Explore the Starlight Highway, West of Geraldine to Aoraki/Mt Cook

Geraldine makes a fantastic base to explore the whole region, offering high quality reasonably priced accommodation and eateries, plus it is centrally located to many of the iconic must-visit places in the central South Island.  Geraldine is the gateway to the Starlight Highway which officially runs from Fairlie to Aoraki/Mt Cook.  In addition to pristine night skies there is much to see and do along this route so buckle up and read on.

This route can easily be completed as a day trip from Geraldine with the drive time, one way, from Geraldine to Aoraki/ Mt Cook at around 2.5 hours.  If you are travelling onwards then there are plenty of accommodation options along the way.

Heading west from Geraldine on the Geraldine Fairlie Highway the Valley Brewing Company is a boutique brewery where locally brewed ales can be tasted and purchased straight from the cellar door.  Beers can be matched to meals at the adjoining café and tasting paddles offer a selection of beers to sample.  If you are a ginger beer lover try the Jinja beer (non-alcoholic) for a refreshing beverage or the aptly named Stargazer Golden Ale is well worth a try too.

Further along the winding highway is the turn-off to Kakahu Bush where interesting limestone cliffs and a historic lime-stone kiln can be found.  For those wanting to explore a little further, there is a pleasant bush walk along the old trail of the small gauge railway which transported the limestone out of the bush. 

Back on the main highway country gardens make a pleasant detour in the Spring and Summer with Kakahu Gardens and Mulvihill Country Garden both open to the public.  Renowned for their colour, splendor and peaceful outlooks, these gardens are not to be missed.

On another detour off the main highway to the left opens the lush green valley of Raincliff and picturesque St David’s Anglican Church.  This is an area frequently used for scout camps and boasts excellent mountain biking in the nearby Raincliff Bike Park with camping and walks at Pioneer Park

Around this area it is possible to see well preserved Māori Rock Art in the many limestone caves and crevices across the landscape.  Take a guided tour with the Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre and meet one of their knowledgeable guides on site to make the most of your visit.

The lookout over Fairlie is ample reward after the winding climb up from Geraldine and a wonderful spot to stop for pictures – just be careful crossing the road against oncoming traffic.  The nearby Farm Barn Café might just offer one of the best views in the country and serves delicious food and coffee to top it all off. 

Just 10 minutes further on from the lookout is the quaint town of Fairlie, home to the famous Fairlie Bakehouse with its legendary pies and baked goods.  There are a range of unique retailers here including an intriguing clothing boutique that boasts a coffee machine at the front door to serve customers Italian style (while standing).

The Fairlie House and Garden Centre is a step back in time with a range of memorabilia as well as every conceivable product known to man. It’s worth a fossick just to see what treasures can be discovered.   

Just across the road is a great playground for the kids, the perfect spot for a picnic and a stroll along the street.  The outdoor gallery, with scenic images taken by talented local photographers, showcases the Mackenzie region to perfection.

Just down the road you’ll find the most amazing swiss patisseries and cakes at the Museum Café created by Swiss chef ‘Coco’ and if a warm bed is beckoning you can’t go past Musters High Country Accommodation where private wood-fired hot tubs come with each room.

The short drive from Fairlie to Kimbell, lined with trees and stunning at any time of year, passes the quirky Garage Gallery.  View and purchase large landscape paintings of New Zealand here.

Burkes Pass, named after Michael John Burke, who discovered the passageway which leads up into the Mackenzie Country is an alternative route to the Mackenzie Pass, which the notorious alleged sheep stealer, James McKenzie, used to take his sheep into the Otago Goldfields.

Today the tiny settlement is home to the Three Creeks Arts and Crafts Shop, a place where many an hour can be spent browsing the retro, antiques and giftware on sale.  Across the road is a replica shepherd hut and over the brow of the pass is St Patricks, the oldest union church in New Zealand.

In the winter skiers and snowboarders will relish the chance to visit nearby ski fields, Mt Dobson and Roundhill. In the right weather ice skating takes place in the Fairlie Domain.  Equipment hire is available in Fairlie to kit the whole family out for winter fun.

On the road again and Dog Kennel Corner (a sharp right-hand bend in the road) memorialises a time before formal fencing became the norm, when a dog was tethered and kennelled at this point to mark out a property boundary line.  

Other than this pioneering fact, this lonely stretch of road may well be the most photographed in the whole of New Zealand, as it opens up onto perhaps the most majestic panoramic view in the country – sweeping vistas of the craggy snow-clad Southern Alps in the distance, set among rolling plains of golden tussock grass in the foreground. 

Luckily, for those overcome with wonderment and awe, there are small parking bays along this stretch of road offering plenty of photo stops but do watch out for other drivers for whom the view may be too much and their concentration not what it should be! 

Just a few more kilometres along the road the barren landscape gives way to the startling icy turquoise of the glacier fed Lake Tekapo.  The famous Church of the Good Shepherd is a good place to stop and capture the lake at its best, with colourful lupins waving in the sun during the summer months.  The church itself is a busy landmark these days, however, still a place of worship and should be treated with the reverence it deserves.

The Mackenzie Basin is steeped in pioneering history and chief among the legends is the tale of sheep rustler James McKenzie after whom the area is named.  The bronze statue to working dogs, near the Church, is a reminder of how this wild land was tamed by those pioneers and their reliance upon man’s best friend to do so.

Tekapo is world famous for its dark sky reserve and a visit to Mt John, overlooking the town and lake, is an absolute treat whether in the evening for night sky viewing or during the day for coffee and lunch at the Astro Café while drinking in the stupendous 360-degree views. 

To truly connect with this landscape walk up Mt John from the Tekapo Springs carpark to the summit, dine on top of the world and then head back down the pathway and soak in the clear clean glacial waters heated to perfection at Tekapo Springs.

There is plenty to do in and around Tekapo, including fishing at Lake Alexandrina, known as the Mackenzie’s hidden gem, scenic flights and jetboating on Lake Tekapo itself.  Accommodation does need to be booked in advance if you’re planning to stay in the area. 

A half hour drive further on is Lake Pukaki, the largest lake in the area and an excellent vantage point to view Aoraki/Mt Cook at the top of the Lake. Just after the Lake, take Mt Cook Road to drive along the Lake’s edge to Aoraki/Mt Cook village nestled among towering mountains and gleaming glaciers. 

The air here is crisp and fresh and the views spellbinding.  Whether stopping for a short visit or staying overnight there are walks and experiences for all in and around the village.  Splurge on a scenic room at the Hermitage Hotel facing Aoraki/Mt Cook or bunk up at the affordable YHA Hostel.

The Planetarium at the Hermitage offers presentations of the night sky as you’ve never seen them before and a coffee on the balcony at the Sir Edmund Hilary Café, looking out to the mountains, is an experience anyone can afford, as is a wander around the hotel lobby to view the mountaineering memorabilia on display.

The Department of Conservation Visitor Centre also hosts interesting and informative displays plus useful information on all the walks, weather and activities in the area.

And so, ends the Starlight Highway drive from Geraldine to Aoraki/Mt Cook, taking in some of this country’s most breath-taking views, from rolling green farmland to the highest mountain tops.  This is New Zealand.


Categories: Visitor Attractions