Canterbury & West Coast

Canterbury and the West Coast’s distinctive landscapes are dominated by the Southern Alps through which there are only two roads and one railway line. To get the best out of the region, and particularly to appreciate the beauty of its varied geology, flora, and fauna, a willingness to don sturdy shoes and set out on foot is necessary. For the independent outdoor enthusiast, the opportunities are enormous, and for those who prefer to be guided through the wilderness, commercially-run adventure tourism activities are available at most key locations.



Canterbury’s provincial capital, Christchurch, is the largest city in the South Island and the principal gateway to its scenic wonders. Laid out as the capital of the Canterbury Settlement in 1850, the city has many notable buildings and monuments that recall its colonial heritage, as well as many parks and gardens. It is often thought of as a conservative city, a reflection of its origins as a Church of England settlement modeled on 19th-century English society. During the 19th century, its economy was dominated by agriculture, but in the 20th century, it became increasingly industrialized and is today a center for IT. It has a sophisticated restaurant, café, and arts scene.

Begun in 1864 and completed in 1904, Christchurch Cathedral was built as the focal point of the new Anglican settlement of Canterbury. It remains the city’s most important landmark. Built of Canterbury stone and native timbers, this impressive building has many notable features, including detailed wood and stone carvings around the high altar and main pulpit. The Avon River, which gently meanders through the city, is Christchurch’s greatest natural asset and one of its main attractions. Its grassy banks, weeping willows, old oak trees, ducks, and bridges linking the city’s main streets lure office workers and visitors alike to its banks in summer. Victoria Square is a beautifully landscaped expanse of green north of Cathedral Square. Focal points are the Floral Clock, statues of Queen Victoria (1901) and James Cook (1932), and the much-photographed Bowker and Ferrier fountains. Built between 1869 and 1876, Canterbury Museum is considered to be one of Mountfort’s most successful adaptations of the Gothic style for secular purposes. The museum has a comprehensive selection of genuine Antarctic relics as well as one of the finest mounted bird displays in the southern hemisphere.


Straddling the Southern Alps 95 miles from Christchurch and 60 miles from Greymouth, the 443-sq-mile Arthur’s Pass National Park, the seventh-largest in the country, is a place of huge geological and climatic contrasts. On the western side of the alps, where the rainfall is high, the park is clad in dense and varied rainforest through which steep, boulder-strewn rivers rush; on the drier eastern side, mountain beech forests and tussock-covered river flats predominate. Sixteen mountain peaks in the park exceed 6,560 ft. The park offers the well-equipped outdoor enthusiast superb mountain climbing and tramping opportunities, as well as many shorter walks suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels.


Formed by numerous eruptions of the Lyttelton and Akaroa volcanoes, Banks Peninsula was, until some 25,000 years ago, an island. Reminders of this dramatic geological past are everywhere, including rocky volcanic outcrops, craggy headlands, deep valleys, and precipitous bluffs. The Summit Road allows excellent views of this striking scenery. The peninsula has been settled by Maori for 1,000 years, and until the 1820s was a place of prosperity and security for the Ngai Tahu tribe. That changed as a result of internecine and intertribal fighting, a conflict which contributed indirectly to the decision taken by the British government to install a governor and sign the Treaty of Waitangi. Among the peninsula’s many attractions are its beautiful bays and picturesque villages, including Pigeon Bay, Okains Bay, Laverick’s Bay, and Le Bons Bay. There are many walking tracks, ranging from the five-hour Pigeon Bay Walkway to the two- to four-day Banks Peninsula Track, which traverses private farmland and the coastline of many of the remote eastern bays. These remote areas can also be visited on the Eastern Bays Scenic Mail Run, a mail delivery service that invites up to eight passengers to join its four-hour mail run. At Okains Bay is the Maori and Colonial Museum which houses an extensive collection of Maori artifacts, including an 1867 Maori waka (canoe) used during the Waitangi Day celebrations in February. Also worth a visit is the boutique Barry’s Bay Cheese Factory, which continues the peninsula’s long tradition of cheese making. Just as popular for its good wine, food, and picturesque rural setting is the French Farm Winery and Restaurant.


