You’ll be forgiven for using every superlative in the book when forging a path down New Zealand’s Great Alpine Highway. And you’ll want to stop a lot because it’s so very hard to focus on the road when confronted with so much raw, scenic beauty. Towering snowy mountains, deep ravines, rushing rivers and sparkling lakes, it’s no surprise this land has acted as the location for many world famous films, as well as providing the backdrop for countless commercials. From Christchurch on the east coast to Greymouth on the west, this 255km journey is a marvel from start to finish. And thanks to the highway, what once would’ve been impenetrable country to all but the hardiest souls is now open to anyone with a bit of a time and a sense of adventure.
It’s astonishing to see how this plucky city picked itself up after a series of devastating earthquakes and, whilst there are still ruins in evidence, you can see why Christchurch is known as The Garden City. If horticulture is your thing, be sure to visit the Botanical Gardens, a blooming wonder since 1863, with tours available to help visitors see the most of the 53 acres. Or take a wander around Hagley Park, officially the world’s third biggest inner city park and such a beautiful park at that. Or if you’d like to enjoy nature from a different vantage point, try punting on the delightful Avon River, a most romantic pursuit.
We’ve got some picnic spots later on the trip and whilst the drive takes you through a myriad of towns and villages, make sure your first foodie stop is the Caffeine Laboratory in New Regent St. Inhabiting the corner store of a 1900’s laneway, Caffeine Laboratory is super chic inside whilst being chocolate box cute on the outside. Load up on their mushrooms on toasted brioche which is next level delicious, or sample their chilli eggs, but do make sure you leave some space for their stuffed donuts. Which are sublime. Then check out the cabinet for sandwiches and sweet treats and compile yourself a wee picnic for later in the day.
Not technically on the route, but just 84 km from Christchurch on Banks Peninsula you’ll find the charming beach settlement of Akaroa. In the 1830s an ambitious French whaler planned a French colony here and, even though he didn’t get his way, the flavour of La Belle France remains. With its Mediterranean microclimate, the food and drink are worth the extra miles alone. You must explore the beach, then stop in at The Giant’s House Sculpture and Mosaic Gardens - a little bit of Gaudi down under.
The museum is also worth visiting, as is swimming with dolphins. Akaroa is the only place in the world where you can swim with the very rare Hector’s dolphin. Check out Black Cat Cruises and book your swim! A percentage of the ticket price goes back help with research and conservation of these friendly little guys. But you need to book as there are limited swim spots on each cruise and whilst cruises operate all year, you can only get in the water with the dolphins from September to May.
If you prefer to keep your feet dry, you can check out Australasia’s largest mainland penguin population at Pohatu Penguin Colony.
With your detour over, head back to State Highway 73 and make a beeline for the Canterbury Plains where you’ll get a strong sense of New Zealand’s small town rural roots. Miles and miles of patch worked land stretches out in front of you on the plains and the straight roads that dissect the plains feel like they may well run on forever! And rising above those farming foundations are colourful hot air balloons that float in the skies over Darfield. Ballooning Canterbury take visitors high above the Canterbury Plains where they can marvel at the landscape as it spreads to the edges of the majestic Southern Alps. Winter or summer, this is a most magical adventure but do dress warmly as those wicker baskets don’t hold a lot of heat – and because sunrise is the best time of day for ballooning, prepare for an early start.
But jetboating is the real drawcard in Springfield, with Alpine Jets taking passengers into the Waimakariri River canyon for the ride of their lives. With a variety of tours all featuring informative commentary, choose from 30 or 60 minute spins, to a half-day with morning tea or a full day that includes lunch. Every timetable (and budget) is catered for in Springfield.
Remember that picnic you grabbed back in Christchurch? Well it’s almost time to break it out. So once you’ve roared your lunges out on the Waimakiriri, jump back in the car and head north west over Porters Pass driving through rugged, glorious, tussock and snow clad mountain terrain towards Arthur’s Pass until you reach Castle Hill rocks, (Kura Tawhiti - Maori for Treasure from afar) and beyond these Castle Hill Village.
