Christchurch to Wanaka
Christchurch to Wanaka – 429km
Driving: Relatively straightforward with some busy highway sections out of Christchurch. Please take care between Omarama and Tarras over the Lindis Pass with technical alpine driving and limited cellphone coverage.
The Good South gem: Tekapo.
Driving from Christchurch to Wanaka
- A Fairlie Bakehouse pie
- Tekapo night sky experience
- A side-trip to Lake Ohau
If a quality travel experience is your goal, you should really spend a few days driving from Christchurch to Wanaka. The Mackenzie Country and its lakes, mountains and big horizons is complemented by small, welcoming townships for breaking up your journey.
The first hour of driving south from Christchurch is straightforward across the farmed plains and broad river flats of the Rakaia and Rangitata. If it’s sunny you will be treated to panoramic views of the Southern Alps to the west. As you approach the turnoff inland to Geraldine, the country starts to change to hill-country with the road bending and twisting to negotiate the river valleys and increasingly rugged landscape.
Geraldine could be a good first stop in your travels. Down a driveway to a leafy garden setting by a restored villa, Cafe Verde is our choice for travellers in this area. A place that serves a classic high tea and has a prodigious baking output. Before leaving town you may want to visit the nearby Talbot cheese shop and Barkers fruit products store, both authentic food producers which can help fill a picnic hamper. Historical buildings, handmade chocolates and fine arts and crafts are also feature on the main street.
Another half-hour of driving will bring you to Fairlie which is home to the award-winning pies of the bakehouse and a further 45 minutes will bring you to the high plains of the MacKenzie Country and the gem of Lake Tekapo.
If you can, spend a night or two here. Nightlife in this small alpine village is deceptively lively due to its observatory and night sky tours. You won’t regret the extra time basking in the outdoor hot pools with big-sky views overlooking the lake and the massive backdrop of the Southern Alps.
From here the roads straighten as you traverse the steppes of the Mackenzie country. Its arid climate often means clear days and if so, the turquoise colour of the lakes, wide horizons and views of Aoraki Mt Cook and other grand peaks will be stunning.
Mt Cook and Lake Pukaki
The visitor’s centre and other laybys by Lake Pukaki are good spots for a stroll and photos, with the turn off of to Mt Cook village just past the Pukaki dam. As one of the country’s most famous tourist destinations, the attractions of the Mt Cook area are well documented, and arriving here for the first time you will see why.
A range of outdoor activities including the opportunity to kayak on an iceberg-filled lake are available as is a choice of accommodation for different budgets.
From Mt Cook south, another small town, Twizel, originally built to house workers on a national hydroelectric work scheme in the 1970’s, has gentrified over the years and now is a popular base for holiday-makers and the hub for the Alps 2Ocean bike trail. Poppies Cafe and Shawtys just off the main highway have good reputations for their food and service.
Another side-trip that rarely fails to disappoint is the drive into Ohau and spending a night at the lodge overlooking the lake.
The farming township of Omarama with the nearby Ahuririri conservation area and Clay Cliffs is next. The area’s consistently clear skies and good thermals make it a gliding mecca in the South Island with the region’s rivers popular with fisherfolk.
The road then starts to climb the winding route over the Lindis Pass with a highly recommended refreshment break at the Tarras Tearooms 80km away. The turnoff to Wanaka township is just past the Tearooms with a final 35 km off straightforward driving to complete your journey. Those going to Queenstown via Cromwell continue straight ahead.