The mercury is dropping but Sarah Lawrence's spirits are rising as she heads south.

At this time of year, when many are planning winter escapes to warm tropical islands, I'm happy to venture further south to where the temperatures are closer to zero. I love rugging up and exploring the beauty of the countryside when the trees have turned auburn and the mountains are shrouded in snow.

So, it goes without saying I'm in my element driving through the MacKenzie Country, in the heart of the South Island, on my way to Lake Tekapo.

I've travelled this route a few times and the beauty of its diverse landscape is etched in my memory. One minute you're coasting across arid plains speckled with golden tussock, the next you're winding through lush rolling hills. Surrounding it all are razor-sharp, snow-capped mountain ranges.

We arrive in Tekapo as the sun has just set and the mercury has fallen to zero.

Advertisement

My sister, who is my travelling buddy this weekend, isn't quite as comfortable with the cooler temperature, and makes a beeline for the roaring fireplace in our apartment at the Mantra Lake Tekapo. I can't say I blame her.

Mantra is luxury living, a plush home away from home, and only a quick walk to Tekapo township past the iconic Church of the Good Shepherd, built in 1935 as a memorial to the MacKenzie Country pioneers.

After thawing, we bundle into our winter woollies and set off in search of country tucker. The locals here are very welcoming and it isn't long before we start chatting to a friendly couple over our venison stew at one of the local eateries.

These particular locals turn out to be Graeme Murray and his wife, who have lived in Tekapo for 40 years. Graeme manages Earth and Sky, the education centre working with the Mt John Observatory in Tekapo. It's obvious he is passionate about all things stellar, and chatting to Graeme makes us only more excited about the tour we've booked with Earth and Sky later in the weekend.

The next day we have some exploring to do. We arrive at Air Safaris, a family-owned business that has operated scenic flights throughout the region for more than 45 years. Today we're heading off on the Grand Traverse flight, a 50-minute jaunt across Lake Tekapo and the surrounding lakes and glaciers up to the majestic peak of nearby Mt Cook.

It's not till we're heading skyward that we get a sense of the magnificence of Lake Tekapo. I've heard it referred to as a "turquoise treasure" - an idea confirmed by the view from the air. It's the finely ground silt flowing from nearby rivers and suspended in Tekapo's waters that creates the pure blue effect - and it's so breathtaking it seems almost unreal.

Back on the ground, we spend the afternoon strolling the shores of the lake, dreaming of which lakefront home we'd choose if we were ever lucky enough to live here. Cooled by the evening air, we warm up by the fire, before heading to dinner at Rakinui Restaurant, where all the produce is sourced from the MacKenzie region. It pays off where the tastebuds are concerned. Two words: pork belly.

Our last day has arrived quicker than we'd hoped but we're determined to make the most of it. We visit Tekapo Springs, the local hot pool complex with an adjoining ice-skating rink open during winter.

It doesn't take long to realise that ice-skating doesn't come naturally to me. My sister, on the other hand, gracefully sails across the ice, throwing in the odd balletic spin. Luckily little sis comes to my rescue and after some helpful hints I seem to manage a few short glides. I'm secretly relieved when she suggests it might be time for a dip in the hot pools.

Cleverly tiered within the hillside on the outskirts of town, the springs allow a restful soak surrounded by tussocks and riverstones, while taking in a view out to the lake. This is bliss.

Our last evening is spent at Mt John Observatory - a visit we have been anticipating all weekend.

As we pile out of the bus we're told we are standing under one of the few Dark Sky Reserves in the world. Due to increases in light and air pollution worldwide, the ability to see stars and planets is on the decline. However, Tekapo's location, along with the preservation of light through local ordinances, ensures the skies are immaculate, and tourists come here from all over the world to experience our skies in all their glory.

In fact, every part of Tekapo seems pristine and untouched - the lake, the mountains and the sky. Being able to see Mars, Jupiter and Saturn through powerful telescopes is out of this world. Our guides, Dallas and Jordan, are walking encyclopedias of everything planetary and inspire me to appreciate the night sky more often. This is a night I won't forget anytime soon.

As we head home to the north, the mercury may be rising but our spirits are a little low - it's hard to say goodbye to the flawless beauty that is Tekapo.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies twice daily from Auckland to Timaru, via Wellington. Tekapo is around a 90-minute drive from there.

Staying there: Mantra Lake Tekapo is one of 38 Lake Tekapo properties listed on Booking.com. The site offers a best price guarantee and a "don't pay until you stay" policy.