Alpine Pacific Triangle a great drive from Christchurch
This driving route from Christchurch takes in some areas that don’t make the tourist headlines, but it’s a perfect fit If you’ve got just a few days to spare. Distances are short, it works in all seasons and at the apex of the triangle, the town of Kaikoura is home to a couple of world-class wildlife adventures.
Day 1 Drive from Christchurch-Hanmer Springs: 135 kms, 1 ¾ hours
When you hit town, head for the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa. There are about half a dozen pools here heated to a comfy 38oC. Too crowded? Book a private indoor pool within the spa complex, with room for four. At one side of the thermal pools, The Spa offers a complete menu of massages, facials and therapies within a complex that smells of wood and rare teas sourced from Himalayan hillsides. There are also two Vichy treatment rooms, and if you’ve never experienced a Vichy shower before, sign up for the ultimate body cleansing treatment. For a small town Hanmer packs in a surprising repertoire of adventure sports, including white water rafting, jetboating, horse riding, four-wheel drive trips and mountain bike tours. There’s also a terrific 18 hole golf course where you can hire clubs and they lay down the red carpet for visitors. Mini golf your thing? You’ve hit heaven in Hanmer.
Best coffee: The Powerhouse. Have it with a muffin.
Dinner date: The Malabar does a decent Asian fusion-food menu
Day 2 Drive from Hanmer Springs-Kaikoura: 132 kms, 1½ hours
Make sure you take the inland route to Kaikoura, it’s winding and slow but the countryside is luscious. Kaikoura means sperm whales. With a length of 20 metres and a weight of 60 tonnes, the sperm whale is the largest toothed mammal, and there are more off the Kaikoura coast than anywhere else on Earth. The reason is the abundance of squid, the whale’s favourite main course, in the deep trench barely a kilometre off Kaikoura. From Kaikoura, the boats of Whale Watch Kaikoura operate 3 ½ hour whale-spotting trips all year round. What you see is the tip of the iceberg – a huge back floating in the waves, puffing out spurts of spray until the whale flips its tail in the air and heads down to gobble up a squid from the deep-sea larder. Since the boat is motionless in the waves, quite a few people experience seasickness. If this sounds like you, the local chemist in Kaikoura makes a special top secret preparation that works like a charm.
Another Kaikoura specialty is swimming with dolphins. These are Dusky Dolphins, the chimps of the underwater world. They’re playful, acrobatic, fast and friendly. What you’ll do is suit up with a full-body wetsuit, board the Dolphin Encounter boat, speed off into dolphin territory which is usually a couple of k’s off the coast and slip over the side. There are anything up to 500 dolphins at a time here and while you hover in the water making funny noises through your snorkel the dolphins will come zooming past. If you’re behaving spectacularly weirdly and making lots of noise, they’ll probably hang around and circle back to check out this strange creature. The dolphins are usually on the move but the boat will follow and you’ll get several chances to swim with the dolphins. This is also available as a spectator-only experience, but it’s not the same. Dolphin Encounter is a tight operation too, five stars in every department.
Sign where Seals delivered
At the end of The Esplanade a sign points to the seal colony on the end of the Kaikoura Peninsula. They don’t do much more than loll about on the rocks snoozing, impervious to the visitors who are trampling around just a few metres way, but take a look just the same. Don’t get between a seal and the water – it’s their escape route, and yes they can move fast, and if you’re in the way you’re in trouble.
Day 3 Drive from : Kaikoura to Christchurch via Waipara 184 kms, 2 ¼ hours
This is an easy drive of just over two hours, so it’s fine to program a dolphin swim or whale watch for today. Waipara is home to over 20 wineries with Pinot Poir and Riesling as the main varieties but also some Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Chances are most of the wine labels won’t be familiar to you from the bottle shop shelves. Pegasus Bay, Mount Cass and the statuesque Mudhouse Winery right beside the highway are some of the standouts. From Waipara it’s about a one-hour drive to Christchurch.