Christchurch is the main gateway to the South Island and a convenient starting point for a touring circuit of the top half of the island.
Christchurch is a graceful, charming cosmopolitan city, which travel magazines describe as one of the best cities in the world to visit. Having twice won the coveted title of ‘Garden City of the World’, this very English city on the placid Avon River continually sparkles with festivals of music and a vibrant theatrical and creative arts scene.
Soak up the atmosphere of this friendly city as you sip a glass of wine while punting on the Avon. The boat master (in his straw boater hat) totes his barge pole while briefing you on the riverbank gardens. Hagley Park is a vast recreation area with opportunities for golf, tennis, bowls, horse riding, cycling and running. The café and pub scene is very lively and after dark the sounds of dance music and revelry drift across the river as Oxford Terrace lights up and parties through the night.
Downtown Christchurch is centred on Cathedral Square. Look for the colourful vintage tramcars circulating around town. Hop aboard and enjoy the sights and sounds of the city. Sightseeing further afield is focused on museums like Airforce World, Ferrymead Historic Park and the renowned International Antarctic Centre. The Port Hills offer scenic driving and walking trails. Take a gondola ride to the summit of Mt Cavendish and view the City at your feet with the backdrop of the Southern Alps. From the other side of the observation deck view Lyttleton harbour and the encircling hills of Banks Peninsula.
Christchurch – Kaikoura (full day)
Heading north on S.H.1 you cross the Waimakariri River and soon come to Waipara, home to first class vineyards and olive groves. From here S.H.7 leads to the historic Waiau Ferry Bridge where you’ll glimpse ‘Thrillseekers Canyon’. If you feel a sudden rush of adrenalin – take the cure – bungy jumping, jet boating and white water rafting are all on tap here. A short distance up S.H.7A the thermal spa and ski resort town of Hanmer Springs comes into view. This is a place where you can really relax. Everything is laid on for the traveller – lively cafés and restaurants, soothing mineral pools and all the pampering you can take (full body massages and facial treatments). There are also easy walking and cycling tracks through exotic forest . It’s just too much.
From Hanmer Springs follow the Waiau River down to S.H.70 and you’ll soon emerge on a dramatic coastline beneath the towering cliffs of the Seaward Kaikoura Range. Kaikoura Peninsula juts out into upwelling currents on the edge of the continental shelf. Nutrients carried up from the depths create a rich environment where marine mammals congregate. Take the renowned Whale Watch cruise and with any luck you will get close and personal with sperm whales, dusky and bottlenose dolphins, and sometimes pilot, humpback and killer whales. This is merely the beginning of intense sea adventures in Kaikoura. You can snorkel or scuba dive, swim with acrobatic dolphins, or go bird watching to observe albatross, mollymawks, petrels, terns and shearwaters. Kaikoura has some surprises on land as well, with quad bikes, horse treks, mountain biking, tramping and climbing. Scenic flights give you a bird’s eye view of the mountains, coast and marine life. Don’t forget to sample mouth-watering local delicacies like crayfish (lobster) and mussels.
Kaikoura – Picton (½ day)
Follow the dramatic coastal highway north and then turn inland at Wharanui to enter the rolling hills and large pastoral farming blocks of sunny Marlborough. As you pass Lake Grassmere you can observe stacks of sea salt that have been extracted from settling ponds.
Coastal HighwayBlenheim is an attractive town with many art and craft galleries and a reputation for some of the finest food and wines in the country. This excellence is celebrated at the Marlborough Wine and Food Festival each February in an atmosphere of fun and friendliness. A fine, sunny day is normally assured as Marlborough vies with Nelson for the highest number of sunshine hours in the country. Marlborough is the largest grape growing area in New Zealand and its Sauvignon Blanc has gained worldwide acclaim. You can sample these wines at the cellar door at most wineries, and if you wish follow the wine trail.
