In the second in a four-part series of discovering New Zealand's hidden gems, Colin Hogg finds a southern town steeped in heritage and with much to offer the traveller willing to stay a while.
The tyranny of the bypass means you can carelessly whizz by interesting New Zealand towns without pause or curious thought. A town like Ashburton, for instance.
The Mid-Canterbury settlement has a bypass that may seem to a traveller passing through almost as if it is the town centre. It's dotted with traffic lights and a bit of retail, but it's not the heart of Ashburton at all. For the real, surprisingly large downtown Ashburton, you have to turn off and cross the railway line that divides the town of 18,000 right down the middle.
There's another line that divides Ashburton — the one that divides it from the outside world. Mysteriously, Ashburton is another one of those places people are often offhand about, and the bypass doesn't help.
Ashburton, an hour's drive to the south, is to Christchurch what Hamilton is to Auckland, what Gore is to Invercargill — too close and too small to take seriously. Only the locals really understand. Well, them and anyone who decides to stop and stay a couple of days.
You can get an hour's parking in East Street, Ashburton's real main street, for 60c. And it's worth parking and wandering because there's more to Ashburton than meets the eye. A lot more, including several town squares, a crazy town clock, a lot of good-looking old brick buildings, statues and water features.
It feels quietly prosperous and it probably is — being in the midst of rich dairying country and having some interesting industry as well. The world's largest producer of spinning wheels, Ashford Handicrafts, is in Ashburton.
Knowing that didn't exactly spin my wheels, but there's a kite manufacturer, too, New Zealand's only bus maker and Bruce McIlroy, whose company services and restores Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. And there's milk, of course, and meat and farm supplies, the usual country stuff.
There's a lot going on for a place that had a hard time struggling into life a century-and-a-half ago. Up to the mid-1800s, this was at the edge of an awful arid gravel desert between two scary rivers — the mighty Rakaia to the north and the Ashburton River to the south.
The town sprang up from a river crossing and accommodation house. By the 1870s, Ashburton had a brick factory and some grand building was going on. Great churches dot the town, which came to be built around two main squares — Baring Squares east and west — though there are other squares too.
The railway (freight only now) runs through the middle, with East St parallel on one side and West St the other. To the west of West St, which acts as the bypass, is Ashburton's posher part and the glorious Domain Gardens, where some of the towering trees go back to the birth of the town. Ashburton is a town of trees, an oasis among straight roads and a view to the west that stops only with the faraway Southern Alps. It is perhaps the flattest place I've ever been — flatter than Invercargill.
There isn't a street in Ashburton you could roll a Jaffa on, should you want to. But Ashburton has far more interesting attractions than a total lack of bump or rise.
I stayed at the Hotel Ashburton, across the road from the racecourse. It's old-school in an upmarket, modernised way, spread out on one level in gardens. To my surprise, one night I dined in-house on scallops with gnocchi and chorizo in burnt butter sauce.
I wasn't expecting that sort of eating option in Ashburton, but food all over town turned out to be terrific — the whitebait fritters and duck pancakes at Braided Rivers, breakfast at the Somerset Grocer and a lunch of oysters and seared ocean-run salmon at the Lake House restaurant, on the boardwalk at Lake Hood, a man-made lake a short drive from town to the east.
From Lake Hood, you can keep driving west to the coast on arrow-straight roads past green fields. It's easy to find your way, by the coastal back roads, to the Rakaia River mouth where there's a village of huts and houses and, beyond, a savage sort of Pacific punching away at a gritty gravel coastline. On the way back to town I spotted a milking shed with what might be the best view in the country.
These parts are rightly famous for the fishing in the handsome local rivers. I didn't fish but I did visit Salmon World in Rakaia, which was full good-looking and lively fish at various stages of their fast-growing lives.
As well as the expected salmon, there were trout, eels, turtles and gecko. They had the cold world covered.
Other local attractions celebrate older history. Back at Ashburton, out by the airport, is the Aviation Museum, which has 17 classic aircraft displayed in two hangars on the site of an old wartime training school which sent 1100 pilots off to fight in World War II.
Across the Ashburton River bridge is the village of Tinwald, really a suburb of Ashburton, which is home to the Plains Railway, an historic village and vintage railway museum built around a fragment of the old Mt Somers branch line.
Then there's Trotts Garden, a head-spinning 3ha of rather glorious formal gardens, the labour of love of Alan Trott, who built it up from a blank landscape across nearly 30 years.
It's a celebration of European and English horticultural tastes with a woodlands garden, a borders garden, a damp garden and, best of all, a trippy red garden.
The air's so fresh it might make your head spin. And, in its quiet way, Ashburton might do the same thing.