Christchurch and south to Otago Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
expand_more
expand_more

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.

Banks Peninsula

Flying into Christchurch you’ll be struck by the dramatic contrast between the flat plains of Canterbury and the rugged, fissured topography of Banks Peninsula, a volcanic thumb sticking out into the Canterbury Bight. When James Cook sailed by in 1769 he mistakenly charted it as an island and named it after his botanist, Joseph Banks. His error was only one of time, as this basalt lump initially formed an island, only joined to the land as silt sluiced down the rivers from the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps.

The fertile volcanic soil of the peninsula’s valleys sprouted totara, matai and kahikatea trees that, along with the abundant shellfish in the bays, attracted early Maori around a thousand years ago. The trees progressively succumbed to the Maori fire stick and European timber-milling interests, and the peninsula is now largely bald, with patches of tussock grass and small pockets of regenerating native bush.

Today, the two massive drowned craters that form Banks Peninsula are key to the commerce of the region. Lyttelton Harbour protects the port town of Lyttelton, disembarkation point for countless European migrants. Lyttelton is the only town on the Banks Peninsula to have been severely affected by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, and numerous buildings had been demolished or were undergoing major repairs at the time of writing.

There’s a refined tone to the picturesque and visitor-oriented town of Akaroa, lent a gentle French influence by its founders. Elsewhere on the peninsula, a network of narrow, twisting roads winds along the crater rims and dives down to gorgeous, quiet bays once alive with whalers, sealers and shipbuilders, but now seldom visited except during the peak of summer. Despite the denuded grassland of much of the landscape, Banks Peninsula is very popular for relatively easy scenic walks, with panoramic views, ancient lava flows and relics from the earliest Maori and European settlers.

Akaroa

The small waterside town of AKAROA (“Long Bay”), on the eastern shores of Akaroa Harbour, 85km southeast of Christchurch, comes billed as New Zealand’s French settlement. Certainly the first settlers came from France, some of their architecture survives and the street names they chose have stuck, but that’s about as French as it gets. Nonetheless, the town milks the connection with a couple of French-ish restaurants, some French-sounding boutique B&Bs and a tricolour fluttering over the spot where the first settlers landed.

Still, it is a pretty place, strung along the shore in a long ribbon easily seen on foot, with attractive scenery all around, plus a smattering of low-key activities including a unique dolphin swim, and easy access to the Banks Peninsula Track. But Akaroa primarily pitches itself to those looking for gentle strolls followed by good food and wine before falling into a comfy bed. These factors make the town a popular Kiwi holiday destination; some two-thirds of its houses are baches (holiday homes), leaving only around 550 permanent residents.

Brief history

The site of Akaroa was originally the domain of the Ngai Tahu paramount chief, Temaiharanui. In 1838, French Commander Jean Langlois traded goods for what he believed to be the entire peninsula and returned to France to encourage settlers to populate a new French colony. Meanwhile, the British sent William Hobson to assume the role of lieutenant-governor over all the land that could be purchased; and just six days before Lavaud sailed into the harbour, the British flag was raised in Akaroa. Lavaud’s passengers decided to stay, which meant that the first formal settlement under British sovereignty was comprised of 63 French and six Germans.

Christchurch

Despite a population decline following the devastating 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, CHRISTCHURCH is the largest city on the South Island, with around 350,000 people, and capital of the Canterbury region. Founded as an outpost of Anglicanism by its first settlers, the city was named after an Oxford college. To some extent it pursues an archetype – the boys at Christ’s College still wear striped blazers, and punts glide along the winding River Avon – but in recent years the city’s traditional conservatism developed a youthful and more multicultural edge, balanced by laidback beach life at the Pacific Ocean suburb of Sumner.

Until the quakes, Cathedral Square was the heart of the city, and a new green space is planned here once the future of the ruined early 1900s cathedral is clear. Historic buildings to have survived the quakes include the Italianate 1879 Old Post Office and the adjacent 1901 Palladian-style former Government Building. Other surviving buildings include the neat rows of pastel-painted 1930s Spanish Mission-style buildings along New Regent Street and, along Victoria Street, the Victorian clock tower, which houses a clock originally imported from England in 1860 to adorn the government buildings.

