The Great Lakes region, located in the South Island of New Zealand, is one of the most popular stopping points on every traveller’s itinerary. Each lake is breathtaking in its beauty, and has unique sites or activities you can enjoy. I’ve gone to ‘great’ lengths, and I don’t just mean swimming strokes, to bring you a mini guide of my favourite options – let’s plunge in!
Arguably the most popular (and Instagrammed) of all of New Zealand’s Great Lakes, Lake Tekapo attracts visitors worldwide for its turquoise waters and mountainous backdrop. During high season, the lake and surrounding town are thronged with visitors, but it is still possible to find quiet spaces to enjoy this beautiful area to yourself.
The entire Lake Tekapo area is a designated Dark Sky Reserve, meaning light pollution is lower than most places on earth, and the area is an excellent spot for a bit of stargazing. If you time your visit right, you can see the Southern Lights, otherwise you will just have to settle for gazing at the Milky Way…did I mention you can do this from a hot tub in Lake Tekapo?!
Lake Tekapo and Mt John Observatory are equally beautiful in the day as they are at night. There are a selection of paths varying in distance and difficulty; take the longest path and see for yourself Lake Tekapo’s wide open plains, extensive stretches of lakes and and wildlife. Top tip: make a pit stop at the Mt John Observatory cafe and rejuvenate with their excellent coffee!
No one can make a visit to Lake Tekapo without a stop to the Church of the Good Shepherd, situated in a dramatic spot on the bank of Lake Tekapo. This interdenominational church is usually bursting with visitors, so make sure you plan to visit before or after the tour buses arrive. Unlike any churches you see in Europe, the Church of the Good Shepherd has no stained glass panels inside; instead, just enormous bay windows to enjoy the stunning lake views.
Only 40 minutes’ drive from Lake Tekapo lies Lake Pukaki. Admittedly I am slightly biased with this one as it’s my favourite, but its crystal clear waters offer a beautiful reflection of the mountains surrounding it. Unlike its busy neighbour, Lake Pukaki doesn’t have the same infrastructure for tourists, so you can enjoy this breathtaking scenery in relative quiet and solitude.
Make sure you stop for a dip at Lake Pukaki – the water is so clear you can walk for several feet and still see the bottom of the lake floor! If you have your own equipment, Lake Pukaki is an excellent place to try SUP or canoeing.
The water of Lake Wakatipu is famous for its purity; scientists have said it’s so clean you can drink straight from the lake! It also appears as a regular backdrop for New Zealand TV shows, and when you see its blue waters, surrounded on all sides with pine forests and mountains, it’s easy to see why Lake Wakatipu is a popular choice.
The most popular destination around Lake Wakatipu is undoubtedly Queenstown, which is arguably the world capital of adventure sports and outdoor pursuits; if it exists, there’s a good chance they have it in Queenstown. Canyoning is a popular option, with many operators organising these excursions near Glenorchy, where scenes from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were filmed.
To get a bird’s eye view of Lake Wakatipu, head on up to the Skyline Queenstown funicular, where you can see the entirety of Queenstown and its surrounding countryside. Afterwards, you can luge down the mountain – good, kitschy fun.
If you liked Queenstown’s choice of outdoorsy adventures but hated the city vibe, then Lake Wanaka is your place. Despite having a wealth of adventurous outdoor options it still retains its laidback small-town appeal. Like Lake Tekapo, Lake Wanaka can get busy with tourists during the summer season, but the lake and surrounding Mount Aspiring National Park make it an outdoorsy playground.
Try a selection of watersports such as kayaking, canoeing and more, or take to the mountains and enjoy dramatic hikes such as the Rob Roy Track to panoramic glacier views. Also, keep an eye out for the famous Wanaka Tree.
In the evening, enjoy a drink at one of Lake Wanaka’s many lakefront bars and restaurants; the area is buzzing in the evening.