The rocks themselves are extraordinarily majestic limestone formations, remnants from when this are was an inland sea over 30 million years ago. Today it’s a great spot for a picnic, or a walk, it is very popular with rock climbers and sharp-eyed movie buffs might also recognise the landscape from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which was partly shot in this neck of the woods. Peaceful, humbling and a wonderful reminder of how epic nature can be, give yourself a couple of hours, as it’s one of those places where you’ll want to remind yourself you’re on holiday, and not in a hurry.
Kura Tawhiti is a very spiritual place for local Maori as there are many tapu (sacred) areas amongst the rocks. Please remember this as you wander amongst these giant natural sculptures, please stick to the trails as there are delicate fauna growing at the base of the rocks and please when climbing or walking around the rocks, leave them as you found them. This landscape is truly awe inspiring so you will leave here richer from the experience of spending time here and we are sure you’ll find yourself tempted to play hide and seek, no matter how old or young you are.
The kind folk who established the trails were thoughtful and have built public conveniences by the track and beside the rocks. And they ask that you take all of your rubbish with you and that you are mindful that you’re walking beside a working farm so please be respectful of the animals.
A little beyond the rocks, you’ll come across the delightful Castle Hill Village, a small collection of mainly holiday homes (that can be rented though Airbnb or Bookabach) nestled into a groove in Castle Hill Station boundaries. There aren’t any shops so if you do decided to spend some time here, please make sure that you stock up well in Christchurch as once you’re here you wont want to leave. (And if you’re coming in winter time, be mindful that the weather can be a fickle bird and the weather is king so make sure you bring snow chains on your adventure, and that you are pretty comfortable with how to fit them.)
Just west of the village you’ll be delighted to find Hogs Back Track, a series of walking and mountain bike trails where you can journey through tussock land, amongst dappled beech forests and cross streams to reach Cheeseman Ski Field Road.
If exploring all of the tracks around Castle Hill has tired you somewhat, then Flock Hill Lodge is just the place for you. Set amongst snow capped peaks, on the edge of Craigieburn Forest, the Lodge is part of Flock Hill Station, a 15,000 hectare sheep farm and it’s a great place to chill out with a glass of something in front of their roaring fire whilst contemplating the majestic landscape you have just encountered.
Book yourself into one of their rustic, cosy self contained cottages, or dine in their restaurant before retiring to the song of the night birds who inhabit the bush framing the lodge.
Breakfast by the little lake with one of the lodge’s basket of goodies before exploring the walks or mountain bike trails around the station, to The Knoll or further afield. But if you feel like a slightly more leisurely expedition, the lovely folk at the lodge can organize a horse trek so you can have a guided expedition astride one of their sure footed horses.
To reach Flock Hill Station, continue along West Coast Road which slices through Castle Hill Station until you find yourself amongst Craigieburn Forest Park’s rich green foliage, which will reveal the rusted iron Flock Hill Station bridge on your left. Cross the bridge and get a taste of life on a high country station without the back breaking shearing or fencing tasks.
Lake Pearson is another natural marvel, a high country lake in the Waimakariri Basin. It is an hourglass shaped lake that’s fringed with mature willow trees and dotted with picnic tables and on a still day the water acts like a mirror and the reflections are just breathtaking. This lake is popular with bird watchers, fisher folk and those who just wish to stretch the old legs. Stop for an hour or so, or a few days if you fancy camping at the Moana Rua campsite – but be warned, you can’t book this campsite, so it’s first come, first served.
Aside from all the alpine activities, serious hikes, hunting and fishing, a short historic walk around the alpine village of Arthur’s Pass really helps to put some of the area’s pioneer history into perspective. Starting at the visitor centre, a useful destination in itself, pick up a brochure and take a leisurely stroll around the village, stopping at the interpretation panels that tell the story of what village life used to be like in the 1900s. Taking just 90 minutes, the round trip includes Glasgow Bridge, information about early industry and the local identities who helped make the town what it is today.
