Imagine waking up in your favourite place, sipping tea, facing the mighty Aoraki, Mount Cook. Well, that was my reality this weekend. I laid in bed (that I had moved and pushed up to the window) you know, just so I could be a little closer to my favourite mountain in the world. I opened the curtains and I watched as the sun kissed the Southern Alps for the first time that day. I watched the village slowly wake up as people emerged from slumber, wandering around to take in the majesty of the views and I sat and pinched myself, how could we be so lucky to be sat here again in the presence of one of the finest mountain ranges in the world.
Let me take you right back… back to a moment in March 2018 when my boyfriend dropped to one knee during a hike in my favourite national park. Unexpected, blissfully unaware and so very overwhelmed with shock and love that when I had finished screaming and saying yes I missed the part about where we were sleeping that night. My fiancé had booked a stay at The Hermitage hotel and I couldn’t believe my luck, a fiancé and a night of luxury all in one day… I tell you, I knew he was a keeper. Our first experience in the hermitage hotel was filled with pizza, champagne, and a long evening sitting on the balcony soaking up the views and our little engagement buzz.
This weekend we returned to that same spot and with a full three days of exploring Mount Cook National Park, I was more than ready to get involved in a weekend full of activities, relaxing, and trying new things.
We rolled up at The Hermitage Hotel just after midday. Queenstown to the Mount Cook Village is around three-four hours depending on how many times you stop to take photos of Aoraki on the way down State Highway 80! After checking in with the team and confirmed all our booked activities for the weekend we took the elevator to the eighth floor of the back building. The Hermitage is made up of a few buildings, some being restaurants, bars, and the booking centre. The tall building at the back is where you will find the premium rooms. I mean the elevator ride alone is enough to knock your socks off but wait until you open that hotel room door and step into one of the greatest nature shows of all time. A window that stretches the whole width of the room, perfectly framing the Hooker Valley and Mount Cook. The sofa in the room perfectly placed so you can put your feet up, make a cup of tea and watch the world below.
After settling in and soaking up all the goodness happening outside our window it was time to join them and go on our first adventure. The Glacial Explorer’s tour starts right from reception. Check-in, hop on the bus, and walk the short 1.6k track down to the boat terminal. Prepare for a boat tour like no other. You set off, surrounded by the mountains out onto the Tasman Lake, a lake formed from glacial melt. As you speed towards the terminal face you truly get a sense of how huge this glacier is and how little space we occupy in our tiny yellow boat. Luckily we got up close to an iceberg that had floated away from the terminal face and as we passed it started to spin. It was pretty crazy to see how large the iceberg is underneath! You really feel small in your yellow boat when faced with lateral moraines towering 200m overhead, a true reminder of the scale and greatness that the glacier has reached in previous times. Now approximately 27km long and 600m deep, the Tasman Glacier is melting and calving at an exponentially increasing rate. Our guide filled us in on the history and uniqueness of this glacier and we walked away with a little more knowledge under our hats.
Upon returning to the hotel we decided that a quick feed at Sir Edmund Hillary Cafe & Bar on the upper level is what we needed to fuel our next activity. Classic Soph opted for a pizza and Robbie had the fish and chips, made to order food here is tip-top and great if you need to grab something quick while heading out for more adventures. We tossed up the Hooker Valley and Red Tarns for sunset, watching the light. We made a rash decision to boost up Red Tarns. 30 minutes later we arrived at the top and although we missed the light what greeted us at the top would surpass any sunset photos we might have taken. Twenty Five Kea rolling around, flying, squawking, and being ever so curious around us, it was magic. The sun was setting in the distance over the Summit of Mount Cook and we had twenty-five, I repeat twenty-five of these alpine parrots joining us for the show.
The next morning I woke to a beautiful sunrise. Tucked up in bed, I pulled back the curtain and watched as the day comes to life. We had a slow morning, one that rolled from bed to the restaurant and back to the room. Our buffet breakfast is complemented by the views. I mean, you really can’t get a better view at breakfast here. The huge glass windows perfectly frame the mountains, Aoraki being the star of the show, of course.
