Twizel: AKA Dam City, AKA Helluva Good Time

February 16

Deep in the heart of the South Island of New Zealand, you’ll find an expanse of land quite unlike anywhere else in the country. A bowl of high country farmland flanked by the mightiest of New Zealand’s mountain ranges and huge open skies, this is the Mackenzie Country. Ice-blue glacial lakes and canals snake through the golden fields of this basin, which makes the perfect base for exploring the wonders of the central South Island.

For most of its history, this place has been a sparsely populated sheep farming region, and a holiday spot for some of the folks living in Christchurch. These days, the Mackenzie Country is well and truly on the visitor’s map for its stunning scenery. You’ll find Twizel smack bang in the middle, making it the ultimate gateway to adventure. Nestled right up next to Mount Cook National Park and the mighty Southern Alps mountain range, Twizel is the perfect base for exploring and activities, whether that looks like hiking, mountain climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, skiing or horse trekking. If the local lakes and rivers close by call louder than the mountains, take a rod and disappear for day or two in search of trout and salmon. There’s plenty of fish to find, and the vast background views of this place are an experience in themselves.

Twizel is now the biggest town in the Mackenzie country, but it hasn’t actually been on the block for that long. It’s Canterbury’s youngest town, and came on the scene in 1969 as a hydro construction settlement – the population grew from zero to five or six thousand by 1975.

Twizel is just a wee place (population around 1,300), and is definitely known more for its stunning surrounds and activities close by than as a destination itself. There’s still a bit going on in the town centre, though, so it’s worth hanging out to enjoy for a while. Twizel has a good range of restaurants and places to stay, especially since the opening of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle trail. This bike trail is a mind blowing journey down and across the South Island, running from Mt Cook all the way down to Oamaru on the coast. Most people do it in 5-7 days, and Twizel is a common place to stop along the way.

Whilst it’s not booming with events, you can still find a pub quiz or a local market here or there, and if you can plan your holiday for the end of February, dive into the rowdy celebrations of the Twizel Salmon and Wine Festival. That one’s worth a road trip from Christchurch in itself.

Where in New Zealand is Twizel?

Twizel is right in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, deep in the Mackenzie Country. It’s about two hours driving from Queenstown and Wanaka, three and a half hours from Christchurch and two hours from Timaru on the coast. For this reason alone, most people travel through at some point on their travels.

What is near Twizel?

The answer to that one becomes clear as soon as you approach the town – there’s no missing the impressive range of mountains to the west: the Southern Alps in all their glory. The mountain range comes to a towering climax at New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki Mt Cook. Twizel offers easy access to see and be next to this mighty mountain, from across Lake Pukaki and from Mount Cook Village itself, the entry point for Aoraki Mt Cook National Park.

Mountains aside, the New Zealand high country surrounding Twizel is dotted with spectacular lakes, bluer than you can possibly imagine and so picturesque you’ll be sure you’re still staring at your computer screensaver. Lake Tekapo, Lake Ohau, Lake Pukaki and Lake Ruataniwha are the closest lakes, and all worth a visit. On a clear day, you can look across Lake Pukaki (20 minutes from Twizel) directly at Aoraki Mt Cook, with its impressive peak reflected in the glacial waters. For a holiday experience that has you pinching yourself, this is the lookout spot to pull in for.

Lake Ruataniwha, which is just 40 minutes from Mt Cook village and 4km from Twizel town centre, is another gorgeous Mackenzie lake, with a good holiday park perfectly set up to camp for the night at its shores. Lake Ruataniwha is actually an artificial lake, built as part of the large scale Mackenzie and Waitaki hydroelectric schemes.

Lake Ohau, meanwhile, is also about 40 minutes from Twizel, and as well as the lake, offers a classically Kiwi club ski field experience. The ski field is small, family-run and epic on a powder day. The Ohau Lodge is a step back in time; an old school ski lodge with a hot tub and a grand dining hall that has seen more than its fair share of a good time.

The high country around Twizel is also threaded with icy blue, man made canals that are connected to the headwaters of Lake Pukaki, Ohau and Tekapo, and named after them. They were built as part of the hydroelectric scheme, but also offer fantastic fishing, as well as hosting the Twizel salmon farm. For anglers looking to score, salmon and trout abound in the canals, with trout in excess of 4.5kg being a common catch.

How deep are the Twizel canals?

They’re 6 meters deep, with their iconic milky blue coloring coming from glacial silt (not quite as romantic as the color alludes to). As well as salmon and trout, the canals are home to abundant aquatic plant life.

How far is Twizel from Mt Cook?

Mount Cook Village is about 45 minutes from Twizel, although on a fine day it can feel like driving directly into a painting of Mount Cook, so we don’t blame you for going a whole lot slower. It’s got to be one of the most beautiful stretches of road in New Zealand, with unbeatable views – not an experience to be rushed. When you get there, it’s impossible not to stay, and there’s a range of accommodation available to rest your bones at night – especially welcome if you’re hitting the hiking trails and exploring the mountains.

How far is Twizel from Lake Tekapo?