Sprawling Hagley Park contains the spectacular Botanic Gardens, a golf course and playing fields, and at weekends it seems like the entire population of Christchurch is here, strolling around or playing some form of sport.

Even while rebuilding takes place, Christchurch still works as a base for exploring further afield, with a plethora of companies offering activities such as rafting, ballooning and high country tours in the surrounding countryside, and is also within a two-hour drive of several good ski-fields to the west.

Brief history

Maori occupied scattered settlements around the region before the first Europeans arrived, establishing Lyttelton as a whaling port in the 1830s. By 1843, the Scottish Deans brothers were farming inland, but the real foundations of Christchurch were laid by the Canterbury Association, formed in 1849 by members of Oxford’s Christ Church College, and with the Archbishop of Canterbury at its head. The association had the utopian aim of creating a middle-class, Anglican community in which the moralizing culture of Victorian England could prosper.

It was at Lyttelton that four ships containing nearly eight hundred settlers arrived in 1850, bound for the new city of Christchurch. The earliest settlers weren’t all Anglicans by any means, and the millenarian aspirations upon which the city was founded soon faded as people got on with the exhausting business of carving out a new life in unfamiliar terrain. Nevertheless, the association’s ideals had a profound effect on the cultural identity of the city, and descent from those who came on the “four ships” still carries social cachet among members of the Christchurch elite.

Earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 severely affected the city, destroying many of its renowned buildings, but local and national authorities and residents are committed to planning and rebuilding a new, revitalized city.

Christchurch earthquakes

The 7.1 magnitude earthquake that hit Christchurch on September 4, 2010 marked the start of a series of tectonic events – including some 2500 aftershocks within a year – that would have a dramatic, deadly effect on the city, changing it irrevocably. The aftershock of February 22, 2011 killed 185 people and badly damaged or destroyed many buildings in the city centre, while one more person died in the June 14, 2011 aftershock. Still reeling from the devastation, the city was struck again on December 23, 2011, this time by 5.8 and 6 magnitude quakes.

At the time of writing, parts of the city centre within the Four Avenues – Moorhouse, Fitzgerald, Bealey and Deans – were still cordoned off. Some will remain inaccessible to the general public until structural safety has been ascertained and it’s known which buildings require demolition, and the timeframe during which this will happen. Christchurch’s iconic neo-Gothic buildings fared particularly badly, including its landmark cathedral, the geographic and, for many, spiritual heart of the city. In early 2012 it was announced that the cathedral could not be saved and will be demolished. Authorities are considering installing a temporary “cardboard cathedral” – check wchristchurchcathedral.co.nz for updates. The Port Hills were also roadblocked at the time of writing, and parts of the beachside suburb of Sumner were stacked with shipping containers to protect against further land slippage. For residents, it remains an uncertain time as they await news of insurance and authorities’ plans for rebuilding the city, while contending with ongoing seismic activity.

But there is good news: as plans for rebuilding unfold, some businesses remain or have since reopened, and others have relocated or are intending to do so, either temporarily or permanently, to unaffected suburbs. These suburbs have experienced a renaissance as people who once frequented the city centre are seeking out eating, drinking and entertainment venues further afield. And spirited locals are creating pop-up bars, shops, restaurants and cafés (many housed in shipping containers) as well as new long-term establishments, while working to repair and reopen businesses where possible.

The TranzAlpine

One of the most popular day-trips from Christchurch is to ride the TranzAlpine train (4hr 30min each way; book well ahead for discounted prices; w tranzscenic.co.nz), a tourist-oriented trip across to Greymouth on the West Coast (an extension to Hokitika is under consideration). It’s a gorgeous 231km journey – with numerous viaducts and nineteen tunnels – all seen from the train’s large viewing windows and open-sided observation car. Christchurch’s industrial suburbs give way to the farmland of the Canterbury Plains before climbing through braided river valleys and open tussock country into the Southern Alps. There’s a pause at the beech-forest high point of Arthur’s Pass before descending through the 8.5km-long Otira Tunnel that burrows under the 920m pass itself to the West Coast.

