Christchurch & Canterbury
Running roughly down the east coast half of the South Island, Canterbury is a region in which you can find the world’s rarest marine dolphin which you can swim with, one of only a handful of dark sky status-awarded places on Earth where you can observe nebulae, planets and stars, a French colonial leftover and natural thermal hot springs.
Christchurch is the region’s capital and the South Island’s largest city. Incredibly and purposefully English in appearance, Christchurch still bears many a scar from the 2011 earthquakes which cut short many lives and damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings, some of them of historical and cultural significance.
However, in true Kiwi style, the rebuild and recovery has been inspirational and there is plenty to keep the visitor happy here such as the street art, the pop-up mall made from shipping containers, a globally-awarded Antarctic Centre and much more.
Un-missable THINGS TO DO in the Canterbury and Christchurch Region
- Snap on your skis or snowboard for some snow action in the Southern Alps
- Pack up your saddlebags for some cowboy-style adventure on horseback
- Feel the might of a Polar storm at the International Antarctic Centre
- Hop on-board a trans-alpine train from Canterbury for one of the most scenic train rides of your life
- Wander pretty Akaroa before heading out to swim with wild dolphins
- Step back to Edwardian times with a punt down the River Avon in Christchurch
- Marvel at the most star-filled sky you are ever likely to have seen at Lake Tekapo
- Get up close to the spectacular Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall
- Sign up for an adventure activity and then soak away your aches in the thermal hot pools of Hanmer Springs
1. Skiing and Snowboarding
This region has heaps of ski fields which are typically open from around the end of June to the end of October. The smaller ski fields – some of which have equipment and clothing hire - tend to be club-run and are great if you like your skiing on the rather more casual and laid back side. The larger options typically come complete with all the trimmings such as snow grooming, extensive lift networks and efficiently run ski-base facilities such as places to stay, shops, places to eat and equipment rental.
The Roundhill near Lake Tekapo has a great freestyle area complete with jumps, rails and boxes while Ohau near Twizel is generally considered to be the best bet for the snowboarding crew or those in search of some livelier après ski choices. Mt Lyford is a great beginner’s choice – almost a third of its territory is given over to this – while the Porters ski area is the closest to and most convenient for Christchurch although Mt Hutt is Canterbury's largest ski field.
All-inclusive ski packages or lodge accommodation are up for grabs at the super-friendly, mainly locals-only club-owned Temple Basin club in Arthur's Pass National Park. Or, if you've just inherited some money you could head for the Helipark at Mt Potts Lodge where seriously committed (and wealthy) skiers can enjoy hundreds of hectares of back country skiing offered by helicopter-only access.
2. Cowboy Horseback Treks
There are plenty of places in this region to get on horseback and head out into the wide open spaces for a little fun. For most the experience will be a few hours hack but there are some truly immersive options in this region for once-in-a-lifetime type adventures. If you have every dreamed of playing at cowboys right here is where you could tick that one off the must-do-before-I-die list.
For anything up to 12 days you can follow rivers across far reaching flats and traverse landscapes of crystal lakes, snow-dusted mountain peaks and stunning river gorges and then down your well-earned beer at the end of the day's ride. The camp fire will be blazing, the billy will be boiling and you'll get to stuff yourself with camp-cooked tucker and exchange stories of the day's exploits before lying your head down for the night under a sky scattered with twinkling stars.
3. Antarctic Centre
Cheesy pun it may be but the 'coolest fun in Christchurch' billing which the wonderful International Arctic Centre gives itself is both apt and true. This world-class attraction is considered to be educational and therefore a great hit with families but you don't have to have kids in tow to find your fun here.
Interaction is the Centre’s watchword so expect to plunge into this polar world of snow and ice with such highlights as the wind chill machine challenge or experiencing firsthand what sheltering in an ice cave would feel like. An Antarctic storm blows through the whole facility hourly and regular trips set out on the all-terrain amphibious Hagglund.
After you've said hi to the rescued penguins you can leave knowing that you are now somewhat better informed about Antarctic exploration of yesteryear to the present day.
4. TranzAlpine Train Journey
Widely touted as one of the planet's top journeys by train, this 3 ½ hours one way scenic trip will see you traversing the majestic Southern Alps. The train runs daily all year round between Christchurch (departs 8.15 am) and Greymouth (arrives between 12.45 and 1.05 pm) and after crossing the Canterbury Plains rewards you with scenery peppered with dramatic gorges, icy-blue rivers, thick beech forest and of course the sculptured towers of the alpine mountain peaks.
Although some use it as the means to get from A to B the majority will wait out the hour at Greymouth and then head straight back to Christchurch for a final arrival of around 6.30 pm.There are 7 stops between Christchurch and Greymouth – including Lake Brunner and Arthur's Pass - for those who want to hop on or off elsewhere.
