For a small country New Zealand has a big personality and so much to offer in terms of scenery and experiences. I’ve always been a fan and have visited a few times before, however, my ‘must-see’ list continually gets longer rather than smaller. I was recently lucky enough to cross another region off the list with Kirra Tours as we wound through the northern part of the South Island. We snaked across the Canterbury Plains, between the snow-capped Southern Alps, through dense beech forests, and past fern and moss-covered rock facades on the West Coast. We worked our way north to the rolling vineyard-filled hills of the Marlborough region and followed the dramatic shoreline of the East Coast back down to Christchurch. The scenery was stunning, and my highlights were plentiful. Here are just some of them.
The TranzAlpine Railway between Christchurch and Greymouth is incredibly scenic. The varied landscapes showcased different parts of the countryside as we were whisked through the middle of the New Zealand, across the Canterbury Plains and through the Southern Alps. It is amazing seeing the terrain change and the colours fade and find new life around each corner.
The carriages are comfortable with panoramic windows and I took up residence in the outdoor viewing carriage to really get in the middle of it all (it was freezing, but worth it!). There is commentary to tune into through the headphones provided, and I alternated between getting educated and holding my jaw off the ground as I gaped at the view. You’ll be spoilt for choice, as almost all Kirra itineraries encompassing the South Island incorporate the TranzAlpine train journey.
Punakaiki is nestled on the edge of Paparoa National Park and is best known for the intriguing limestone rock formations that hug the coastline. The Pancake Rocks and Blowholes are a big drawcard for the area as they showcase the careful artwork and vigorous wrath of nature. The Pancake Rocks are fittingly named to reflect the unusual layering that looks a little like a Sunday morning breakfast, dusted with salt spray rather than maple syrup.
There is a well-maintained path that winds through a lush forest and it feels a little like walking through a Jurassic Park movie set. There are viewing platforms to take in the rock formations and the striking coastline beyond, where you can watch the deep blue water thrashing the dramatic coastline. It’s a good place to spend the night as the sound of the crashing waves lulls you to sleep. For an overnight in Punakaiki, consider the Southern Discovery or the New Zealand Explorer tours.
The coastal waters of Kaikoura are home to an abundance of marine life including huge sperm whales, humpbacks, and dusky dolphins. There was quite a swell as we drove along the coast to the little seaside town. My palms started to sweat a little thinking back to the week before when I had spent hours riddled with seasickness lurching from side to side on another whale watch experience. In the morning as we readied ourselves to head out and spot some sea life we were told there was a ‘severe sea sickness warning’ and were given ample opportunity to pull out – instead I downed some sea sickness tablets and apprehensively boarded the boat.
I’m so glad I did! We saw a sperm whale gliding just below the surface before it plunged into the depths with one big swish of its tail. Our boat was flanked by a large pod of playful dolphins and we cruised past a colony of fur seals huddled on the rocky outcrops of the bay. Definitely a highlight, but worth being prepared with seasickness tablets to enjoy the sometimes-rough waters. If you are a nature lover and seafarer, then you’ll get the chance to do the whale watch on the Southern Sensations and New Zealand Odyssey itineraries.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you are in Canada or the Swiss Alps as you drive toward Hanmer Springs. The little town is encircled by a towering mountain range dusted in snow and the melting ice of springtime formed clear turquoise rivers carving through the landscape. Pine trees cling to the edge of deep ravines and many of the buildings skirting the road have charming pointed roofs.
The little town of Hanmer Springs is quaint and cosy and is built around its hot pools. We checked out the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa, with a range of sulphur pools, rock pools and water jets to choose from. The pools are positioned so you can soak in the warm waters, while soaking in the cool views. There is also a Spa onsite offering a range of treatments and I couldn’t go past the opportunity to get a massage to top off the experience. If you want to see this stunning alpine town and soak in the thermal waters, then consider the New Zealand Panorama which spends an overnight here.
Christchurch caught me completely off guard. I hadn’t put a huge amount of thought into my time in the city and was guilty of seeing it as a gateway to the Canterbury region rather than a destination in its own right. Despite having gone through tumultuous times and still rebuilding, Christchurch felt remarkably upbeat. While there are still a lot of abandoned buildings, construction sites, and empty lots, there is a sense of creativity in the way the city is coming back together. Quirky pop up cafes are breathing life back into the city, colourful murals adorn the walls, and there is tasteful graffiti spelling out positive messages of hope.
The open spaces make it feel quite tranquil, there are parks and greenery aplenty, and the Avon River winds its way serenely through the city adding extra charm to the provincial feel. It is definitely a great place to start, finish, or visit on tour. Almost all tours of the South Island spend a night in Christchurch, however, perhaps consider the New Zealand Grandeur or the Southern Encounter for an included two-night stay to see a bit more of the city.
Take a look at all Kirra Tours of New Zealand to find your perfect mix of experiences.