Canterbury trails - exploring 'big country'

Canterbury – New Zealand’s largest region – rises from the Pacific Ocean, sweeps across vast plains, through braided river valleys, and climbs into the magnificent Southern Alps that divide the length of the South Island.

This ‘big country’ landscape offers a dramatic 42,200 sq km backdrop to an amazing natural diversity and range of activities - most easily accessed from Christchurch International Airport, the South Island’s main international gateway.

International Antarctic Centre

The closest of all - the International Antarctic Centre - is within walking distance of Christchurch airport.

As the official gateway to Antarctica and launching pad for many expeditions, Christchurch has developed strong links with the great white continent, and the International Antarctic Centre, which opened in 1992, has become a major tourist attraction.

Deep freeze experiences like the penguin encounter, rides on the Hagglund all-terrain vehicle, a 4D movie adventure that includes a blizzard, and the chance to play in snow and on ice, have made the centre a popular family destination.

Christchurch wildlife experiences

On the outskirts of Christchurch city - and a few minutes by car from the airport - Willowbank Wildlife Reserve and Orana Wildlife Park offer unique New Zealand nature experiences for all the family.

Willowbank’s residents include rare native birds such as flightless kiwi and takahe, kea - the South Island’s alpine parrot - and a breeding colony of the prehistoric reptile tuatara. Exclusive guided behind the scenes tours give a rare glimpse of the kiwi breeding programme - depending on timing, there’s a chance to see eggs or even newly-hatched kiwi chicks.

Experiences at Willowbank also include the Ko Tane pre-European Maori village, which has an interactive Maori evening cultural experience.

New Zealand’s only open range zoo, Orana Wildlife Park has over 400 animals from more than 70 different species. Native species on show include tuatara, kiwi in the nocturnal house, and outside there are also big exotic animals such as lions and giraffes. Orana’s Lion Encounter is a unique experience that puts visitors in a cage for an extreme close up on the big cats.

Akaroa & Banks Peninsula

South of Christchurch and about 90-minutes by road, Banks Peninsula offers rich wildlife experiences in natural surroundings.

Akaroa is a coastal village on the shores of a large natural harbour that fills an ancient volcanic cone. The harbour and shore are home to rare Hector’s dolphins, little blue penguins and New Zealand fur seals. Several operators run guided wildlife cruises on the harbour and 4WD land tours.

On Black Cat Cruises, dolphin-lovers can kit up in a ‘dry suit’ for year-round swimming with dolphins in the sheltered harbour waters.

Originally founded by early French settlers, Akaroa has conserved its unique French heritage buildings and style, and developed a reputation for fine boutique accommodation, food and wine, and a popular cooking school. The surrounding area includes vineyards, olive groves, a cheese maker and salmon farming.

Banks Peninsula’s volcanic landscape is also popular with walkers, cyclists and kayakers. Tuatara Tours run a three-day 42km guided walking tour that includes accommodation and food, while local farmers offer farm accommodation for independent walkers on Banks Track.

Mt Hutt & Methven

Methven - an easy 60-minute drive from Christchurch International Airport - is Canterbury’s main ski resort, which services Mt Hutt ski area and six other ski fields, as well as 1000sq km of heli-skiing terrain.

Mt Hutt is known for its consistent snow and has the longest season of the major commercial ski areas in New Zealand.

In winter, Methven’s cafés and accommodations buzz with skiers, snowboarders and the après-ski set, but it’s also a year-round base for other seasonal activities such as walking, golf, hot air ballooning, scenic flights, rafting, skydiving, 4WD, horse trekking, and fishing.

Thrill seekers can take a jet boat spin through the Rakaia Gorge, or go rafting on the Rangitata River while others choose a quieter activity - a spot of fly fishing for salmon and trout.

On the northern banks of the Rakaia, Terrace Downs is one of New Zealand’s top international golf resorts.The resort includes a variety of accommodation, dining and spa activities.

Canterbury high country

Canterbury’s high country is a vast inland expanse of river plains, steep hills and high mountain pastures. This is mostly 4WD country where outdoor activities range from gentle walks, to serious hiking, jet-boating thrills, and fishing, hunting, shooting heli adventures.

Some farms offer accommodation - ranging from rustic self-contained cottages to boutique with food and wine provided - and an opportunity for visitors to experience high country life, including seasonal activities such as the muster.

Glenfalloch Station, a 10,000ha farm in a wilderness setting at the far reaches of the Rakaia river valley - but still within 90-minutes of Christchurch airport, has summer and winter accommodation for couples, families and small groups. The hosts will cater if requested, and the accommodation is cosy and stylish with unsurpassed views of the river valley and snowcapped mountains.

In winter, Methven Heliski operates at Glenfalloch’s doorstep taking powder hounds on guided tours to ski their hearts out from the top of vast private slopes. There are also scenic flights in planes and helicopters.

Hanmer Springs

Hanmer Springs - 90 minutes north of Christchurch airport, is New Zealand’s premier alpine spa destination, popular with local and international visitors alike.

Originally built around natural hot springs in the town centre, Hanmer Springs has grown into a year-round resort offering fun-filled activities for visitors of all ages and styles - from family fun to adventure thrills, or romantic getaways.

Hanmer’s outdoor activities include mountain biking trails, sub-alpine hiking, and jet boating down the Waiau Gorge.

The thermal pools, which underwent major redevelopment in 2010, are an impressive complex of pools and experiences including rock and sulphur pools, and a family activity area - complete with water slides. Next-door but away from poolside crowds, Hanmer Springs Spa offers a luxury spa experience for relaxation, and massage therapies.

Just a few steps along the main street, The Heritage Hanmer Springs is a five-star destination in an historic turn-of-the-century building. Other accommodation options in and around Hanmer include apartments, holiday parks, motels and B&Bs.

Waipara Valley vineyards provide an easy detour en route back to Christchurch. New Zealand’s fastest growing wine region - a 40-minute drive from the airport - has 80 vineyards, including Pegasus Bay with its award-winning restaurant.

Kaikoura whales

Further afield - a two-and-half-hour drive north of Christchurch, and an hour from Hanmer, but still in the Canterbury region - whale watching at Kaikoura offers visitors a taste of nature’s raw power.

Tucked between the soaring Seaward Kaikoura mountain range and the pounding tides of the Pacific coast, the small coastal town has built itself on eco tourism adventures that have won international acclaim.

Year-round abundant marine life offers many activities, but most famous are the whale watching tours where visitors can see many different species - including huge sperm whales, along with Dusky and rare Hector’s dolphins, fur seals and many sea birds and other marine life.

Kaikoura’s land-based activities include authentic Māori Tours and luxury Kaikoura Wilderness Walks. It’s also a good place to sample local sea foods like crayfish, or fish and chips.