Driving from Twizel to Lake Tekapo takes about 40 minutes, and if you’re using Twizel as a base, it’s the perfect day trip. There’s plenty to explore in Tekapo, from basking in the views of the lake with lupins dancing along its shores to a brisk walk up one of the local trails. The Tekapo Springs are one of the best activities in the Mackenzie area, particularly if you’re bringing the family. Soak in one of their three bigger hot pools and enjoy the world class views, or get around their sauna, steam room, Aqua Play zone or cold plunge pool.

Another once-in-a-lifetime New Zealand experience is, of course, Tekapo stargazing. Take a stunning guided tour of the night sky, while soaking your bones in the hot pools – it doesn’t get much more magical than that. The Mackenzie country is a Dark Sky Reserve, which makes it the perfect place to get up close with our galactic surroundings.

If you want to stay the night in Tekapo (and why wouldn’t you?), there’s plenty of great accommodation options, from cute BnBs and camping grounds to luxury hotels. It’s a popular place to holiday from Christchurch, so you’ll find more than enough options for a place to stay.

How far is Twizel from Dunedin?

The road trip from Dunedin to Twizel takes about three hours, though it’s worth leaving longer to truly enjoy the scenery as it changes region to region. The best place to stop along the way has got to be Moeraki Boulders, where the big round rocks on the beach come in second to Fleur’s, the iconic seafood restaurant.

Dunedin itself is a juicy city, too, with a great music scene, regular events and a certain grittiness that can be hard to find in the South Island. St Clair’s Beach is a great place to stay, with plenty of accommodation and a handy location to the city centre.

How far is Twizel from Wanaka?

Twizel is about 2 hours from Wanaka, which makes it a great place to stop on route to Christchurch (or around the other way). From Queenstown, it’s a little further. Queenstown gets a lot of attention for its charming nook in the heart of the mountains, but if it’s the real Mt Cook-spec mountains you’re after, the Mackenzie region has got to be top of the list.

What is there to do in Twizel?

Incase we hadn’t already made it obvious, Twizel is an incredible base for the many, many activities that surround it. Aoraki Mt Cook is so close you could almost touch it, and getting up early to see the mountains turn pink with the sunrise as you drive closer and closer is one of the best experiences on this earth. In the alpine wonderland that is Mt Cook Village, adventure takes the lead. Walk one of the many hiking tracks, from easy to advanced, with a backdrop of towering giants and the sound of avalanches cracking in the distance.

With its location at the heart of the Mackenzie country, Twizel is also a popular fishing mecca, with the clear lakes and canals home to abundant salmon and trout. There’s also the salmon farm, High Country Salmon, just south of Twizel, which is a great place to see some monster salmon and pick up dinner. Of course, the area just next to the salmon farm is a popular fishing spot in the region – the wild fish know where to find an easy feed.

For those who like to travel by two wheels, Twizel is a brilliant location for exploring the Mackenzie Country and South Island by bike. There’s the popular Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail, of course, which passes through, but there are plenty of other options for half day or day bike trips to hit with the family. The Twizel River Trail, for example, or the Dusky Trail both offer alpine cycling at its best. You’ll find all you need in the main town centre when it comes to bike rentals, repairs and cycling information, too.

Twizel itself, as a mix between alpine village and farming community, has plenty of charm, too. There’s a good range of accommodation, whether you’re a van-lifer, quaint cottage lover or looking for a plush white robe in a 5 star hotel to make yourself at home.

Is Lake Tekapo worth visiting?

Of course – it’s a popular pit stop on the road from Christchurch through to Queenstown or Wanaka, but well worth a trip on its own. With hot springs, an observatory, a glorious lake and hiking trails, it’d be sacrilege not to at least stay the night.

Is Mt Cook worth visiting?

The main reason many people travel to the Mackenzie area is to be next to the great Aoraki Mount Cook. Even from its base (it’s a tough mountain to climb), the sovereign of the South Island is an experience to behold.

When should I visit Twizel?

Whilst the region is still spectacular in summer, with long hot days, the best time to travel to Twizel and the Mackenzie region would have to be the middle of winter. The views of the mountains fully cloaked in their mid-winter layers of snow are just incredible. The small local ski fields, like Ohau and Roundhill are in full swing, offering skiing and events, the local accommodation is full, and there’s a buzz in the air that comes with winter in this place. For the hardy, there’s plenty of salmon and trout to be caught this time of year, too.

Does Mt Cook have snow all year round?

That’s one of the best things about it! The top of Mt Cook, being as high up as it is, always has its white coat on, though it only rarely snows down to the village, and only in winter.

Does Twizel have snow?

In the middle of winter, it can snow in Twizel, but it’s not common for it to stick around. It gets cold though, so warm clothes are a must. If you’re going to be braving the elements, check in at the Twizel information centre for a detailed weather forecast.

What are the best hotels in Twizel?

There are accommodation options to suit everyone in Twizel, from rented holiday houses, BnBs and luxury hotels. As far as hotel accommodation goes, the Mackenzie Country Hotel is a classic with all the amenities you could need and is located close to Twizel town centre. Another good option is the Mountain Chalets Motel and the 5-star Matuka Lodge, a little further from the centre of town.

For true luxury accommodation a ten minute drive from Twizel, the Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat is as suave as you can get, with private villas basking in some of the finest views in New Zealand.

So there you have it: the unforgettable Mackenzie Country, and at the heart of it all, Twizel. We hope you get to know this little gateway town like the back of your hand as you enjoy everything the legendary region around has to offer.

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