The train leaves Christchurch train station at 8.15am every morning and nominally returns by 6.05pm, though years of under-funding mean that delays are fairly common. Levels of comfort and catering are also below par for what is essentially a tourist attraction, though standards are improving.

If you travel in December you will see red and white rata in bloom, but the trip is at its romantic, snow-cloaked best in the winter months (June–Aug). A good strategy for those with a vehicle is to catch the train at Darfield, 45km west of Christchurch, allowing a later start in return for missing Christchurch’s industrial suburbs and a few farms. It’s also worth considering alighting at Moana for a relaxed three-hour lakeside lunch before boarding for the return journey. It beats a hurried snack in Greymouth.

The trip can also form part of a high-country tour.

South to Otago

Heading south from Christchurch, SH1 forges straight across the Canterbury Plains connecting small farming service towns. Aside from the occasionally magnificent views of the snowcapped Southern Alps to the west, the drive south is through a monotonous landscape broken only by the broad gravel beds of braided rivers, usually little more than a trickle spanned by a kilometre-long bridge.

As the road passes the pottery town of Temuka and reaches the southern end of the Canterbury Plains, hills force it back to the shoreline at mundane Timaru. From here, SH8 strikes inland towards Fairlie, Lake Tekapo and Aoraki Mount Cook.

The coastal highway continues south through rolling hills to the architecturally harmonious city of Oamaru, and the unique and fascinating Moeraki Boulders. This is penguin country, with several opportunities to stop off and spy blue and yellow-eyed penguins. From Moeraki there is little to delay you on your progress toward Dunedin, except maybe the small crossroads town of Palmerston, where SH85, “The Pigroot” to Central Otago, leaves SH1, providing another opportunity to forsake the coast and follow a historical pathway to the now defunct goldfields inland.

Blue penguins

Blue penguins, the smallest of their kind, are found all around the coast of New Zealand, and along the shores of southern Australia, where they are known as little penguins. White on their chests and bellies, they have a thick head-to-tail streak along their back in iridescent indigo-blue. Breeding takes place from May to January, and the parents take it in turns to stay with the eggs during the 36-day incubation period. The newly hatched chicks are protected for the first two or three weeks before both parents go out to sea to meet the increasing demand for food, returning full of fish, which they regurgitate into the chick’s mouth. At eight weeks the chicks begin to fledge, but sixty percent die in their first year; the juveniles that do survive usually return to their birthplace. At the end of the breeding season the birds fatten up before coming ashore to moult: over the next three weeks their feathers are not waterproof enough for them to take to the sea and they lose up to half their bodyweight.

Maori rock art

Around five hundred years ago, Maori moa hunters visited the South Canterbury and North Otago coastal plain, leaving a record of their sojourn on the walls and ceilings of open-sided limestone rock shelters. There are more than three hundred rock drawings around Timaru, Geraldine and Fairlie; the faded charcoal and red ochre drawings depict a variety of stylized human, bird and mythological figures and patterns. The best of the cave drawings can be seen in the region’s museums, notably Timaru’s new Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre and the North Otago Museum in Oamaru. Around 95 percent of those remaining in situ are on private land and are often hard to make out, and what is visible is often the misguided result of nineteenth-century repainting. The best destination is Frenchman’s Gully, where moa and a stylized birdman figure can be seen. Contact the Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre for guided tours.

Moeraki Boulders

The large, grey spherical Moeraki Boulders (some almost 2m in diameter) lie partially submerged in the sandy beach at the tide line, about 2km before you hit Moeraki village. Their smooth skins hide honeycomb centres, which are revealed in some of the broken specimens. The boulders once lay deep in the mudstone cliffs behind the beach and, as these were eroded, out fell the smooth boulders, with further erosion exposing a network of surface veins. The boulders were originally formed around a central core of carbonate of lime crystals that attracted minerals from their surroundings – a process that started sixty million years ago, when muddy sediment containing shell and plant fragments accumulated on the sea floor. They range in size from small pellets to large round rocks, though the smaller ones have all been taken over the years, leaving only those too heavy to shift.