This small alpine village, 1,260 ft above sea level, is best known for the extensive Hanmer Springs Thermal Reserve. Although hot springs were first discovered in the area in 1859, they were officially opened only in 1883. Today, the complex has 12 thermal and freshwater pools of varying temperatures, as well as private pools and a children’s water slide area. Surrounding the hot pools is a 65-sq-mile forest park, which offers activities such as mountain biking and walks, ranging from the short Conical Hill walk (one hour return) to the longer Mount Isobel walk (five to six hours return). At the Waiau Ferry Bridge, 3 miles from the village, tourist operators offer bungy jumping, jet-boating, and rafting down the Waiau River.


With its wide streets, notable historic buildings, and excellent local craft studios, Hokitika is perhaps the West Coast’s most attractive town. Little more than a shantytown in 1864, by 1866 Hokitika had become a thriving commercial center thanks to gold. Its river port bustled with ships bearing miners flocking from the goldfields of Australia, but it was a treacherous harbor where a ship went down every 10 weeks in the years 1865 and 1866. The wreck of one such ship is on the self-guided Hokitika Heritage Trail, which includes 22 historic buildings and sights. The most impressive of these is the 1908 Carnegie Library, now the home of the town’s information center and the Historic Carnegie Complex and Museum. The museum has displays on gold mining and an audiovisual display of the town’s history. It also houses a collection of rare books about the West Coast. Jacquie Grant’s Eco World is a small aquarium specializing in native fish species, including the adult version of the tiny whitebait for which the West Coast’s rivers are renowned. The remarkable Glowworm Dell, on the northern edge of the town, is worth a visit after dark. The best time to view the lights exuded by these carnivorous larvae is on a wet night.


Settled by Europeans in 1874, Karamea is an isolated farming community that lies at the northern end of the West Coast’s State Highway 67. Nestled in a basin dominated by dairy farming and fringed by the Kahurangi National Park, Karamea is best known as the exit point for the Heaphy Track, which after following the coast from the Heaphy River ends 9 miles to the north. Several short walking tracks are based around the Heaphy exit point, including the 40-minute Nikau Loop and the 90-minute Scotts Beach walk. About 16 miles to the northeast of Karamea is the Oparara Basin, featuring impressive limestone formations and a 9-mile system of caves enveloped by dense forest. Much of the gravel road to the basin is narrow and winding but can be undertaken in a 2WD vehicle. The highly fragile Honeycomb Caves system, first explored in 1980, is accessible only with a guide and contains the remains of about 50 species, including the extinct moa and New Zealand eagle.


About 18 miles to the west of Twizel, Lake Ohau is a popular swimming, fishing, skiing, and boating spot. The six native forests which surround the lake – the Ohau, Temple, Dobson, Huxley, Hopkins, and Ahuriri – also provide excellent tramping and walking opportunities. Many huts are scattered in the forests for the use of more experienced trampers. The Ohau ski field, overlooking the western side of the lake, is a commercial ski field serviced by basic facilities, such as a T-bar and platter lift.


Lake Tekapo is a place of exceptional beauty and clarity. The remarkable blue of the lake is caused by “rock flour” – finely ground particles of rock brought down by the glaciers at the head of the lake and held in suspension in the meltwater. The lake is a very popular venue for fishing, boating, kayaking, swimming, and hang-gliding. On the lakefront stands the Church of the Good Shepherd. The foundation stone of this stone-and-oak church was laid in 1935 by the Duke of Gloucester. The front window of the church creates a perfect frame for a view of the lake. Next to the church is a bronze statue of a sheepdog, erected in 1968 as a tribute to the important role played by these animals in the development of high country farming. Because of the purity of the atmosphere above Lake Tekapo, the University of Canterbury has an observatory atop Mount John to the west of the township. There is a popular walkway to the top of the mountain (about three hours return). Cowan’s Hill Track (about two hours) also provides good views of the lake and mountains. Lake Tekapo town is a good base for skiing at Mount Dobson, about 18 miles away, while the town’s small tourist airport is also a base for scenic flights over Mount Cook. Lake Alexandrina, 6 miles from Tekapo, is renowned for its trout fishing.


Lewis Pass marks the crossing point on State Highway 7 over the South Island’s Main Divide. The surrounding 70-sq-mile Lewis Pass National Reserve offers a range of unguided outdoor activities, including tramping, fishing, and hunting. Just over the pass, Maruia Springs Thermal Resort has a small complex of outdoor hot pools in a natural setting, with views of the surrounding bush and mountain peaks.


Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park takes its name from Aoraki/Mount Cook, which at 12,316 ft is New Zealand’s highest mountain. It is sacred to the Ngai Tahu tribe of the South Island, and Maori legend has it that the mountain and its companion peaks were formed when a boy named Aoraki and his three brothers came down from the heavens to visit Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) in a canoe. The canoe overturned, and as the brothers moved to the back of the boat they turned to stone. The 270-sq-mile area was designated a national park in 1953 and includes 19 peaks over 9,842 ft. Glaciers cover 40 percent of the park.


Mount Hutt, in the foothills of the Southern Alps, is Canterbury’s largest ski field and claims to have the longest ski season in Australasia (early June to mid-October). The ski field is served by nine lifts and tows, as well as artificial snow-making facilities. From the 6,808-ft mountain, there are excellent views over the Canterbury Plains.


Founded in 1987, this 115-sq-mile park contains varied and dramatic scenery, most famously the Pancake Rocks and blowholes near the small coastal settlement of Punakaiki. Bands of limestone, separated by thin bands of softer mudstone, which has been worn away by thousands of years of rain, wind, and sea spray, have created the layered formations of the Pancake Rocks. Over hundreds of thousands of years, caverns have also been formed as carbon dioxide-bearing rainwater has gradually eaten into cracks in the limestone. During high seas, these subterranean caverns become blowholes as the waves surge in under huge pressure and explode in a plume of spray. The Pancake Rocks and blowholes are easily accessible from the main highway via the short Dolomite Point walk. Wheelchair access, if assisted, is also possible. Other short walks as well as longer tramps are available in the park, including the 15-minute Truman Track through subtropical forest to a wild coastline featuring caverns, a blowhole, and waterfall, and the two-hour walk to a huge limestone structure known as “the ballroom overhang”. A two- to three-day tramp through the heart of the park follows a pack track, built in 1867 to avoid dangerous travel along the isolated and rugged coastline.


The Port Hills separate Christchurch from Lyttelton Harbour and were formed as the result of the eruption of the now-extinct Lyttelton volcano. Their tussock covered slopes and volcanic outcrops flank the southern part of the city. Because of their proximity to the city they are extremely popular with walkers, runners, rock climbers, and mountain bikers. The Port Hills are also easily accessed by car, thanks to the work of early 20th-century conservationist and politician Harry Ell, who strove for the creation of a road across the hills. The first stretch of the Summit Road was opened in 1938. Ell’s vision included the construction of a series of rest houses along the Port Hills, the most impressive of which is the Sign of the Takahe, completed in 1949. Nestled in the hill suburb of Cashmere, this imposing Gothic building was also the most cherished of his projects. Another Ell legacy, the Sign of the Kiwi, is a popular resting place for people traveling along the Summit Road. The many tracks on the Port Hills provide striking views of Lyttelton Harbour, the Canterbury Plains, and the Southern Alps. The rim of the crater can also be accessed via the Christchurch Gondola.


Located on the southern bank of the Rakaia River, the small farming settlement of Rakaia claims to be “the salmon capital of New Zealand”. A large fiberglass fish in the middle of the township celebrates the excellent salmon and trout fishing to be had at various spots along the river.


Founded in 1872, Reefton takes its name from the gold-bearing quartz reefs in the area. The town’s gold-mining heritage is evident in the many historical remains of the 1870s boom dotted around the region, especially in the beech forest-clad Victoria Forest Park. A network of tracks provides opportunities for exploration on foot or on mountain bike. A heritage walk around Reefton takes in many historic buildings, including the School of Mines, which operated from 1887 to 1970 as part of a network of similar schools around New Zealand. One mile from Reefton, the Black’s Point Museum exhibits relics from the gold-mining era.


Although Westport’s origins lie in the gold rush of the 1860s, coal has been its lifeline for much of its history. Until 1954, coal from mines in the surrounding mountains was shipped out through the town’s once busy port at the head of the Buller River, but today the bulk is taken by train to Lyttelton on the east coast. The Coal Town Museum at Westport has extensive exhibits reconstructing aspects of the region’s coal-mining heritage.