We jumped in the car and took the short five-minute drive out to the Mount Cook Airport and prepped for our next adventure. A heli-hike on the Tasman Glacier with the helicopter line. The guide fitted our boots and crampons, helped pack our bags, and off we went to the helipad. Our pilot informed us that we had some extra helicopter time so took us on a scenic fly-by of Mount Cook, the front face and I truly lost my sh*t. I have never been that close to Mount Cook before and it was such a surreal experience. We landed over the glaciers and through the mountains on the top of Fox glacier and stood in awe at the views. Back in the chopper we weaved through the mountain passes and landed high up on the Tasman Glacier, honestly one of the best scenic flights I have ever experienced.
Our guide Chris, a true mountain legend and the knowledgeable guy helped strap up our crampons, and off we went. Knowing that we were up for adventure fuelled his exploration skills and we descended into ice caves under the glacier, roped up, climbed out, up, and down. You name it we covered so much of that glacier and Chris taught us so, about the landscapes, the history, general climbing knowledge and so much more. It was an absolute delight to spend the day with someone so passionate about their work and the landscape that they operate in.
On route back to base the pilot flew right by the 1,000-metre-high Hochstetter Icefall on the eastern face of Aoraki/Mt Cook. What a sight, honestly one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen.
With a quick turnaround, we headed out again early afternoon for a 4WD tour through the Tasman valley. Hopping into a custom-made Mercedes Benz uni mog we set off for an off-road trip through the valley, avalanche zones, and rocky terrain followed by a short walk to an elevated viewpoint looking down on the glacier below is as close as you can get without physically walking on the glacier. Again, the passion from the guides shone through.
We dined in the Chamois restaurant that evening. Indulging in soups, salads, and a selection of dishes prepared by the in-house chefs. Don’t skip the dessert section, ya girl loves cheesecake and these guys know how to do it! We watched as the sky danced blues, yellows, and pink hues. Many guests ran outside to take photos of the show and I for one didn’t blame them. What a treat, as I was tucking into my final cheesecake sample of the evening. Retreating to the king-sized bed with a cup of tea was a welcome treat too after a full day exploring the national park.
After watching another glorious sunrise from the comfort of my king sized bed, we made our way down for one last breakfast with a view before hitting the Hooker Valley track. The finest day hike in the country? It’s a strong shout but one I am willing to put out there to the world. If you can start early, do. There is something special about being one of the only people walking on a trail as the morning sun kisses the mountains for the first time that day. The track will take you around 3-4 hours to return and you will cover 11km in total. Flat, easy terrain with the most picturesque mountain, rivers, and glaciers surrounding you. Famed for its three swing bridges and perfectly places boardwalk, it’s no surprise why this is one of my favourite day hikes in the whole of Aotearoa. The winds picked up as we made our way back to base and a welcoming cup of tea and a wander around the Edmund Hillary Alpine centre passed the time before heading home.
Aoraki, Mount Cook has a rich, cultural, and industrial heritage. To Ngāi Tahu, Aoraki represents the most sacred of ancestors. The Maori name for New Zealand’s tallest peak is Aorangi or Aoraki, meaning cloud piercer. For more than 130 years the national park has been the cornerstone of New Zealand tourism since the first Hermitage Hotel was built at the base of the mountain in 1884. Today the park is recognised as one of the finest mountaineering areas in the world, for both experienced and novice climbers and even aided one particular famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary during his training for the 1953 Everest mission. In the museum, you will learn about Sir Ed, his expeditions but also about the history of the Heritage hotel. I loved seeing the collectibles, the old name tags, and images from the previous two hotel sites. The pioneering spirit of the kiwis and those in early tourism is truly remarkable, something I will never tire of reading.
Mount Cook is full to the brim of bucket list worth activities, sights, sounds, and things to do. Whether it be a walk on one of the famed tracks in the area, spotting a kea, or watching an avalanche crash down from the mountains above. Mount Cook National park should sit high on your New Zealand road trip itinerary in all four seasons. With plenty to see, do and somewhere to lay your head, be sure to plan more than a day in this adventure wonderland, plan a weekend, bring the fam, and stay a little longer… I promise you won’t regret it.