Maori named the boulders Te Kaihinaki (food baskets), believing them to have been washed ashore from the wreck of a canoe whose occupants were seeking pounamu. The seaward reef near Shag Point was the hull of the canoe, and just beyond it stands a prominent rock, the vessel’s petrified navigator. Some of the Moeraki Boulders were hinaki (baskets), the more spherical were water-carrying gourds and the irregular-shaped rocks farther down the beach were kumara from the canoe’s food store. The survivors among the crew were transformed at daybreak into hills overlooking the beach.

Oamaru

The former port town of OAMARU, 85km south of Timaru, is one of New Zealand’s most alluring provincial cities, and a relaxed place to spend a day or two. The most immediate attraction is the presence of both blue and yellow-eyed penguin colonies on the outskirts of town, but the town itself has a well-preserved Historic District, a core of nineteenth-century buildings built of the distinctive cream-coloured local limestone that earned Oamaru the title “The Whitestone City”. At the turn of the twentieth century it had a reputation as being the most attractive city in the South Island – a status it’s regaining thanks to ongoing restoration.

The best times to visit Oamaru are from November to January when penguins are in their greatest numbers, and for the Victorian Heritage Celebrations over the third weekend in November when the streets of the historic district become a racetrack for penny-farthings, cheered on by local residents in Victorian attire.

Brief history

The limestone outcrops throughout the area once provided shelter for Maori and later the raw material for ambitious European builders. As a commercial centre for gold-rush prospectors, and shored up by quarrying, timber and farming industries, Oamaru grew prosperous. The port opened for migration in 1874, although many ships foundered on the hostile coastline and in the late nineteenth century wrecks littered the shore. After this boom period Oamaru declined, times evocatively recorded in work by local writer Janet Frame. It’s only in recent years that the town has begun to come alive again.

Oamaru whitestone

The key to Oamaru’s distinctive look is whitestone, a “free stone” which is easily worked with metal hand tools when freshly quarried but hardens with exposure to the elements. While keeping the prevailing Neoclassical fashion firmly in mind, the architects’ imaginations ran riot, producing deeply fluted pilasters, finely detailed pediments and elegant Corinthian pillars topped with veritable forests of acanthus leaves. Oamaru was given much of its character by architect R.A. Lawson and by the firm Forrester and Lemon who together produced most of the more accomplished buildings between 1871 and 1883. Oamaru stone is still used in modern buildings such as the Waitaki Aquatic Centre in Takaro Park. Enthusiasts can visit the source of Oamaru stone at the Parkside Quarry (woamarustone.co.nz), 7km west of town.

Timaru

The 28,000-strong port city of TIMARU, 18km south of Temuka, is at the end of a straight and flat two-hour drive from Christchurch. The city isn’t a vastly compelling place to stop, though it’s enlivened by the new Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre, the Aigantighe Art Gallery and the South Canterbury Museum. On a fine day, it’s worth spending a quiet hour ambling around the Botanical Gardens, entered via Queen Street (daily 8am–dusk; free), or strolling along the new boardwalk along Caroline Bay and the low cliffs north past the wooden 1878 Blackett’s Lighthouse to Dashing Rocks.

Brief history

The name Timaru comes from Te Maru, Maori for “place of shelter”, as it provided the only haven for waka paddling between Banks Peninsula and Oamaru. In 1837 European settlement was initiated by Joseph Price, who set up a whaling station south of the present city at Patiti Point. A large part of today’s commercial and pastoral development was initiated by Yorkshiremen George and Robert Rhodes, who established the first cattle station on the South Island in 1839 and effectively founded Timaru. Land reclamation created a harbour in 1877 and helped form the fine sandy beach of Caroline Bay. For a time, Timaru became a popular seaside resort, and its annual two-week summer carnival, starting on Boxing Day, is still a highlight.

The Rough Guide to New Zealand and related travel guides

In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

Find even more inspiration for New Zealand here

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

author photo
Rough Guides Editors
9/14/2020
Ready to travel and discover New Zealand?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels