Bordered on the west by the majestic Southern Alps and the east by the Pacific Ocean, Canterbury offers up a huge variety of landscapes and activities for the traveller. It's a region that offers as much to pastoral wanderers as it does to more cosmopolitan folk, a cozy yet astonishingly scenic section of the country nestled on the central east side of the South Island.
It is the country's largest region, a center of all things cultural and natural—providing everything from rolling hills dotted with vineyards, to ski fields, to artisan studios to some of the country's quaintest architecture and best, most scenic seaside havens. Whether you are itching for the majesty of encounters with marine wildlife, a fine glass of New Zealand wine or a jet boat ride down a narrow river gorge, Canterbury offers something for everyone.
Don't forget to get your accommodation booked before your trip. Check Wotif for the best deals on Christchurch accommodation.
Destination Canterbury: Getting There
Canterbury's major centre is the Garden City of Christchurch. Whilst earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 have devastated parts of this city, odds favor this being your point of entry into Canterbury, and for that mater the South Island, if you're flying. There is a major international airport just outside of town (with a lovely new domestic terminal).
Bus routes are changing daily, so check with your accommodation provider on the best way to get to your hostel.
The areas that comprise the Canterbury region span the South Island's central east coast. Christchurch serves as the region's main city, and the areas of orientation moving generally north to south are as follows:
Kaikoura - This seaside spot is one of New Zealand's epicenters for whale watching and eco-tourism and one of the only spots from which you can see the giant sperm whale. In Kaikoura, you'll find plenty of visitors relishing the fresh seafood offerings at a few of the restaurants in town, and the gorgeous sunlit seascape that is the eastern coastline.
The drive coming into Kaikoura from the north and south is littered with giant seal colonies. And fresh lobster shacks. Pull over, stop in. It doesn't get better than buying the catch from the fisherman himself.
Kaikoura is about a 2.5 hour drive north of Christchurch or 2 hours south of Picton.
Hurunui - Home to one of New Zealand's up and coming wine producing hot spots, Waipara Valley. Just 40 minutes north of Christchurch, wedged neatly in the Teviotdale hills, you'll find some of the world's most distinctive Pinot Noir and some special Rieslings. Another 80 kilometers will bring you to Hanmer Springs, a quaint alpine village and home to famous richly mineral thermal pools and spas.
Christchurch - Christchurch was once one of New Zealand's favorite cities - a lively nightlife scene, lovely architecture, terrific cafes and restaurants and no shortages of things to do meant you'd happily spend a couple nights in the Cathedral City. Sadly, Christchurch has been rocked by several devastating earthquakes - the most deadly having hit February 22nd, 2011. This quake measured 6.3 and was centred only 5.95 kms beneath the surface just 10kms south-east of Christchurch. The city shook for over 30 seconds and the quake claimed 185 lives and demolished the city centre.
Today, Christchurch is slowly but steadily being rebuilt and still brimming with variety and beauty. Months of creative hard work have rebuilt many of the businesses in a very contemporary and lively center. Known as the “garden city,” Christchurch boasts 700+ gardens and parks, and plays host to two flower festivals a year. There are some things a quake can stop, but the blooms and spirit of Christchurch isn't one of them.
Banks Peninsula - An hour to the east, through rolling hills of lush verdure, lands you at Akaroa harbor, a quaint and lovely old French settlement that serves as a dramatic, scenic, and gastronomically delightful low key spot for those looking to get out of the city or just sample a bit of sparkling peninsula. Lyttelton is worth a visit as a historic township with hip cafés and a palpable presence of eclectic artisans.
Oamaru - Just over three hours south of Christchurch, Oamaru is distinguished by its buildings that are made out of the area's limestone, as well as a thriving colony of penguins.
Destination Canterbury: Hot Spots
Similar to much of NZ, Canterbury is a land of differing landscapes - beautiful beaches, rugged coastline, flat farmland and snow capped mountains can all be found in this area. Along with this come a huge variety of activities for you to consider. From skiing at Mt. Hutt, to mountain biking in the Hanmer Forest of Hanmer Springs, to whale watching in Kaikoura there is plenty to keep you busy whilst traveling in Canterbury.
Marine Wildlife Watching in Kaikoura
Kaikoura sits in a picture perfect spot. It’s a small, seaside town, found right at the base of the Kaikoura Seaward Range. Come winter, you’ll have the Pacific Ocean on one side and snow capped peaks on the other. It’s absolutely stunning. What makes Kaikoura unique though is the plethora of marine wildlife which are found just off the coast. Kaikoura is home to such a large number of marine mammals because of the unique continental shelf and oceanic currents which are found just offshore.
There is no shortage of tours offering you ways to see the marine wildlife found just offshore: swim with dolphins, watch giant sperm whales (from boats, helicopters or airplanes) or even swim with seals.
