Often described as the most “English” of New Zealand’s cities, Christchurch is the centre for the South Island. Christchurch, “The Garden City”, is just a little smaller than Wellington and is set in one of the driest and flattest areas of NZ, known as the Canterbury Plains. One third of Christchurch is devoted to sports fields, parks and reserves, notably Hagley Park in the centre of town. Many people cycle or walk around the city as it is so flat. The river Avon flows through the centre of town.
The international airport is very close to the CBD and the best way of getting into town is to take the airport bus, which runs every 20 minutes (every 30 minutes on weekends) and costs around $5 per person. There is also a door-to-door service, though this is a little more expensive. Also pick up a copy of TNT Magazine New Zealand as soon as you arrive, which will provide you with information on accommodation, maps, tours and places of interest.
Most buses run from Cathedral Square. Contact Bus Info for more details, Ph: +64 3 366 8855.
As with most major cities in New Zealand, the backpacker is spoilt for choice of hostels to stay in, but it is advisable to book up at least a couple of days in advance during peak season. TNT Magazine New Zealand has an extensive list of hostels in its accommodation section, but also check the board in the airport before you head off. For more long-term stays, have a look in the property section of The Christchurch Press.
Air Force World: Well-presented exhibitions on the air force and its history.
The Arts Centre and Market: The old university has been transformed into NZ’s biggest arts centre. More than 40 speciality shops and studios are housed here, plus art galleries, theatres, cinemas, cafÃ©s, restaurants and bars. Weekends feature an Art and Craft Market, International Food Fair, and local entertainment.An exciting programme of events is held year round.
Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park: Next to the Avon River is 30ha of greenery and gardens which are great for a mooch around.
Canterbury Museum: Housing more than two million priceless items of NZ’s cultural and natural heritage. Has an interesting gallery, Iwi Tawhito-Whenua Hou (Ancient People-New Land), which features displays of the early Maori settlers.
Christchurch Cathedral/Cathedral Square: Climb the 133 steps to the top of the viewing balcony, up the 63-metre spire of the Cathedral.
International Antarctic Centre: See the visitor centre at the administration centre of the NZ, US and Italian Antarctic Research programs. Entertaining and informative display of the Antarctic.
Mt Cavendish Gondola: For great views of the area take a Gondola bus to the Heathcote Valley terminal, then be whisked up 945 metres high for some great views of town. You can mountain-bike or paraglide back down if you’re up to it.
Orana Wildlife Park: Out of the city on McLeans Island Road, Harewood. Drive through the lion reserve and see the Kiwi house.
Port Hills: Hire a car and drive up the nearest hill range to Christchurch for a spectacular view over the city.
Punting on the Avon River: Take a relaxing punt down the calm river or hire a canoe.
Science Alive!: Changing exhibitions give you a new experience with each interactive visit. Feel gravity’s force, fall into space, electrify yourself, explore cyber space and be blown away.
Skiing: There are a number of ski fields in the vicinity which are popular with Christchurch skiers seeking a quick day or two on the slopes. Smaller than the larger commercial fields to the south, they’re nevertheless worth a visit. Craigieburn (advanced skiers only), Mt Cheeseman and Porters Heights all lie between Christchurch and Arthur’s Pass. Other smaller ski fields in the Canterbury region include Mount Lyford and Temple Basin.
Swimming, surfing or bathing: Do this in the summer. Look out for Sumner Beach, Taylors Mistake and Brighton Beach. New Brighton has reconstructed the old pier and it is now becoming a popular tourist hangout complete with a bungy rocket, cafÃ©s and local shopping centre.
Out on the town
For a good Kiwi feed in Christchurch, best head off to “The Terrace”, the eastern side of Oxford Terrace between Hereford St and the City Mall. This is where most of the best eateries are and you’ll find just about every type of cuisine. Mediterranean, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese, Spanish, fish ‘n’ chips, burgers… you’ll find it all on The Terrace. Eating out can be very reasonable, especially if you look around – keep an eye out for buffet specials which many places run midweek.
Just like its North Island cousin Wellington, Christchurch is garnering a reputation as a cafÃ© heaven. Many of the cafÃ©s have good food, but it’s for the quality coffee and the ambient atmosphere that you should give them a go. Order a tall latte and watch the world go by.
As for hitting the town for a bit of booze and boogie, where do you want to start? There are sports bars to sample a night of the true Canterbury obsession of rugby, Irish bars to have a pint (or six) of the black stuff, or the uniquely Christchurch pubs for a bit of home brew.
What time you go out will dictate where you should head to. Early on the area around the Bridge of Remembrance is kicking – the pubs and cafes in the vicinity are some of the best in town. Later on, it’s the Oxford Terrace collective that kicks into top gear, with the late night spots going on till the early hours.
The town often has visiting DJs from overseas popping over for a set or two – keep your ears to the ground and an eye on the street press for the latest gig and clubbing news.
Just south-east of Christchurch and standing proudly next to Canterbury’s sweeping plains is the beautiful Banks Peninsula, an unspoilt region brimming with wildlife, mountains and stunning coastline. About 12 million years ago the peninsula was an island, separated by 50km of sea from the closest landmass. This island had a rather large volcano on it, and the two harbours you’ll find there today, Akaroa and Lyttelton, are actually the craters of this once-magnificent volcano.
