New Zealand

An epic road trip through New Zealand’s South Island

Newlywed NAOMI ARNOLD and her husband go on a walking, driving and stargazing honeymoon

The first year of marriage is a lot like taking a road trip. You have to learn to share: the radio, your favourite snacks, the phone charger, the driving. You have to forgive each other’s idiosyncrasies and temper your own: accept that she’s best at maps and he’s best at song lyrics, and weigh up the forks in the road and decide the best route forward.

Doug and I had been married for a year. It was a low-key wedding. One Monday afternoon, we went down the town registry office in Nelson for what we called our ‘unwedding’.

But that meant we never had a honeymoon. A year later, we thought it was time for one.

So we set off from Nelson, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, for the alpine villages of Hanmer Springs, Lake Tekapo and Wanaka, with two stops in Christchurch – where all roads lead when you’re driving the length of the South Island. Doug and I had both lived there in the past, before the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, and we were keen to check out the city’s healing process.

New Zealand drive

Our first stop was Hanmer Springs, a small, pretty village set in a glaciated bowl in the middle of forbidding mountains. After five hours’ driving, a warm suite at Heritage Hanmer Springs was a good base for Hanmer Springs Thermal Pool and Spa, where we soaked in the hot mineral water. The springs are at their best on a winter night, when the mist rises gently into the frigid air and you appreciate the warmth deep in your bones.

We spent the next morning tearing up the nearby mountain bike network. We dashed up Conical Hill for a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains, before buckling into our car seats, bickering over which podcast to play, and driving to ski capital Wanaka – one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand.

Wanaka

Confined to the car – for long stretches without phone reception – we suddenly had time to talk. We began to reflect on the year we’d had and what we hoped would come from the next year.

Wanaka’s setting is breathtaking, with a moody blue lake and rough-cast snowy mountains piercing drifting clouds. It’s a friendly place, packed with travellers and adventurers. We spent a couple of days cruising the town, walking the local trails, and an evening spent huddling against a powerful lightning storm, thunder booming around the nearby valleys.

Lake Wanaka

Our next stop was Lake Tekapo, which sits within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve and is the finest place in the country in which to see the Milky Way.

Tekapo has the Church of the Good Shepherd, a picturesque lakeside church which is popular for weddings – even in the dead of winter. As we sat in a restaurant overlooking the lake, we watched a bride and groom suffer through photographs. The bride shone against the dark green branches of a fallen pine tree. It was a beautiful scene: the lake icy pale blue behind her, the sky grey, the peaks etched in white.

Combing Instagram, I’m sometimes wistful over refusing to be a bride, but as the photographer directed her to teeter up the angled pine trunk in high shoes, I was glad I’d refused. She was shrugging on a fur coat for another round of shots as my spinach salad arrived. It turned out to be the one bad thing we ate on the trip: tasteless, drowned in cheap oil, flecked with sour goat’s cheese and mean slices of unripe mango.

I eyed Doug’s chicken.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Let’s swap.’

Now, that’s love.

Walking in Wanaka

Afterward, we soaked in Tekapo Springs and watched the sunset’s colour fade from the soft, snow-covered mountains across the lake as Jupiter began to shine in the east. An hour later, we were at Earth and Sky – on a night with 80 per cent visibility for stargazing. Earth and Sky runs astronomy adventures at the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory. The temperature was 4°C, so we were supplied with hot chocolate and bundled in US Antarctic Expedition down coats. The frozen fingers were worth it to see the clear rings of Saturn shining through the telescope.

We had also wanted to see the Matariki constellation, also known as the Pleiades, which we’ve taken as our personal totem. In Maori culture, Matariki sparkles in the winter sky just before dawn, and was traditionally a time to remember the dead and celebrate new life with a good harvest stored away. But it was rising at 1am, and the clouds had rolled in too soon.

‘Marriage also means not taking notice of silly omens like that,’ Doug told me.

Mount John Observatory

Our last night was in Christchurch. The poignancy of the broken-down Christchurch Cathedral just metres away was cheered by the lively OGB bar and café on the ground floor, and the diverse food carts scattered around Cathedral Square. Years later, the city is still rebuilding, but life goes on in Christchurch.

The city is known for its Avon river and sprawling gardens. The perfect way to experience both is punting on the Avon, a chance to do absolutely nothing but gaze around you as you spend 30 minutes in a flat-bottomed punt, poled by a warm and chatty guide in braces and a straw boater.

Boating on the River Avon

The second-best way to see Christchurch without lifting a finger is in the Christchurch Tramway Restaurant, a historical wooden colonial tram with 36 seats, a full menu, wine list and doughty chef, who manages to produce astonishingly good meals from the pocket kitchen. We spent several hours leisurely rattling around the rebuilding city, returning waves from pedestrians.

Confined to the tram, we had more time to talk. We talked about how we’d handled the bickering on the road, and how we could do better. We toasted to making it to our one-year anniversary with a glass of sparkling rosé, and remembering the limp spinach from earlier, I gallantly gave up half of my tender Canterbury lamb rump to my husband.

Four driving highlights

Most memorable moment: Staring deep into the universe at Tekapo’s Mount John Observatory

Best podcast: Black Hands, a fascinating account of a murder that’s puzzled New Zealanders for two decades

Best roadside relaxation: Getting out on the water. Kayak on Lake Tekapo or punt on Christchurch’s River Avon

Best roadside café: Hard to beat a Denheath custard square and a hot coffee at Fairlie’s Farm Barn Café. Look out on velvety green hills, pure white snow and choose from plenty of gifts

Need to know

Christchurch

STAY: Heritage Christchurch (heritagehotels.co.nz) is a gorgeous, century-old building, with stately hallways and a wide, sweeping staircase.

DO: Go punting on the River Avon, walk the ‘new’ CBD, pay respects at the city’s earthquake memorials, admire the plentiful street art, stroll the Botanic Gardens.

EAT: OGB, food trucks in Cathedral Square and the Christchurch Tramway Restaurant

Hanmer Springs

STAY: Heritage Hanmer Springs (heritagehotels.co.nz).

DO: Climb Conical Hill, hire mountain bikes from Hanmer Adventure and ride the nearby trails through local forests. Relax in the Thermal Springs in the evening.

EAT: Isobel’s at Heritage Hanmer Springs is a grand room with warming food, attentive service and an extensive drinks list.

Wanaka

STAY: Airbnb has loads of homey options.

DO: Ski. Also walk or cycle around the lake for ever-changing views, and climb Mount Iron and Mount Roy for Insta-perfect backdrops.

EAT: Big Fig for great homestyle dishes. Alchemy has good coffee. Visit Rhyme and Reason, a brewery in an industrial zone.

Tekapo

STAY: Mantra Lake Tekapo (mantra.com.au/tekapo).

DO: Earth and Sky runs dark-sky tours. Soak in Tekapo Springs, which has a spa attached; go ice skating (open from April-September).

EAT: Try the many restaurants along the village’s strip, and make sure to stop off at Fairlie Bakery en route to Christchurch for a mince and cheese or venison and cranberry pie. Don’t forget coffee and a Denheath custard square at the Farm Barn Café.

New Zealand road

Cathay Pacific launches a three-times-weekly service to Christchurch from Hong Kong in December

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