s memory cards with enviable scenery. Lake Tekapo is a striking shade of turquoise caused by glacial “flour” in its ice-fed waters, a wildly romantic backdrop that lures a United Nations of newlyweds to pose for photos on its rocky grey shores. The Church of the Good Shepherd is a firm favourite with photographers, its altar window framing a perfect view of the Southern Alps. While I happily swapped dinner for a room service cheese plate so I could spend more time feasting my eyes from the balcony of my Peppers Bluewater base, it’s only a short stroll to the restaurants in the town centre. Snow or sunshine, don’t pass up the chance to visit the Astro Cafe. You can either drive or walk to the Mt John observatory, where coffee is served with a blue-lake panorama. Take in more of the countryside over the short drive to the pretty farming town of Fairlie, home to fields of daffodils and the world’s best pies (I’ve checked) at Fairlie Bakehouse. Don’t worry about the calories – you’ll walk them off.