Lyttelton is a quaint township situated just 15 minutes from central Christchurch. With fine old buildings, churches and Victorian cottages, it is also a busy commercial port. The harbour has been home to the Maori for about 1,000 years and it was first sighted by Captain Cook in 1770. These days, the calm waters of the harbour are a popular recreational spot for boating, whilst the surrounding hills are great for mountain biking and walking.
The charming harbour town of Akaroa is a pleasant daytrip from Christchurch. The French chose it as the site of a French colony in 1838, but when the first settlers arrived two years later, they found the British had beaten them to it. A small European influence remains, adding to the settlement’s charm. Wander along the waterfront and explore the village’s quaint nooks and crannies, or take a cruise out onto the harbour – if you’re lucky, you may spot some of the 4,000-odd tiny, rare Hectors dolphins, the world’s smallest penguins (the white-flippered little blue penguin), yellow-eyed penguins or seals who call the harbour home.
Inland from Christchurch, Arthur’s Pass is on the road to the west coast in the Arthur’s Pass National Park. The drive across the Alps provides some of New Zealand’s best panoramic views, which can also be enjoyed from the windows of the TranzAlpine Express (see West Coast section). Leaving Christchurch you’ll drive across the flat and vast Canterbury plains, alongside the characteristically broad, shallow rivers then up into the foothills of the Southern Alps. At 924 metres, Arthur’s Pass settlement is as high as you’ll get by car – beyond it you’ll find yourself in Westland. A base camp for those walking, climbing and skiing in the mountains, Arthur’s Pass has a very good national parks Visitor’s Centre. This is an alpine region, so care must be taken when tramping – stick to the ski fields during winter.
South of Christchurch and inland lies Methven, a ski town at the base of Mt Hutt, one of the country’s most popular ski fields. Locals and North Islanders descend on the place during the season, especially the August school holidays, so plan your visit well.
Mt Hutt, which is about an hour’s drive from Christchurch, has the best facilities in Canterbury and regularly boasts the longest ski season in the country. Apart from the basic downhill approach, you can try snowboarding, telemarking and racing. During summer, use Methven as a base for jet boating, walking and hot air ballooning.
Lake Tekapo is a handy resting place on the road to Queenstown, but the view is so great you’ll have a hard time dragging yourself away. Snowcapped mountains stand majestically at the far end of the lake, which is a milky turquoise colour thanks to the “rock flour” – rock ground by glacial action – suspended in the water. Even in summer the lake contrasts brilliantly with the bare, brown hills. There are a number of walks to be done around Lake Tekapo, while fishing, boating, kayaking and horse trekking are other options. The Church of the Good Shepherd is a much-photographed building. This small stone church sits tranquilly on the lakeside at Tekapo – head inside for the panoramic view through the window behind the altar.
Continue south from Tekapo to the equally beautiful Lake Pukaki, then turn north for the spectacular drive to Mt Cook Village through the Mount Cook National Park.
The tallest mountain in the park, and in the whole of Australasia, is Mt Cook at 3,754 metres. It lost some height during 1991 when a huge chunk of the east face fell away in a dramatic avalanche. Incredibly, no-one was hurt, but experienced international climbers meet their end on the dashing and captivating mountain every year. Mt Cook remains a climb for experts only – it was the proving ground for the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary and is not for beginners.
Call into the Department of Conservation (DOC) Mount Cook Visitor Centre, Ph: +64 3 435 1186 for info on the park itself, which sports more than 20 mountains over 3,000 metres tall.
The Tasman Glacier is also in the Mount Cook National Park and it’s on the eastern side of the divide, unlike its cousins Fox and Franz Glaciers, which hang on the western side. You can travel up to the glacier by coach, but the view is a lot better from the air – in winter they’ll drop you off on the glacier and you can ski down.
One of the largest glaciers outside the Himalayas, the Tasman moves very quickly.
There are a number of walks from the Hermitage area or you can join a guided walking tour if you want to explore further. If you fancy a night in the mountains, surrounded by magical snow-capped peaks, ask the DOC about staying overnight in the Mueller Hut. The weather is extremely changeable, so before you make the trip, call the visitors’ centre – the most beautiful view in the world is worthless if you can’t even see it.
Midway between Christchurch and Dunedin, Timaru means “place of shelter” but in reality is a busy port and the main commercial and industrial city in South Canterbury.
A safe artificial harbour was created due to a series of shipwrecks in the waters off Timaru and today this port is vital to the distribution of a large range of produce.
In the area there are many wonderful freshwater swimming spots due to the plentiful Braided River systems. Despite being a mainly industrial city, Timaru is picturesque and one magnificent view takes in a panorama of the Southern Alps, hills, plains and sea. Other attractions include the Botanic Gardens, the South Canterbury Museum and the DB Brewery in Washdyke.
Travelling south from Timaru follow the SH1 across the river into the Waitaki Valley. Apart from the spectacular landscape the region has an impressive collection of ancient Maori rock art dating from 1000-1500AD at Takiroa. Most of the land here is privately owned so you must get permission before you wander around. Contact the Oamaru Visitor Information Centre on Thames Street, Ph: +64 3434 1656, and they will tell you what you’ll have to do in order to see this wonderful slice of indigenous Maori history.
Also near Omarama are the amazing coloured Clay Cliffs. For such a small place it is also quite impressive that Omarama can claim to be one of the best hang-gliding spots in New Zealand.