Wandering around Arthurs Pass you may well encounter several confident, richly hued, green parrots. The worlds only alpine parrot, the kea is a very precious member of endangered NZ native birds. They are very bold and will probably come and greet you and possibly try to have a snack on any of your possessions that might be lying around. Please understand these are wild animals so please be respectful of them and please do not feed them as human food is very dangerous for these plucky little guys.
With a name like that who could resist pulling over at this natural wonder. From Arthur’s Pass Village turn on to Punchbowl Road where a sign will show you where to park to head to the falls. After about thirty minutes walking through bush and beech forest – do be aware there are quite a few steps - you’ll reach the base of the falls where you’ll enjoy an excellent view of cascading white water as it tumbles 131 metres down the steep mossy rocks. As you’d imagine, after rain it’s ever so much more impressive but that also means the track can be muddy so don’t wear your best shoes. And yes, you can get a reasonable shot of the falls from the car park but that’s nothing compared to what you’ll see from the actual lookout point.
On a clear day this is a must stop spot for capturing a photograph of the Otira Viaduct, a feat of engineering that was an ambitious but essential undertaking. Thanks to information panels you’ll learn that the bridge is 440 metres long and, with four spans, it’s eight metres wide and features a balanced cantilever construction. Try to imagine the foundations driving 25 metres deep into the ground – this is the sort of thing engineering geeks swoon over and if you come in spring you’ll hit the Blossom Festival. With Otira translating from the Maori as “the place of the travellers” this is a most fitting name and if you are keen on modern art, keep your eyes peeled for the Paul Byrnes’ Art Gallery, very groovy works.
This hotel is one of those incredible surprises, one minute you’re in the middle of nowhere and the next thing you know you’re at a quirky, world-class hotel that deserves all the accolades that are heaped on it. Not just a hotel, this former theatre also used to be a house of ill repute with the ghosts of prostitutes past and old prime ministers stalking the halls. Restored to her former glory, both comfortable and ornate, it’s like being transported to another era. Renowned for fine dining and fine wine and beer, enjoy a glass of pinot (or a pint) and venison pie by the fire - you’ll be as snug as a bug here on a rainy West Coast night. And if you’re not scared of the dark, pop behind the Theatre Royal Hotel and look for the glow worms that light up the outer edges of the disused mine shafts, although of course being careful not to fall in.
Ok so this is a little bit off the actual Great Alpine Highway, but when you come here you want to take a good look around. And Hokitika Gorge is one of nature’s marvels. Featuring a short and easy walk that includes a swing bridge, (breath through the vertigo), your reward upon arriving will be the sight of a rock and forest fringed body of the brightest blue water you’re ever likely to see. The spectacular shade of the water is due to the fact that the pool is fed directly from Earth’s purest glaciers. With easy to follow signposts, you won’t need to put a filter on the photos you take at this beauty spot.
The West Coast Treetops Walk and Cafe is another little deviation from the highway proper - but well worth the extra few kilometres of scenic driving - because the walk is your chance to get up close and personal with New Zealand’s temperate rainforest giants. Climb 20 metres into the canopy and experience what life might be like for the birds high in the ancient rimu and kamahi trees. With over 450 metres of steel platforms, leave an hour to complete the walk, although you may wish to linger on the tower that looks out over the spectacular Southern Alps. And if all that fresh air has made you peckish, you can stop in at the café for a bite to eat.
This recreation of an old gold rush village contains everything from restored steam trains to a working sawmill, gold panning opportunities, a holographic theatre, a marvellous museum, and King Dick’s Café. And because there’s so much to experience while visiting this labour of love, it’s advisable to spend a full day here. On your way through, be sure to stop in at Garth Wilson Jade, the emporium of a local carver whose work is world-class. Not only can you watch Garth work, he also teaches visitors all about this traditional Maori art form and will help you find the right design that you’ll treasure forever.