The mercury was plunging and the inky darkness deepening. Tilting my head to the heavens, the canopy of constellations were all aglitter, with seductive intent. One glimpse, one snatch of the Mackenzie skyscape can be all it takes to convert the uninitiated into an astro-addict.
I ventured out into the evening chill and sauntered around to Tekapo Springs to experience their recent entrance into the head swirl of astro-tourism. Pint-sized Tekapo sure knows how to roll deep into the night.
For such a small town, the sheer volume of night owls out and about at midnight would leave many much bigger towns in the shade. Stargazers by the truckload, rugged up and wide-eyed, were swanning through town to gaze in awe at the sky full of stars.
Astro-tourism is snow-balling at a startling speed, whereby a variety of new offerings are broadening the palette of nocturnal experiences. Mt John Observatory's Earth & Sky Experience will soon be complemented by the joint venture with Ngai Tahu, which will usher in a multimillion-dollar astronomy centre.
And since March, the beloved pleasure dome of Tekapo Springs, feted for its hot pools, snow tubing and ice skating rink, has also been making the most of its locale, nestled within the world's largest international dark sky reserve.
Alongside a clutch of international visitors, our ebullient star guide Dan swept us up in starry-eyed wonder, as he navigated us through some choice specimens shining above. Inside, a giant video screen showcased a dazzling range of images, fresh from NASA's various exploratory craft roaming the solar system.
Through the telescopes set out on the deck of the Tahr Bar, we drooled in wonder over an array of celestial bodies, from the rings of Saturn to the intensity of star-birthing nebulae, revolving serenely above. If you want to capture what the naked eye can't see, beg, borrow or steal a DSLR camera or get an astro-photographer to snap the magic.
Dan's commanding breadth of knowledge and his engaging storytelling made for a compelling night. It's one thing to have an insane amount of astronomic knowledge, but being able to impart it in such a way that mere mortals can easily digest, takes real flair.
But the cherry on top of the Tekapo Springs affair is the 40-minute soak in the Pukaki hot pool, as I "floated" among the stars, sound-tracked by astro-music and more celestial story-telling. My fellow guests from abroad were spell-bound by the insights into the ancient prowess of Maori and Polynesian navigators, who used the stars as their road map.
The Milky Way's powdered depth kept mesmerising me deep into the night.
Feast of food and nature
Before I surrendered to the sky show at Tekapo Springs, I tucked into some hearty fare at the celebrated Tin Plate Kitchen & Bar.
With a rustic, playful Italian ambience and blazing open fire, this toasty and convivial apres-ski spot is the sort of place you could linger all night - and their decadent pizza menu is beyond drool-worthy. The a la carte dinner menu is stoically seasonal and what could be better than their lamb & winter vege hotpot?
Another highly recommended winter pick-me-up is Tin Plate's pork fillet, glazed in dijon mustard and whisky, accompanied with roasted winter veges and caramelised apple. It's as mouth-watering as it sounds. www.tinplate.co.nz
After a restful night at beautiful Peppers Resort, the day dawned crisp and dead calm as I feasted on the vista, overlooking millpond-smooth Lake Tekapo. The rugby field next to Peppers would have to be a prime candidate for being one of the most photogenic sports grounds in New Zealand.
Filling my lungs with pristine alpine air, the sun poked its head over Two Thumb Range as the soul-rinsing sense of purity washed over me. It's a very easy place to soon find yourself communing with nature, reflexively, where your brain switches off and thoughts become lost in a world of natural reverence.
It's the razor-sharp clarity of Tekapo's skies that underscores its universal appeal - in every way. Soak up an insightful encounter with the heavens at Tekapo Springs. For full details, jump to www.tekaposprings.co.nz
The ongoing boom in the Mackenzie Country's tourism industry has seen the traditional shoulder seasons steadily melt away, whereby the region is buzzing with visitors year-round. Book well in advance for accommodation and activities. www.mackenzienz.com