I’m not a fan of winter. Every July, I ponder the wisdom of animals that gorge themselves on high-calorie meals, then go off to sleep for a few months until the weather sorts itself out a bit. Makes total sense to me. Instead, I did the complete opposite.
I decided to embrace it fully and head off to the South Island to explore New Zealand’s newest touring route, the Alpine Pacific Touring Route. And as I discovered, there really is no better antidote to a case of the winter blues than to get out amongst it.
The Alpine Pacific Touring Route encompasses 450km of spectacular South Island scenery, taking you from Christchurch through the wine region of Waipara, along the east coast to Kaikoura, back down Inland Road and SH70, taking a quick diversion along SH7 to Hanmer Springs, then looping back through Waipara to Christchurch.
With my usual travel crew of hubby Karl and daughter Emily in tow, we arrived in Christchurch on a gorgeous sunny day. And, in fact, our entire time in the south was blessed with sunshine—a much-needed respite from the rainy Auckland weather. I love how a sunny day in the south seems to make the sky and everything under it so much bigger and brighter.
Day 1: Christchurch’s port hills by gondola
Having enjoyed Heather Whelan’s article about the Port Hills in a recent issue of MCD magazine, we decided to head up the hills via the Christchurch Gondola, where the 360-degree views of the city—from the Southern Alps on one side to Banks Peninsula on the other—are magnificent.
Once at the summit, we opted for a bit of a leg stretch and headed off on one of the tracks leading down. The track was rocky and muddy (well, it was winter), and we were all getting pretty hungry, so we didn’t venture too far but for those wanting to explore further by foot, there are numerous tracks around the Port Hills that cater to every level of fitness.
If, like us, you’re opting for a more sedate visit, it’s easy to while away a few hours at the summit taking in the views from the observation deck, enjoying lunch at the Red Rock Café, browsing through the gift shop, or taking a ride on the Time Tunnel—a short but entertaining ride on an electric cart through a tunnel that takes you past the history of the local area.
Our first night’s accommodation was at Christchurch’s Top 10 Holiday Park in Papanui. The park offers powered and non-powered sites (and dump station), motel rooms and cabins, and a great range of facilities including a kids adventure playground, covered pool, barbecue areas, and games room. And it’s all set in resort-like surroundings. The park shop has a range of wines and grocery basics for sale. We loved it here. Top notch!
Day 2: All aboard the tranzalpine
The next morning was an early start with a full-day adventure planned on-board the TranzAlpine. Described as one of the great train journeys of the world, the TranzAlpine traverses 223km from one side of the South Island to other—Christchurch on the east, Greymouth on the west—taking around five hours each way.
We took the option of hopping off at the midway point at Arthur’s Pass to do a bit of exploring and perhaps meet a few of the township’s famously cheeky kea.
With comfy carriages, yummy food, great coffee, and helpful staff, the TranzAlpine journey is a destination in itself. And then there are the views. They really do need to be seen first-hand to be appreciated. From the vast Canterbury Plains to the majestic snow-capped Southern Alps and the turquoise Waimakariri River gorge, the views are incredible.
Although the train’s windows are huge and well cleaned, allowing for good photography, there’s also the option of heading to the rear open-deck carriage. But be warned—you’ll want to rug-up first and remove anything that might blow off, such as sunglasses or lose scarves; it’s a bit like walking into a hurricane-force blast chiller.
Between the three of us, we amassed several hundred photos on the journey there alone, thanks to digital cameras that let you happily click away and not worry about the cost of printing out a few dozen blurry shots to get that one amazing one.
Stepping off the train in Arthur’s Pass, we were grateful for having had the good sense to wear thermals underneath several warming layers. After the warmth of the train carriage, I admit to having a moment of mild panic at the thought of spending four hours outside at 2°.
A brisk walk up the Devils Punchbowl Walking Track and it’s many, many steps helped bring my temperature up a bit, and by the time we reached the famous waterfall at the top, I was tempted to remove a few layers. The track winds its way up 150m through beech forest, taking around half an hour each way. It’s an invigorating walk but if you’ve got mobility issues or are terribly unfit, it could prove a bit challenging.
There are several less challenging walks around the small township, including the 10-minute Millennium Walk which starts beside the Visitor Centre and winds its way along toward the village. The path takes you across a historic bridge that crosses Avalanche Creek and up to a viewing platform overlooking a wonderful waterfall. Almost as good as the Devils Punchbowl, but a lot less effort!
After a bit of walking, we took a load off by having a coffee and a bite to eat at the Arthur’s Pass Café & Store, where before too long, we were thrilled to be joined by a friendly (read: hungry) kea.
These inquisitive parrots are constantly on the hunt for leftover lunches and discarded sandwiches, but feeding them is a no-no as we’re reminded by the sign outside the café which reads, “A fed kea is a dead kea”.
Thinking our train was due back at 4.30pm, we meandered slowly back to the station at 4pm, to discover it was already there and about to leave—a good reminder that it pays to double check these things when you could end up being faced with spending the night in the middle of freezing nowhere!
The on-board cafe stocks Wishbone pre-prepared meals, which turned out to be a lifesaver as we hadn’t had time to get any shopping sorted for dinner. So we grabbed one each and heated them up in the microwave that night for dinner. A simple and tasty end to what was an unforgettable day.
Day 3: Whale watch tour in Kaikoura
The next leg of our journey was the real start of our Alpine Pacific Touring Route, heading off from Christchurch towards our awaiting whale watch tour in Kaikoura. The trip takes around three hours via SH1 and takes you through the picturesque Waipara valley, one of New Zealand’s premier wine regions.
