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, while 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 turn around Hagley Park, officially the world’s third biggest inner city park. Or if you’d like to enjoy nature from a different vantage point, try punting on the Avon River, a most romantic pursuit.
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. 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.
Stock up for a picnic in Springfield and jump back in the car and head northwest towards Arthur’s Pass until you reach Castle Hill rocks (Kura Tawhiti - Maori for “treasure from afar”). The rocks are extraordinarily majestic limestone formations, remnants from when this area was an inland sea over 30 million years ago. Today it’s a great spot for a picnic and is popular with rock climbers, while 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, pleasantly spooky and a wonderful reminder of how epic nature can be. Give yourself a couple of hours here, as it’s one of those places where you’ll want to remind yourself you’re on holiday, and not in a hurry.
Just beyond the rocks you’ll come to Castle Hill Village. Slightly west of the village you’ll find Hogs Back Track, a series of walking and mountain bike trails where you can journey through dappled beech forests and cross streams to reach Cheeseman Ski Field Road. (And the kind folk who established the trails were thoughtful and have built public conveniences by the track and the rocks, so you don’t need to dash off in a hurry.)
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.
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.
Speight's Ale house is another of Greymouth's great breweries to visit while you're here.
Dragon’s Cave Rafting operate out of Greymouth and take groups cave tubing and zip lining through some of the most astonishing cave systems imaginable. Snug inside your wetsuit – you’ll be glad of that extra layer– your knowledgeable and friendly guides will share fascinating tales of history and Maori culture. The full adventure includes a bush walk and zip-line, before tubing downstream in the dark with the only illumination provided by thousands of twinkling glow-worms. To finish up, you can thaw out in the hot tub with a beer, wine or hot chocolate… and a muffin too if you’ve been especially well behaved.
Starting in Greymouth, this popular Grade 2 bike trail will take you from Kumara, over to Milltown then all the way through to Ross, making for about 139 km in total. Featuring outstanding views and rolling rugged shores, rivers and lakes you’ll also be treated to forests of towering trees and a taste of the history of the area. The trail is intended as as a four-day adventure if you want to tackle it end to end, otherwise an alternative can be hiring a bike for a day and biting a little chunk out of it. And if you’re not in a hurry, you can also stop along the way for gold panning, rafting, trout fishing or dolphin watching.
Just 5km north of Greymouth you’ll find On Yer Bike HQ where visitors can ride on quad bikes or in buggies along 16km of privately owned track through some of New Zealand’s prettiest native bush. The tours are aptly named things like Enchanted Forest, Bush ‘n’ Bog and Mike’s Mighty Mud and you don’t even need a license to ride these machines, as long as you’re over 12 with a sense of adventure you’re good to go. And under-12s can be passengers. And if you don’t fancy getting down and dirty, or you don’t like mud in your eye, take a trip in the enclosed amphibious Rainforest Hagglund. Fun and exhilarating, these tours will leave you smiling for days.
Not technically on this route either, but you’d be mad not visit the wonderful landscape of Punakaiki. This tiny town features one of New Zealand’s most visited attractions, the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. These extraordinary geological features are made up of sandstone, limestone and marine creatures, stirred together by earthquakes and created over 30 millions years. Additional drama comes courtesy of the gushing blowholes. And if there’s time poke your nose into the Punakaiki cavern for glow-worms, admire the boisterous beaches, take one of several short walks and then sate your hunger by ordering pancakes at the local café, and complete the day with a glorious nocturnal star gazing session.