Not long after moving to Queenstown, a friend of ours posted a video of these magical-looking hot pools overlooking a lake and surrounded by snow, and I just knew I had to make it there.
First off, who doesn’t appreciate a splendid soak in a hot pool, besides total lame-o’s or someone prone to regularly violent IBS episodes? No one, that is who. Second, I was also informed that not only are these magical hot pools located a very doable 3 1/2 hour drive from Queenstown, but are also home to the only stargazing and hot pool combo tour in New Zealand. Go ahead and count me, y’all, ’cause I AM IN.
Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
To preface, I will say I originally wanted to go stargazing during winter to get the full effect of the snowy surroundings while soaking in the warm water goodness of Tekapo Springs, but unfortunately we didn’t buy a car until winter was over, and once you’re in Tekapo, there’s not much you can do, in or around the area, if you’ve arrived by bus. If you have access to a car, my advice is to use it.
The Drive from Queenstown to Tekapo
We’ve got news! Not only did we recently buy a sweet new (to us, otherwise extremely old) campervan, aptly named La Tortuga Blanca, but we also found out she’s a giant piece of metallic garbage who needs a new engine. Le sigh. I’ll save that tale of woe for another time, but for now, we’ll thank our lucky stars (heh) we made it to Tekapo and back with no issues.
The drive from Queenstown to Tekapo is a beaut, and should you be lucky enough to avoid the role of designated driver, also a perfect opportunity to combine wine tasting in the famous Central Otago region with a scenic road trip. Passing through the windy roads of Cromwell and Bannockburn – an area known for its many wineries and galleries, and flanked by the turquoise waters of Lake Dunstan – you’ll also drive past approximately 4 bajillion sheep before arriving at the Lindis Pass, a 63 kilometer (39 mile) highway with a fair amount of twists and elevation changes, the summit of which reaches just under 1,000 meters (~3,200 feet). If La Tortuga can do it – albeit while smoking uncontrollably and slowly crawling up every hill – you can, too.
Once past the, well, Pass, you continue driving through a lot of barren, desert-like nothingness, somehow still surrounded by permanently snow-capped mountains. If you’ve ever driven through Utah or Nevada, this section could easily pass for either. Make a pit stop at High Country Salmon to feed the fish and stock up on halibut (jokes), and hang out at one of the many pull-offs around the stunningly blue Lake Pukaki to catch views of Mount Cook (or Aoraki, meaning ‘cloud piercer’ in Maori), New Zealand’s tallest mountain, in the distance. Another 45 minute drive puts you in Lake Tekapo, and bam! One way journey accomplished.
Where to Stay in Lake Tekapo
I once imaged Lake Tekapo as a thriving, bustling New Zealand town, and let me be the first to tell you, it ain’t either. If you’re looking for a relaxing, romantic escape – barring the bus loads of tourists all trying to get the same landscape shot of the one prominent building as you (that being the Church of the Good Shepherd) – Lake Tekapo is the place to be. If you’ve arrived here with the intention of doing some local shopping, taste testing all kinds of New Zealand style cuisine and dancing with the locals until any time past 9pm, you are in the dead wrong place, bro.
When looking for accommodation, I initially considered my options in town, which are few and far between, especially given our budget. However, since our trip was originally supposed to include 8 of our fellow friends and I am fond of planning ahead, I found the most gorgeous private house, known as the Galaxy Lounge, located in Burkes Pass about a 20 minute drive from Tekapo Springs.
Not only is it set on its own private property, which includes a small bridge, outdoor seating area, upstairs deck and SIX FRIENDLY ALPACAS you can feed by hand (!!!), but it also has 5 bedrooms, a rustic chef’s dream kitchen with its own pizza oven, a fireplace, board games, wifi, slippers to wear around the house, and absolutely everything else you could ever want or need for a group of 11 people or less.
Eric, the super kind property manager who checked us in and showed us around, even lives just next door in a converted train car with his cat, Coffee, should we have needed anything else. Also the stargazing from the house, due to its remote location, was breathtaking even without the tour. And did I mention the alpacas?!?!
Tekapo Stargazing Tour
Having previously been on an organized stargazing tour at the summit of Maui’s Haleakala Volcano, you could say our threshold for impressive stargazing was already set pretty high. However, on the night of our tour, we could not have asked for more perfect conditions if the goddess of weather came down herself and took personal requests. Not a cloud in sight!
Since our tour didn’t begin until 11:30pm, we had plenty of leisurely hang time at Lake Tekapo, a delicious early dinner at Kohan Japanese Restaurant (it may be a small town, but you still need to make reservations for this spot), and a late night snack at Lake Tekapo Tavern before arriving at Tekapo Springs. If you’re staying in town, they also offer complimentary van transportation to and from the tour.
Because the entire town of Lake Tekapo lies within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – one of only 11 in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere – light pollution is extremely minimal and planes are even barred from flying overhead.
After checking in and grabbing a seat in the indoor lounge area, thoughtfully outfitted with red lights to maximize our night vision, we were introduced to our guide, Cara, and shown outside for the first portion of our tour, a guided stargazing session with three essential ingredients: fascinating stories, a laser pointer, and three giant telescopes.
We learned about the Southern Cross, Orion, Alpha and Beta Centauri, Betelgeuse, how to spot a Supernova, the humbly-coined (Ferdinand) Magellan Clouds, and more facts about light years and the distance of space I can no longer fathom. After gazing through the telescopes with the help of a second guide, we were shown to the changing area to drop our stuff and prepare for the most awesome part of the tour – stargazing from a hot pool!
Hovering at a toasty 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), the last 45 minutes of the tour are free for you to enjoy how you like while in the hot pool – stargazing quietly, singing every Dolly Parton song that comes to mind, or floating aimlessly in one of the available water hammocks. All are glorious options. Cara was there to answer any and all questions we had, and told us plenty of entertaining stories to fill the silence while we stared at the stars. To say this part of the tour is lovely is an understatement.
- $89 per person
- Approximately 2 hours
- Maximum of 30 guests, though our tour was around 15
- No alcohol or food allowed
- Tour runs regardless of weather conditions
- Tour start times vary by season
- Types of telescopes (which means absolutely nothing to me, but who knows, y’all could be major nerds): Celestron Reflector 9.25 & Sky Watcher Refractor Esprit 120
What to Bring:
- Real clothes – The first portion of the tour is outside, so you don’t want to be hanging around in your bathing suit and towel like a chump when it’s near freezing outside.
- Towel – If you don’t have one, they have extras you can borrow.
- Bathing suit – They also apparently have bathing suits you can borrow, which may or may not be awkward depending on the size.
- Functioning eyeballs, with or without the assistance of contacts/glasses.
What to Leave:
- Your phone – Staring at your phone light will not help your night vision.
- Your camera – Except in the case of needing photographic evidence of the tour (ahem), photos of the stars taken with your iPhone camera never really turn out like you imagined.
- Your headlights low or off as you pull into the springs area, especially if you are late, as this was oddly a recurring issue during the first portion of the tour.
Overall, our Stargazing Tour and Lake Tekapo road trip was a total blast, and something I’d absolutely recommend if you’re planning on traveling around the South Island and enjoy learning about galaxies whilst in a romantic hot pool with strangers. 10/10 would do again.