Head out on one of these day trips from Christchurch
Despite, or perhaps because of the earthquakes that tore the city apart in 2010 and 2011, Christchurch remains one of the most popular visitor destinations on New Zealand’s South Island. Once you’ve adjusted to the near-constant building work and sporadic traffic disruption in the centre, it becomes obvious that not only have Christchurch’s charming English heritage and quirky atmosphere managed to survive, but they actually seem to have been enhanced by the indomitable resilience of the city and its inhabitants.
Christchurch is the centrepiece of, and the gateway to the wider Canterbury region, renowned for its spectacular natural landscapes, viniculture and the breadth of its attractions both in winter and summer. There is so much to see within a short drive of Christchurch, and it’s so easy to get around, that it’s always worth leaving the city behind for a while and heading out for a memorable day-trip. Here’s a rundown of our favourites.
What's in this day trips guide?
All journey times are by road unless otherwise stated.
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
This is a long 4 hour day-trip from Christchurch so it requires an early start, but it’s also probably the most rewarding, certainly in terms of scenery. The park is home to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, where Edmund Hillary trained before his successful ascent of Mount Everest. There are more than 20 other snowcapped peaks in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, as well as several vast glaciers, New Zealand’s only Dark Sky Reserve, and a large population of mischievous kea mountain parrots. Rich in Maori legend, the park is usually reached by the beautiful but busy route via Geraldine and Lake Tekapo, where you can pause for a photograph at the Church of the Good Shepherd, which was the first church in the Mackenzie Basin, built in 1935, and the famous bronze statue of a sheepdog. Guided coach tours are also available should you prefer to sit back and enjoy the views.
We recommend: staying until sunset or considering an overnight stay, as this is the best place in the country for watching the stars.
Distance from Christchurch: 2 hours approx.
Around 30 years ago, a farming family on a historic sheep station near the Rangitata Gorge diversified into rafting trips, and today this is among the top extreme sports hubs on the South Island. Operating from October to May, with a minimum age of 15, these trips take you through captivating scenery, narrow walls of rock, and a series of wild Grade 5 whitewater rapids that provide a challenge no matter your level of experience.
We recommend: sticking around after your rafting trip for a classic kiwi barbecue by the river, with South Canterbury sausage on the menu.
Just inland from Christchurch, at the foot of the Southern Alps, Methven is something of a paradise for outdoor sports enthusiasts. Spring-fed streams and high country lakes are filled to bursting with huge brown and rainbow trout, ideal for fly-fishing during a season that runs from October to April. The winter sports here are epic, with Mt. Hutt regularly voted the best ski area in New Zealand. There’s also golf, clay pigeon shooting, walking and mountain biking trails, and even hot air ballooning available, so if you like to stay active on your holidays, a day-trip to Methven, 1.5 hours from Christchurch, should certainly be on your itinerary.
We recommend: taking a tour of the historic Gunyah Country Estate, an outstanding period homestead, and its delightful gardens.
Separated from Christchurch by the Port Hills, the harbour town of Lyttelton (45 minutes from Christchurch) was the first point of entry to Canterbury for early settlers. It has a pleasingly bohemian feel to it, with many independent cafes, boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. Lyttelton also played a significant role in early Antarctic exploration - several notable expeditions launched from here, including Ernest Shackleton’s eventful Nimrod voyage of 1908. The Lyttelton Museum has a permanent collection of fascinating scientific exhibits from the Shackleton and Scott era up to the modern day. Sadly, the town’s 19th century timeball, a device enabling mariners to check their longitude at sea, was damaged during the 2011 earthquake, though there are plans to restore it soon.
We recommend: a boat trip out for a walk on Quail Island in the harbour. Both Scott and Shackleton trained their huskies here.
Big Rock Canyons
Canyoning is an exhilarating combination of watersports, abseiling and obstacle courses. You might find yourself rappelling down a waterfall, ziplining into an icy pool, or scampering over rocks during these adventures, and the Kaumira Canyon, near the pretty town of Geraldine, 2 hours from Christchurch, is reckoned to be the best place in New Zealand to do it. Big Rock Canyons also operate beginners’ courses at the Tui Canyon, which is to be found just outside Christchurch.
We recommend: stopping by Geraldine on the way back to Christchurch, with its ancient forest and vibrant arts community.