5. The Banks Peninsula and Akaroa
Getting out to the lovely Banks Peninsula with its tucked-away beach options and beautiful bays requires a little effort but should picnicking, swimming, beach lazing and dolphins all be high on your agenda this is where you’ll want to head.
The peninsula's brightest jewel in its crown is the tiny but postcard-perfect harbour town of Akaroa which is a showcase of French colonial architecture. The town still proudly displays its French heritage and elements of this - both subtle and obvious - can be found in the street and shop names as well as the food on offer at the restaurants and cafes, which come in varieties of both cute and quirky and thoroughly modern.
Besides the historical French colonial element, Akaroa's biggest trump card comes courtesy of the marine wildlife which call these waters home. Dolphin and wildlife watching cruises or swimming with wild dolphin are what draw people here. And these aren't just any dolphin but the rare, endangered and only-found-in-New Zealand Hector's dolphin – the smallest marine dolphin on the planet. The dolphins are almost always seen on these trips and sometimes it is even possible to watch them from land when they come right into the calm flat waters of the harbour itself.
Head to the wharf to sign up with the widely acclaimed eco-industry award-winning Black Cat Cruises for the extra-special chance to get up close and personal with tiny dolphins, penguins and seals.
6. Punting on the Avon, Christchurch
This might sound like an entry related to an English town but no – this is still New Zealand – although admittedly Christchurch is the most English-influenced Kiwi city and in appearance most likely to remind Brits of home. Hop on-board a punt where a boatman rigged out in Edwardian garb will take you for a jaunt down the river – it’s an almost obligatory part of any stay in this South Island city.
While you're in town some other highlights worth checking are the free entry eclectic Maori/colonial/natural history mixed Canterbury Museum and the Ferrymead Heritage Park which takes you back to Edwardian times with its 'living village' museum complete with recreated schoolroom, general store, jail, printers and more.
The Botanic Gardens sustained some damage in the tragic 2011 earthquake, some of which is still undergoing repair, but in the main these admission-free gardens are fully-functional.
7. Lake Tekapo Stargazing
Should you rock up here at the right time your welcome will be by way of a natural scene so stunningly idyllic you might think you’ve accidentally strolled on to a movie set. In the background are the lilac-hued mountains with their scenic caps of snow; the foreground is made up of swathes upon swathes of mauve, pale-lilac and deep violet lupins which appear to form a rippling ocean as the breeze waves across their tops. We challenge you to look at this without sighing.
However, this area has become renowned in certain circles for something else entirely – its 'Dark Sky Reserve' status. Globally speaking, there really aren't that many areas which are free enough of light pollution to be granted this accolade by the International Dark Sky Association – just four with any kind of dark sky status at all in the whole of the Southern Hemisphere in fact. What's more, Lake Tekapo's ranking is ‘gold tier' - an even rarer prize. To enjoy what this dark sky status means, you could just head out on your own on a clear night and be bedazzled by what appear to be more stars than patches of sky in the winking and sparkling canopy over your head.
However, if you really want to make the most of this globally significant place you can sign up for a range of tours, experiences and otherwise celestial cornucopia of night-time treats offered by the state-of-the-art facilities of the Mt John University Observatory – a high-tech astronomical research station operated by the University of Canterbury who conduct cutting-edge research in the quest for new planets.
8. Devil's Punchbowl Waterfall
Tucked away as it is deep within the Southern Alps landscape you might think this is not a waterfall for the wimpy. However, sightings of this huge 131 m high cascade are actually possible from the main road of Arthur's Pass but for most that won’t suffice because who doesn’t want to see something this magnificent up close? So, lace up your hiking boots and get trekking across creeks (the first of which is un-bridged and might require anything from a slosh to a full-on wade), bridges and forests to arrive at a viewing area under the thundering falls. The there-and-back trek will take you about 1 hour.
There are heaps of other walking tracks around the Arthur's Pass region ranging from the 10 minute stroll and ranging in both difficulty and duration upwards from there. The Department of Conservation has extensive information on all of these along with a downloadable 'Arthur's Pass Walks Brochure'.
9. Hanmer Springs
Hanmer Springs has developed into something of a backpacker hub in the last few years which is probably one part due to the presence of the country’s largest thermal pool complex, one part due to the laid-back vibe which exudes here and one part due to the extensive menu of adrenalin and adventure activities on the menu.
These are added to almost constantly as supply aims to satisfy demand for the numbers who arrive in search of white-knuckle kicks. Finding what is on offer here couldn’t be easier – just head down the high street and start comparing prices from a range of fun activity providers. Take your pick from bungee, jet boating, quad-biking, white-water rafting, paintballing, snowboarding or something else off the menu.
If you just want to enjoy the healing properties of the mineral spas – and don’t worry, many just come here for that – then head to the 20+ pools of the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa complex. With the whole surrounded by native trees you can take your pick from slightly warm to steaming hot temperatures and such things as rock pools to chill in or sulphur pools to be soothed in.