When the idea was first tossed around to ride the Alps2Ocean (A2O) cycle trail in New Zealand, I hesitated. This was the domain of the serious cyclist, those who could punch out 40 kilometres before breakfast. From peak to Pacific, the 301-kilometre A2O is listed in Lonely Planet's Epic Bike Rides of the World; surely no place for the weekend cyclist and a nine-year-old fresh off training wheels? Armed with a pair of borrowed bike pants, we fly across the ditch, ready for either an epic adventure, or epic lesson in not biting off more than you can chew.
We arrive at Lake Tekapo late afternoon, tired after flying into Christchurch in the early hours of the morning. To shake off travel fatigue and prepare for the next few days in the saddle, we head for Tekapo Springs with its hot pools and glacial spa overlooking the lake and looming mountains.
That night, after climbing into bed, I mentally calculate our gear hastily packed after a Google search along the lines of: 'What to pack for a cycle trip". All up, my kit includes one pair of Lycra bike pants loaned from a friend, leggings, joggers, T-shirts, a lightweight jacket and a small day pack. A friend from Sydney cycling with us is equally ill prepared. "We'll wing it," she yells out from the neighbouring room, as I sigh and switch off the light.
The next day is all about getting our cycle legs on. We meet up with Cycle Journeys at Lake Pukaki, meaning source of many streams. It's one of those perfect days with the lake shimmering before us, and the snow-capped mountains looming behind. Most of the Alps2Ocean (A2O) is off-road and today we cycle along a trail beside the ethereal lake, given its distinctive blue tinge because of the crystallisation of rock flower.
First though, our Cycle Journeys guide Geoff Venning takes us to a flat, quiet stretch of road where he matches us up with appropriate sized bikes, helmets and then follows behind, or waits a short distance ahead of us, in a minivan with bike trailer. This is both reassuring, and embarrassing given how slow going we are. But Geoff has the patience of Job, yelling out encouragement and taking way too many pictures of us lined up with our bikes, gazing out at the dreamy Alpine vistas. He tells us Ella is their youngest client to cycle the A2O, while the oldest was a 92-year-old who did it on an electric bike.
The official start of the A2O is some 35 kilometres away at Mt Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain. Aoraki, or Mt Cook, means cloud piercing in Maori and with clear skies we are lucky enough to see it. Mt Cook may be the official starting point of the mostly downhill trail, however it's also a tricky place to set off from. After cycling a short distance, cyclists must be choppered across the Tasman River at a cost of $125 per person (minimum of two cyclists). Hence why we're starting at the head of Lake Pukaki instead, which suits us just fine.
After pushing out an easy 10-12 kilometres along the lake, we make our way to Twizel, the base for Cycle Journeys, where we check into Skyscape, a phenomenal 6000-acre sheep and beef farm where you stay in accommodation built predominantly of glass. Skyscape, an A2O partner, is almost completely concealed in the landscape by its grass roofed covering. It looks out over neighbouring Ben Ohau Station, where the final battle scene in Lord of the Rings was filmed.
We fill up Skyscape's incredible al fresco bath and take a soak, glass of wine in hand, as the stars come out to play. We're tired in that good way when you've done physical exertion and sleep like logs, farewelled in the morning by farm dogs Ben, Tim and Fog.
After coffee in the morning sun, Geoff scratches our plans for a cycle along Lake Ohau. Ohau is a Maori word meaning "place of wind" and today it lives up to its name, making cycling tricky. Instead we start at Lake Ohau Lodge, heading towards Omarama along a rocky trail. It's tough going for Ella, not used to traversing over the shingled path, but the landscape makes it worth it: looking back across the basin to the Ben Ohau Range, dusted with snow even mid-spring.
We make slow and steady progress, crossing a wooden bridge across a rushing glacier-fed river, gulping fresh mountain air and stopping more often than we need to, to take in our incredible surrounds. We are the only cyclists on this section of the trail and even though Geoff is parked not far away, we feel a million miles from anywhere.