Picton, the maritime gateway to the South Island is just a short drive from Blenheim. When the interisland ferries dock the town becomes a hive of activity. Nevertheless it still retains a quiet village ambiance and is an ideal base to experience the magic of the Marlborough Sounds. This extraordinary landscape of long green fingers of land and winding waterways is a veritable aquatic playground for boating, fishing, kayaking, dolphin watching and bushwalking. The Queen Charlotte Walkway (one of New Zealand’s Great Walks), is the ultimate way to enjoy the bush-clad beauty of the Sounds. The walk starts at historic Ship’s Cove, Captain Cook’s New Zealand base during his three voyages of discovery. Be sure to sample the local seafood delicacies like crayfish (lobster), scallops and green-lipped mussels.
Picton – Nelson (½ day)
The road to Nelson skirts around the Grove Arm to the quiet haven of Havelock and on to picturesque Pelorus Bridge (ideal for a bush walk and picnic lunch). Drive on through the Rai Valley to Nelson city.
Nelson is a place of plenty, blessed with sunny skies (it holds the record for 2,700 sunshine hours per annum) golden beaches, stunning coastline, fine food and wine and innovative arts and crafts. The region has three of our most popular national parks. The Abel Tasman has golden sand beaches, a marine wildlife reserve and options for combining boat cruises, kayak trips and bush walking. Kahurangi has wonderful landforms and superb coastal scenery, which can be viewed from the Heaphy Track. Nelson Lakes has two pristine glacial lakes fringed by beech forest, enclosed by towering mountain peaks, and linked by tramping tracks. Day trips from Nelson include the intriguing limestone landscapes of Takaka Hill known locally as ‘Marble Mountain’, and includes Harwood’s Hole, the deepest vertical shaft in the country. Stop at roadside stalls to choose from the bounty of this lush countryside – stone fruit, berries, grapes and wines.
Nelson – Greymouth (½ day)
Leave Nelson through the suburbs of Hope and Brightwater and drive to the Kawatiri Junction. From here S.H.63 goes over to St Arnaud and the Nelson Lakes, which can make a worthwhile side trip. S.H.6 follows the mighty Buller River through deep gorges and past old gold-mining towns to the West Coast. Watch for Hawk’s Crag where the highway has been dynamited out of a vertical rock face and the cliff overhangs the road.
Westport grew up as a coal exporting port at the Buller River mouth. At the Coaltown museum you can experience a fascinating true-to-life coalmine simulation, complete with clanking sounds and musty smells. Wildlife lovers could head out to Tauranga Bay to visit the seal colony and tramp along the Cape Foulwind Walkway. Adventure seekers are spoiled for wet and wild action and fun here – underground caving, overland tramping, rapid river running, and underwater diving – it’s all waiting to be experienced.
Travelling south you will come to Mitchell’s Gully Goldmine. Here you can observe the entire process of crushing quartz gold and the use of mercury to separate it from sand. Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes are a ‘must see’ surprise on the Coast. Columns of stratified rock have been eroded by wind and water into weird stacks that resemble pancakes. Heavy south west swells entering sea caverns produce booming surf and foaming water spouts. We suggest an overnight stay here to explore the deep canyons and delicate caves in Paparoa National Park.
Continue on to Greymouth, the Coast’s largest town. It is also the terminal for the famous Tranz Alpine Railway, which makes a daily return trip from Christchurch, stopping at Arthur’s Pass and Lake Brunner. While in Greymouth visit the History House Museum, Shantytown, Monteith’s Brewery and the Greenstone (Jade) Galleries.
Greymouth – Christchurch (1 day)
Drive south to Kumara Junction and follow the Taramakau and Otira Rivers into the heart of the Southern Alps. When you reach the Pass a lookout point affords views of Mt Rolleston and other formidable peaks of the magnificent Arthur’s Pass National Park. The alpine village of Arthur’s Pass is 4 km further on. Here you can relive history in the Visitor Centre museum. If you long to walk in high places among herb fields and alpine flowers, this is your opportunity. The Village is at an elevation of 900 metres, and with 2-3 hours climbing you can reach lofty summits with views that go on forever. Short walks in the area lead to the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, the Old Coach Road and the Castle Hill limestone formations. Drink in the grandeur and breathe pure invigorating fresh air.
If you can manage to draw yourself away from this captivating alpine environment, then continue on through Porters Pass and descend steep grades to reach the Canterbury Plains and return to Christchurch.