The Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail might be the longest of New Zealand's 22 listed Great Rides, but it's a journey that needn't be all about the bike. Starting at the foot of the country's highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, and finishing on the coast at Oamaru, the prevailing trend for the 306-kilometre ride is downhill, but that's far from its only concession to the good life for cyclists.
Along the trail's length are a multitude of reasons to park the bike and enjoy other activities and lazy moments.
HOOKER VALLEY TRACK
KILOMETRES ALONG TRAIL: 0
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park's most famous walking trail begins at White Horse Hill campground, the very spot where Alps 2 Ocean starts. The 10-kilometre walk heads up the wide and flat Hooker Valley to an iceberg-dotted lake and glacier immediately beneath the towering summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook. Along the way, it crosses a series of swing bridges and indulges in views of the mountain.
KILOMETRES ALONG TRAIL: 8
The unbridged Tasman River is an impenetrable obstacle to the task of riding the full Alps 2 Ocean trail. Instead, cyclists cross it on a short helicopter flight from Mount Cook Airport, granting them a bonus aerial view of Aoraki/Mount Cook and the glaciers that push through the mountains around it. In reality, most riders skip the start (and the helicopter ride), beginning their journey along the opposite shore of Lake Pukaki or on a branch trail from Tekapo, but if you're a purist, what a way to start a bike ride! Tour company Adventure South runs a guided Alps to Ocean End to End ride that includes the helicopter option.
KILOMETRES ALONG TRAIL: 151
For much of its length, Alps 2 Ocean follows the Waitaki Valley towards the coast. Rising above the river near Omarama, the Clay Cliffs resemble a piece of Turkey's Cappadocia transplanted to New Zealand. A short walking trail runs along the base of the fluted clay pinnacles and peaks before squeezing through a gap into an amphitheatre inside the cliffs. The cliffs are a seven-kilometre detour from the trail, leaving riders with a will-I-won't-I dilemma, but they're well worth the extra effort.
KILOMETRES ALONG TRAIL: 160
As you pedal into Omarama, the skies above the town are likely to be swarming with gliders. The mountains surrounding Omarama create perfect updrafts for gliding. The town has been the site of several world championships and gliding world records have been set here. For visitors, Glide Omarama operates flights ranging from 30 minutes over the Waitaki Valley to two-and-a-half hours across the Southern Alps.
HOT TUBS OMARAMA
KILOMETRES ALONG TRAIL: 160
Follow the plumes of steam across the road from Omarama's glider airfield and you'll find therapy for tired cycling muscles. Hot Tubs Omarama has eight outdoor wooden hot tubs dotted in view of the surrounding mountains. Water comes fresh from a nearby mountain stream, and with Omarama at the edge of New Zealand's International Dark Sky Reserve, aim to grab the day's final time slot (8.30pm) for a warm soak beneath a sky ablaze with stars.
KILOMETRES ALONG TRAIL: 233
Soon after passing through Kurow, the trail narrows into a skinny track beside a vineyard before emerging outside the cellar door for Kurow Winery, the Waitaki Valley's oldest winery. It looks like nothing more than a green shed from the outside, but inside it's homely and welcoming with leather sofas around a potbelly stove. Tastings are available each afternoon. Try the organic Black Star pinot noir.
VALLEY VIEWS GLAMPING
KILOMETRES ALONG TRAIL: 233
The most interesting and eclectic accommodation offering along the trail is Valley Views Glamping, where luxury geodesic tents peer across a swath of farmland to the Waitaki Valley. A floor-to-dome perspex window opens up views from the beds, and if too many views aren't enough, the outdoor baths offer a different perspective. It's situated nine kilometres off the trail, but owners Patrick and Amber, who also cook up dinner and breakfast in the central lodge, will pick you up from Kurow Winery (a good excuse for another glass!) while Adventure South's Alps to Ocean End to End ride spends a night here.
KILOMETRES ALONG TRAIL: 250
A few kilometres before the trail turns out of the Waitaki Valley at Duntroon, it passes beneath a line of limestone cliffs. Sheltered beneath overhangs in the cliffs is one of New Zealand's best-known Maori rock-art sites, featuring 19th-century drawings of people riding horses, European sailing ships and the red figures of taniwha, the large water creatures of Maori tradition. Takiroa was once a more extensive art site, but many of the drawings were cut away by early archaeologists and placed in museums.
KILOMETRES ALONG TRAIL: 259
On the slopes above Duntroon, the trail climbs past Elephant Rocks, where giant knuckles of limestone protrude from the grassy earth in a curious assortment of shapes. Sitting among some of the most fertile farmland imaginable, it's one of those fantasy landscapes that New Zealand does so well – much of the reason why the country made such a fine Middle-earth.
KILOMETRES ALONG TRAIL: 306
In many ways, Oamaru looks like a demure place. Grand limestone edifices line its wide streets, and the town has a Victorian appearance that's enhanced by the presence of penny farthings around the streets. It's a true cycling town in which to finish a ride. But Oamaru also has a wild side that expresses itself in steampunk. Around the harbour you'll find rusted, sci-fi-style steampunk art, while stores in the Victorian Precinct sell steampunk jewellery and goggles. Central to the whole theme is Steampunk HQ, an interactive museum set behind a rusted train engine and airship. Entering its dark space is like stepping onto the set of a Mad Max movie. Sculptures rendered from industrial debris fill its two rooms – car mufflers become frog legs, industrial cogs become the eyes of a gorilla, and rusted pipes form a maze. Head outside to find the Gadgetorium, which is like every mad scientist's lair you could imagine.
FIVE OF NEW ZEALAND'S GREATEST RIDES
A 120-kilometre network of trails radiating from Queenstown to the likes of Arrowtown and the Gibbston Valley vineyards.
HAURAKI RAIL TRAIL
An easy 58-kilometre roll along the Hauraki Plains before burrowing through spectacular Karangahake Gorge.
OTAGO RAIL TRAIL
New Zealand's original rail trail, horseshoeing for 152 kilometres through gold country with barely a climb but plenty of fine pubs and accommodation offerings.
MOUNTAINS TO SEA
Begin on the volcanic slopes of Mount Ruapehu and follow the Whanganui River to the Tasman Sea.
OLD GHOST ROAD
Up the ante with this wild 85-kilometre mountain-bike ride across a historic track through remote mountains above Buller Gorge.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Adventure South and Tourism New Zealand.
Air New Zealand has direct services to Queenstown from Melbourne up to eight times a week, and from Sydney up to nine times a week. See airnewzealand.com.au
Adventure South runs a seven-day guided Alps to Ocean End to End trip, beginning in Queenstown and finishing in Christchurch. Priced from $2895, it includes all meals and accommodation and a support vehicle. See adventuresouth.co.nz