In many ways, the South Island’s east coast comes closer to expectations of New Zealand than any other part of the country. Huge sweeps of pastoral land come wedged between snowy mountains and a rugged coast. The main hub of the region is New Zealand’s third city, Christchurch, stretched out between the Pacific Ocean and the agriculturally rich flatlands of the Canterbury Plains. Tragically, this stately city was severely damaged by a series of devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, and recovery will take years. The beach suburb of Sumner, within easy reach of the city, was also badly damaged, as was the port town of Lyttelton, just over the bald Port Hills. However, locals’ resilience and initiative have seen some creative innovations in the area while repairing and rebuilding takes place.
South of Christchurch, the coastline of the Banks Peninsula is indented with numerous bays and harbours. The peninsula’s largest settlement is the quaint “French village” of Akaroa. Unaffected by the quakes, it makes an ideal base for exploring this picturesque region.
Continuing south from the Banks Peninsula, the main road (SH1) forges across the Canterbury Plains, a patchwork of fertile fields and vineyards bordered by long shingle beaches littered with driftwood. Further south the countryside again changes character, with undulating coastal hills and crumbling cliffs announcing the altogether more rugged terrain of North Otago. Historic settlements dotted along the coast attest to the wealth that farming brought to the region. The first significant town is the workaday port of Timaru, close to a series of Maori rock paintings, evidence of a far longer history than the imposed European feel would have you believe. Further south, Oamaru is much more beguiling, with wonderfully accessible penguin colonies and an impressive core of nineteenth-century mercantile buildings in the process of being restored. Beyond, routes lead on towards Dunedin and the south, passing the unearthly Moeraki Boulders – huge, perfectly spherical rocks formed by a combination of subterranean pressure and erosion.