Being the novices that we are, realistically we couldn't have tackled this adventure without the help of Cycle Journeys, although plenty of experienced cyclists do it themselves. Along with our guide Geoff, Cycle Journeys fit us out with fantastic bikes, drive us to highlights of the trail we can cycle with Ella; while our luggage and hire vehicle is transported ahead of us to each night's destination. It makes doing the trail, especially with children, achievable, enjoyable and interesting as Geoff also doubles as a local tour guide.
Our best day on the A2O is the third day, cycling from Omarama east down the Waitaki Valley, descending along the edge of Lake Benmore to Pumpkin Point. By this stage, Ella is comfortable in the saddle, and we laugh as we race each other down the dirt trail along the picturesque hydro lake, one of three, where families picnic and paddle kayaks. Geoff hovers in the distance, but Ella waves him off riding confidently with her legs going a million miles an hour.
We end our day at Pasquale Kurow Winery, in the Waitaki Valley, after cycling through rows of neatly planted vines. Conveniently the trail passes right through the vineyard. We sit contentedly with the sun on our back, a phenomenal tasting platter before us and a bottle of estate-grown pinot gris before us. "It doesn't get much better than this," my friend Niki says.
There are other highlights, too, but I particularly love the harbourside town of Oamaru, where the A20 officially ends. The trail concludes at the picturesque Friendly Bay overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where we gather for a photo inside an oversized Alps2Ocean photo frame set up on the foreshore. We haven't cycled anywhere near the whole trail, but it still feels like an achievement. With some careful planning and packing, the A20 is achievable for cyclists of any age or ability. Just be sure to pack those bike pants. Believe me, you'll need them.
Cycle Journeys can accommodate everyone from solo riders, through to large groups with self-guided packaged tours, bike hire, luggage transfers, shuttles, accommodation and more on both the A2O and West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trails. See cyclejourneys.co.nz
Our pick of A2O accommodation is the new Skyscape, glass roofed accommodation for two on a high country station near Twizel (skyscape.co.nz); Valley Views Glamping, a new glamping experience in lotus belle tents with king-size beds, luxury linen and home cooked meals overlooking the bucolic Waitaki Valley (valleyviews.co.nz); and Big Sky Bed and Breakfast at Omarama offering comfortable self-contained units and friendly NZ hospitality (bigskybnb.co.nz). At Oamaru, Pen-y-bryn Lodge offers an end of trail splurge in historic, luxury accommodation with superb table d'hote cuisine prepared by owners James Glucksman and James Boussy (aka "the Jameses''). See penybryn.co.nz
Air New Zealand flies to Christchurch from Sydney and Melbourne and will fly bikes from anywhere in the world for free, see airnewzealand.com.au. From Christchurch, shuttle transfers take cyclists to Twizel (5hr) or Mount Cook Village (5hr 30min); or hire a car from Christchurch Airport. At the end of the trail, fly home from either Christchurch or Dunedin Airports.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.
FIVE OF THE BEST NON-CYCLE THINGS ALONG THE A2O
GET HOT AND STEAMY
Star gaze from a steamy wooden hot tub filled with glacial water drawn from the Ahuriri River. There's no better way to ease sore muscles at the end of a day's cycling. See hottubsomarama.co.nz
SEE THE WORLD'S SMALLEST PENGUINS
See tiny blue penguins arrive home from their days fishing, and cross into the breeding colony at Oamaru's historic harbour. See penguins.co.nz
SIP AND SUP BY THE WAITAKI RIVER
Visit the cellar door of the charming Pasquale Kurow Winery with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and the frosty blue Waitaki River for a well-earned al fresco lunch and wine tasting. See pasquale.co.nz
LUNCH AT THE LODGE
The cosy dining room at Lake Ohau Lodge with stone fireplace and picture windows overlooking the lake makes a particularly inviting lunch stop along the A2O trail. See ohau.co.nz/ohau/restaurant
Experience a cheese tasting and guided tour of the award-winning Whitestone Cheese (the late Hugh Hefner was a big fan of their blue vein), run by the Berrys, a fourth-generation Otago farming family. Many say its Lindis Pass Camembert is New Zealand's greatest cheese. See whitestonecheese.com