It’s a great spot to stretch your legs, sample some of the country’s fine pinot noir and Rieslings, and soak up the rich North Canterbury vibe. But we had whales waiting, so it was onwards to Kaikoura.
Emily and I were lucky enough to do a whale watch last year, but this was Karl’s first experience, and he couldn’t wait, so I had my fingers crossed that we’d see at least one. If you haven’t yet managed to do a whale watch, I’d thoroughly recommend that you make it a priority. It’s simply magical. We headed out on a completely cloudless day—just a big beautiful blue sky above and a millpond ocean beneath.
Within 15 minutes of the tour, our boat came to a sudden halt as a pod of humpback whales cruised by, gracefully moving through the water, rising up to spout, and then diving below again. Again, it’s one of those experiences that photos and words don’t do any justice to. My tip would be to grab a few shots, then put the camera down and just be in the moment.
We were lucky enough to also come across several sperm whales as they cruised along the surface where they come to breathe, digest food, and sometimes have a bit of a snooze, before diving back down thousands of metres below to find more food.
The tour guides, who know the visiting whales by name, know exactly when the whale is about to dive and alert passengers to get their cameras readied to capture the classic ‘whale tale’ shot.
If whales aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other activities in Kaikoura, including kayaking tours, seal spotting, coastal walks, and crayfish eating. Kaikoura is renowned for its crayfish and there are a couple of roadside barbecue crayfish stands, including the world famous ‘Nins Bin’, which is due to reopen in November (and was recently awarded number 7 spot in Lonely Planet’s Eatlist).
We enjoyed a wander through the shops, followed by fish and chips from Coopers Catch down on the beach. I could have quite happily stayed several days longer, but we were due in Hanmer Springs that evening, so it was time to hit the road again.
Day 4: Soaking up the goodness in Hanmer Springs
Having left Kaikoura a little later than anticipated, much of our drive to Hanmer Springs was in total darkness. The route takes around two hours along Inland Road and on to SH70.
Oh, and did I mention it was dark? The kind of dark where I was pleased someone else was driving. I’d never deliberately plan for us to drive along a long and windy, unfamiliar road in total darkness, but I’m kinda glad we did.
It was worth it just for the stop we made along the way to look at the sky. The night was cloudless and the stars were out in their millions, including Mars, which was so bright, we mistook it for a plane at first.
We arrived at Alpine Adventure Holiday Park just after 6pm—a lovely spot in Hanmer Springs set on the site of a historic staging post that was once used by musterers bringing in stock to Molesworth Station. The campsite has 42 powered sites as well as non-powered sites, plus a range of cabins and units.
The next morning it was on to Hanmer Springs’ most well-known attraction—the thermal hot pools. We spent a bit of time hopping from pool to pool (literally hopping, the concrete was freezing! If you’re going in winter, be sure to take jandals because it’s extremely painful walking on ice-cold concrete in bare feet).
The site has a long history, having been first discovered by travelling Maori, and later by an early pioneer in the 1850s.
The natural thermal waters of the pool are drawn from an adjacent bore and are left as natural as possible to ensure they’re rich in therapeutic minerals.
The complex itself is huge, with a range of pools from sulphur hot pools (the hottest is 42 degrees), a freshwater pool, and lazy river, as well as water slides and a kids’ area. Eventually, we settled on the Rainbow Pools next to the cafe for a long, relaxing soak and loved every minute of it.
Muscles warmed and aches soothed, we took a walk around the Hanmer Springs shops. Surrounded by mountains and forests, the township has a resort-like vibe that infuses a sense of relaxation.
We noticed quite a few people getting about on the Village Cruisers—a four-wheeled peddle bike for up to six people available from Alpine Crazy Putt.
If you’ve got littlies travelling with you, the animal park is a must-see with deer, emus, alpacas, and more. For the more adventurous traveller, Hanmer Springs has plenty on offer, from skiing and snowboarding at the nearby Mt St Patrick to jet boating, hiking, and mountain biking.
Having soaked, strolled, eaten, and generally relaxed the day away, it was time to pack up once again for the last leg of our Alpine Pacific Touring Route, from Hanmer Springs back to Christchurch.
The drive back is dotted with great little stops. Those keen on fishing will love the Waiau River in Rotherham—apparently a great trout spot. Further on, Flaxmere Garden in Hawarden is a must for garden enthusiasts at any time of year.
And if you love a poke through second-hand stores, I definitely recommend a stop at Twine in Waikuku. This former twine mill—a huge, long brick building—is on the main drag so is hard to miss.
Day 5: A bit of Christchurch history, then home
Back in Christchurch, our final night stay was at the Amber Kiwi Holiday Park, which is conveniently located, nice and close to the CBD, and, as with all of our stays, the staff were lovely.
On our final day, we managed to squeeze in a tour of Christchurch’s beautiful Botanic Gardens. Sprawling over 30 hectares, the grounds include an extensive native collection, rose garden, and the Cunningham House hothouse where the exotics thrive.
The Avon River also winds its way through the grounds providing a romantic setting for the punts (flat-bottomed boats) that regularly cruise past.
Just around the corner is the Canterbury Museum where we popped in for a quick look through before our impending flight back to Auckland. It was a worthy stop and a great way to discover more about the region’s history.
From the Discovery Centre and Antarctic Gallery to the Quake City exhibition and the quirky Fred and Myrtle’s Paua Shell House, the museum does a great job of catering to all ages.
Although we only had five days to explore the Alpine Pacific Touring Route, we managed to pack quite a bit in, including a few ‘bucket list’ items.
So if you’re looking for a great road trip this summer, or you’re looking for an exciting trip worth coming out of hibernation for next winter, then this could be the one.