Canterbury boasts some of New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions. Located in the middle of the eastern side of the South Island, it’s the country’s largest region and has some excellent self-driving routes.
Start your Canterbury Road Trip in Christchurch
Christchurch is the best place to start a self-drive tour of Canterbury. With an international airport, plenty of hotels and numerous car hire options, you can fly in, stay for a night or two, then head off on your self-drive itinerary.
Kaikoura – whale watching and crayfish
Kaikoura in the north of Canterbury is the home of one of New Zealand’s premier attractions; whale watching.
Giant Sperm Whales feed here all year round in the plankton rich waters. It’s possible to see the whales just a short distance from shore via one of the Whale Watch Kaikoura cruises that ‘chase’ the whales and pinpoint where they’ll surface using sonar readings. This is a thrilling experience especially seeing a whale dive just metres from the boat!
Seafood isn’t just for the whales. Translated from Māori, Kaikoura means ‘to eat crayfish’ so there’s no better place to do just that. Choose from one of the restaurants in town for a fresh feed, or try Nin’s Bin, a coastal caravan on the outskirts of Kaikoura for steamed crayfish and sauce or cooked with garlic butter.
Hanmer Springs Alpine Village
Still in the north, head inland from Kaikoura to Hanmer Springs. This high-country alpine village deserves a stopover for its thermal pools and spa in an idyllic setting. Relax in hot pool heaven with views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains or take time out with a therapeutic massage or beauty treatment.
There’s also a range of restaurants, cafés, shopping and forest walks at Hanmer Springs. Venture out into the fresh air with the Woodland Walk, Conical Hill Walk or Dog Stream Reserve – all short walks under two hours.
Inland Scenic Route 72 – Amberley to Geraldine
The Inland Scenic Route 72 is a popular self-drive road that heads around the back of the Christchurch plains and takes in many small villages with local foods and speciality products.
When you reach the mid-Canterbury foothills, have a break in Staveley and sample some home-baking (cakes, pastries, slices) at the Staveley Store, they also have very large sausage rolls - a Kiwi staple!
A bit further down the line in Geraldine you’ll find Barkers products. These are a scrumptious range of local jams, fruit syrups, chutneys and savoury sauces. The shop is based on the family farm where you can stock up on gifts or just keep some for yourself.
Lake Tekapo and Mt John Observatory
From Geraldine travel west through Fairlie to Lake Tekapo in the MacKenzie District.
The Church of the Good Shepherd and its bronze collie dog statue on the shores of the lake are much photographed iconic New Zealand images. The scenery in this area is stunning with a backdrop of the Southern Alps and shimmering blue Lake Tekapo.
It is also said to have the purest air in the Southern Hemisphere, and limited light pollution. Thanks to this, Lake Tekapo is one of the best places in the world to stargaze, which you can do at Mt John Observatory, a 15 minute drive west of the township.
Mt Cook Village
No visit to the South Island is complete without getting close to another of New Zealand’s largest features, spectacular Mt Cook, the country’s highest mountain. It’s just over an hour’s drive from Lake Tekapo to reach Mount Cook Village, which doubles as a visitor center, as well as a base camp for climbers.
From here you can take a scenic flight over Mt Cook and its glaciers, or there are several short walks providing views of the mountain including: Governors Bush Walk, Kea Point Walk and Hooker Valley Walk. Incidentally a Kea is a highly-intelligent alpine parrot native to New Zealand. They have a tendency to be inquisitive and known to cheekily steal food and clothing - and also the windshield wipers off of cars, so beware of your rental car!
For fine dining with a wow factor try the Panorama Room at the Hermitage Hotel situated in Mt Cook Village. As its name suggests large picture windows face out onto a breathtaking mountain vista, and the cuisine here is top-notch.
Want to See More Scenery?
With a self-drive tour you can cover a lot of ground quickly by car, and you have the freedom to stop whenever you want. If you're at a loss for how to piece it all together, check out our Free Travel Planning Service. However, with scenery as majestic as this you might prefer someone else was behind the wheel. Check out our tours and bus passes that let you savour the views without keeping an eye on the road.