Adventure & Relaxation in Hanmer Springs
The North Island might be more known for geothermal wonders and steaming landscapes, but this alpine town offers thermal relaxation like no other. Yet before you earn your soak, you should check out some of the terrific mountain bike trails in town, do some white water rafting, jump off a bridge or explore the nearby mountains on a quad bike. Come winter, the Hanmer Springs Ski Field offers some great South Island skiing and snowboarding.
While soaking in a hot pool is a must on your visit to Hanmer Springs, so is getting a taste of the adventure activities on offer.
We suggest you hire a bike from one of the many operators in town and ride in the well maintained Hanmer Forest Park - these custom built single tracks are some of the best on offer in the South Island. If you're after a longer day on the saddle, check out the Jacks & Jollies Pass ride which will give you a good taste of the untouched scenery that stretches for miles just north of Hanmer Springs.
Once you've got your adventure out of the way, it's time for a soak. The Hanmer Springs Hot Pools are supplied by geothermally heated water at a temperature of up to 52°C. The spa at Hanmer Springs offers all the treatments of a classic upscale spa with the added bonus of naturally mineral-dense water and natural sulphur pools to unwind in - for about $20.
In Bank's Peninsula, Akaroa is the abundantly scenic and laid back holiday home of many east coast city people and foreigners. The harbor itself is home to the smallest and rarest dolphins —Hector's— in the world, and you might be lucky to swim with them in the summer. The spot teems with other sea life like white flippered and little blue penguins and fur seals, as well as New Zealand's impressive array of birdlife. The weekend scene in the summer features lots of live music and a high count of tourists, but don't let it throw you off. There's plenty of sideways country roads up the hill to get you a solitary moment above the gorgeous bay.
And this was a French settlement after all, so there remains an appropriate emphasis on culinary adventuring and quality. There are small boutique cafés, gourmet groceries, and exceptional restaurants that do every justice to the renowned seafood, especially salmon, that are part of what draw so many to the region.
Drive Through Arthur's Pass
The pass is located between Canterbury and the West Coast, featuring the South Island's first national park, one that lies nearly squarely in the middle of the Southern Alps. The pass functions notably as the only railway crossing between the coasts, accompanied by a highway. More importantly to you, the journey is incredibly scenic.
Unlike some of the other national parks in New Zealand, Arthur's Pass presents a lush platter of opposing features: from beech and tawai forests on one end to vibrant, lively and mossy rainforests on the western end. Some call the divide the “back bone” of the South Island. The park provides a nesting ground for some of the country's rarest birds—including the world's only alpine parrot, the Cheeky Kea—and a variety of day walks can bring you within earshot or sight of many of them if you're lucky.
Most visitors come through the pass on the TranzApline Express from Christchurch to Greymouth, but there is a handful of lodging options should you choose to stay and explore.
Destination Canterbury: Final Thoughts & Recommendations
As New Zealand's largest region, the size of Canterbury shouldn't be underestimated. You could quite easily spend one week simply exploring Canterbury's huge selection of hiking, national parks, seaside villages and fresh seafood. Our One Week South Island Itinerary gives you a taste of Canterbury whilst still finding time to explore the rest of the South Island.
Outside of this, we suggest the following to make the most of your time traveling in Canterbury.
Make your own wine tour. There are a handful of prolific and phenomenally successful winemaking spots in New Zealand, but Canterbury boasts some of the best, most scenic, and entirely understated. New Zealand is laden with tourists in the summer, and staying with the pack can whisk you past sleepy towns in a blink that are actually worth quite more of your time.
Little Waipara Valley started making wine more recently than other spots in New Zealand, but stopping in some of the small family vineyards off the main road will garner you a full fledged dose of New Zealand hospitality and some of the best Pinot Noir in this hemisphere. We like to think Canterbury wine trails have more to offer than tours to dozens at at a time. Why not sit down with the winemaker herself? So try making a trail yourself sticking to smaller vineyards.
Local Festivals. Canterbury is littered with small towns with vibrant, insulated communities. Keep an eye on the local festivals that pop up in these parts, especially in the summer. From the Waipara Food and Wine Festival to the Christchurch flower shows, there is an unmissable abundance of smaller and more popular fests that will give you a true taste of New Zealand flavors, rhythms and people that you won't find in the guidebooks.
Alpine Trail Touring Route: This triangular route is a good itinerary suggestion for those looking to go nowhere fast. The highway is ever changing and scenic, connecting Hanmer Springs, Waipara Valley and Kaikoura. From the rocky seascapes to the golden hill country, the path guides you through three spots to nourish your body and soul, taste buds, and yearning for natural encounters. It's something you might call the Holiday Trifecta.
Touring Canterbury is best done with a car, but fear not, the scenery is so transient and appetizing that the drive will be far from the hours of tedium you've known on other holiday car trips. Rather, you will be driving through a storybook, traversing sunbaked fields and skimming along foamy shores, wondering how many times is too many times to pull over for fresh seafood and produce.