The first European ship to sight the Banks Peninsula was James Cook’s Endeavour, and it takes its name from the vessel’s onboard botanist. Later, colonial whaling settlements would be based here, leading to severe conflict with the Maori inhabitants. Some of New Zealand’s most resplendent natural beauty is on display around this area, and there are very few walking trails that can rival the Banks Peninsula Track, which can be covered in two days. Akaroa is a lively seaside town with distinctive French influences, having been purchased for the sum of £240 by France in the mid-19th century (value today: £17,000). There is a tranquil, artisanal vibe here, and boat trips out to see Hector’s dolphins are a big attraction, as you can slip on a wetsuit to swim alongside them if you wish.
We recommend: a kayaking trip off the coast, for a unique perspective on the volcanic landscape and a chance to get even closer to the marine wildlife.
Situated in the Hurunui region, Hanmer Springs, 2 hours from Christchurch, is a bustling resort town that’s well-known for its mineral-rich thermal pools, where you can soak muscles tired from hiking, and indulge in soothing spa treatments. But thrills are served up in equal measure in Hanmer Springs, as this is also the launchpad for a range of adrenaline-charged activities in the nearby Waiau Gorge. You can try jet boating, whitewater rafting and even bungy jumping here, making for a seriously turbo-charged day out. This is also a great day-trip idea from Christchurch if you’re travelling as a family, as there is a wide selection of kid-friendly attractions in the area, from quad biking and horse trekking to petting farms.
We recommend: letting the kids cool off in the exciting play area at the hot springs while you relax.
Running between Christchurch and Greymouth, five hours away on the South Island’s west coast, the TranzAlpine Express is surely New Zealand’s most spectacular rail journey. The train leaves Christchurch just after breakfast, and returns in time for dinner, the journey takes you across the grassy Canterbury plains, through native beech forest and the Southern Alps, reaching its highest point of 900 metres above sea-level at Arthur’s Pass. Trains run all year-round except on Christmas Day, and booking in advance is advisable.
We recommend: bringing another layer of clothing if travelling during the winter months, as it gets cold at higher altitudes. Also, try plugging your headphones into the seat for an enthralling audio commentary.
Wine-tasting in the Waipara Valley
The acclaimed Canterbury wine region - approximately an hour from Christchurch, runs down the South Island’s east coast, bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean, and on the other by the Southern Alps. Sunny weather and a cool, dry climate have led to substantial recognition, in particular for the region’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, and several exciting sub regions have developed over the years. As it’s so close to Christchurch, there are plenty of cellar door tours to be had in the Waipara Valley, and you can get around either by car, bicycle or on foot. You can learn how to trace unique flavours in wines that have come from vines growing either on the valley floor, slopes or river terraces.
We recommend: combining your wine-tasting with a brewery tour to sample some of the award-winning craft beers for which New Zealand is so famous.
This former logging town, 45 minutes away, is full of old-world charm, and surrounded by many superb mountain biking and walking trails. Oxford is a popular spot for souvenir-hunters, the merino wool clothing you find here is known for its quality, and also birders, with several threatened species found along the Ashley river. There are several interesting museums in the town too, that trace the area’s heritage.
We recommend: wandering around a quintessential New Zealand farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.
For many visitors, New Zealand holidays are all about getting out and about in a pristine natural environment, and there are few better places to do that than the coastal town of Kaikoura. The dolphin and whale-watching tours here are legendary, and multi award-winning. You can swim with the dolphins of course, which is a life-affirming experience in itself, but you may not know that you can also dive in alongside wild fur seals here, and also head out in search of that most iconic of seabirds, the albatross.
We recommend: the roadside stands selling the freshest, most delicious seafood platters you could hope to find.
Going straight up
Christchurch helicopter tours are an unforgettable highlight of many New Zealand holidays. Some operators offer customisable helicopter flight itineraries, so that you can get a seriously impressive bird’s eye view of the epic scenery in these parts. Soar above rolling hills lined with grapevines, boats bobbing in the harbour, the Banks Peninsula, the glaciers and peaks of Aoraki, the Canterbury Plains or hobbit country. If you catch the bug you can even get a lesson.
We recommend: a helicopter transfer as a stylish and convenient alternative to the choppy sea crossing if you need to get back over to the North Island.