A mere 370km end to end, this isn’t the longest of New Zealand’s touring routes, and it doesn’t get you from A to B but, for a relatively short stretch of road, you will encounter incredible highlights. The three main points of this triangle are Hanmer Springs, Kaikoura and the Waipara Valley which means your adventure will feature wildlife, from whales to birds as well as opportunities for quaffing award-winning wines. You can say yes to thrilling adventures or just relax and enjoy the healing waters of Hanmer Springs. Or maybe you’d rather just cruise along, marvelling at the South Island’s majestic mountains, rivers and coastline. Whether you start in Christchurch or Amberley, be sure to have at least three days up your sleeve in order to make the most of this expedition and don’t forget to pack your togs.
Heading north from Christchurch, pass through the small towns of Kaiapoi, Woodend, Waikuku and Leithfield where you can stop at any one of a number of impressive beaches off to the east. Imagine miles and miles of golden sand and very few people. If it’s fresh air you’re after, consider a wee detour to Leithfield where The Historic Leithfield Hotel offers pool (the game), good food, a fire in winter, and a chance to meet the locals.
Described as a ‘master class in cool weather winemaking’, Waipara Valley is one of New Zealand’s most admired wine regions thanks to its unique soil and climate, photogenic valleys and rolling hills. With a special talent for pinot noir, Riesling and the aromatics, locals take wine very seriously. Set across 12,500 hectares, there are 31 wineries in the valley, 10 with cellar doors and 4 with restaurants – but do book ahead if you’re hoping to eat in the busy summer season. Black Estate Wines, Waipara Springs and Waipara Hills have all set the bar pretty high – but wine being such a personal thing, best you try a few places out for yourself. And at just 12km from Amberley you’ll be there in no time.
It’s likely your rental car company won’t want you taking your vehicle off road or far from the beaten track, so if you want to take a wild (but safe) ride, 4x4 Adventures is the answer. With tours leaving from Hanmer Springs as well as Christchurch, they can show off jaw-dropping backdrops from Lord of the Rings and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe with their routes that traverse valleys and glaciers, riverland and mountains. Running year round, from the high country to the deepest gorges, you can opt for half-day tours, full day excursions, even multi day adventures. Fishing trips are also on offer and your hosts Sandi and Phil are full of information and stories, bringing the landscape to life. Catering for groups of 2-8, booking ahead is advised.
With the town slogan - New Zealand’s Alpine Spa Village – that should give you some idea of what to expect here. Nestled in a high country basin, the town was put on the map thanks to the Queen Mary Hospital. Built in 1897, this facility has been a sanatorium, a sanctuary for soldiers home from war, a haven for women with ‘nervous disorders’ and, most famously, a rehabilitation centre for alcoholics. Today however it’s all about holidays, recreations and taking the waters, with numerous operators offering beauty and wellness treatments, you can get seriously indulgent here. Or hire a contraption known as a Village Cruiser, a four-wheeled bike that carries up to six passengers. And if that’s all sounding too wholesome, take note that there are two fudge shops and a confectionary emporium in town as well as several boutiques and galleries.
Whether you visit in daylight or at dusk, this beautifully landscaped spa complex offers an unforgettable experience. Surrounded by mountains and forest, the water is estimated to be over 170 years old by the time it reaches you. Full of minerals the pools vary from 32-42 degrees Celsius, so depending on your preferences you’ll find your ideal soak. Many people choose to simple wallow for a few hours then indulge in spa treatments. And if you’re travelling with youngsters, you’ll have a ball in the family area where there’s a water playground, two large pools, hydroslides, a lazy river and New Zealand’s only aquatic thrill ride, The Superbowl.
Hanmer Forest and its wider surrounds are laced with a network of superb walking tracks. Even if you’re feeling lazy, Conical Hill is easy to do – starting smack bang at the end of the main street, it winds its way up to the top of the hill, takes just 20 minutes and the views of Hanmer Basin are beautiful. The Woodlands Walk is another popular easy option, although if you want to make a bit more effort, head for the Waterfall Track. Taking about three hours return you’ll make your way to Dog Stream Waterfall, at 41 metres tall this feature is a real stunner after rain. And the piece de resistance, the full day walk up Mt Isobel, taking five hours from the Clarence Valley Road Car Park, it’s a very popular hike but remember to always put safety first when walking in the mountains and be prepared for every kind of weather and please take some food and water too.
So you’re all loved up with nature and the warm water has rendered you a bit snoozy so ramp things up a bit with a 30-minute jet boat adventure inside the Waiau River’s rocky gorges and feel your adrenaline surge. Hold on tight as your pilot pulls thrilling 360-degree manoeuvres over the waves, and yes your tour does include a life jacket and spray proof jacket so you don’t need to worry about the splashing -but maybe don’t go to too much trouble over your hair that day. With a couple of jet boat operators and several departure times each day, you can be as young as three and as old as 99. With knowledgeable guides you’ll also discover fascinating facts about this beautiful region.
To reach Kaikoura from Hanmer Springs is about 130km north east. The trip will take about two hours and you’ll travel through some incredibly remote locations and even in the high season you can feel like the only person on earth. Once you leave the Inland Kaikoura Road and hit the dramatic coastline, you’ll find more astonishing scenery. It’s true Kaikoura was rocked by a series of devastating earthquakes in 2016, but they’re mostly up and running again, a testimony to the resilience of the locals. However, occassionally roads are closed for repairs so Google ahead to figure out which route to use.
Now that SH1 is open, the first thing to do is stop at The Esplanade where visitors can admire how snow capped mountains meet the sea. Or to get a bit of perspective, head up to the water tower where you can enjoy sweeping 360-degree views.
Kaikoura Museum is home to an amazing collection of artefacts and treasures telling the story of the region’s natural, social and cultural history. In spite of being such a small town, (pop. 2080), this is a very modern facility with the knowledgeable folk who staff the place eager to give visitors an insight into local life, past and present. With intriguing exhibits on whaling, surfing and war, as well as Maori and colonial history, if you’re travelling with younger people you’ll find plenty to keep them entertained. And because the museum isn’t enormous, you can also easily see most things in a few hours and then back outside again, in the great outdoors, marvelling at all the things you’ve discovered.
Kaikoura is bursting with wildlife and budding ornithologists should keep their eyes out for albatross, kingfishers, shearwaters hawks and little blue penguins but it’s the whales and dolphins that really draw the crowds. Because the sea off Kaikoura is so full of nutrients, sperm whales are resident year round making it one of world’s most reliable places to see these remarkable creatures in their natural environment. And depending on the time of year you could see all manner of other whale species as well as delightful dolphins. Both inspiring and educational, if you’re prone to seasickness it might be wise to take some medication, otherwise dress warm and relish a most magical experience. As you can imagine there is a very strong demand for these experiences, so it’s recommended that you book ahead.
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, kayaking is another marvellous way to experience Kaikoura’s rich ocean life, with seals and dolphins commonly found by paddlers. Alternatively if the weather’s not too cold, swimming with dolphin is a thrill of a lifetime.
If you’re more of an airborne person, admire the marine life from the sky, either with Wings Over Whales or one of the helicopter companies – all offering an outstanding opportunity to view these wonders of the sea, plus you’re guaranteed not to feel seasick. So depending on your time frame, budget and constitution you can either swim or paddle with or soar above these phenomenal creatures.
For visitors who like to keep their feet on the ground there are some very engaging walks around these parts. The popular Peninsula Walk takes about three hours return and isn’t too demanding. With the chance to observe seabirds, seals and snowy mountains, you’ll also pass old whaling stations and pa sites. And all along the way you’ll find fascinating information panels that shed light on geology, wildlife and history plus the views are outstanding.