Hanmer Springs is a Canterbury favourite, and for good reason. A sleepy alpine town, forest walks and thermal hot pools that have been named New Zealand's best visitor attraction three years in a row mean there are plenty of reasons to swing by.
Just 90 minutes' drive from Christchurch, via the fast-developing Waipara wine region, it's no wonder well over half a million people check out this easy-to-access, quiet spot every year. There's plenty of ruddy-cheeked, dairy-fed local wallowers in the pools. With 65 per cent of the visitors from Canterbury and another 25 per cent from overseas, it's the rest of the country who are missing out.
Yet Hanmer Springs is an ideal weekend away, or as a stopover on a trip to the West Coast or Nelson. It can form part of a scenic inland loop from State Highway 1 to Kaikoura, but its main drawcard over the years has undoubtedly remained that it is an easy day trip from Christchurch.
As a child growing up on the flatlands, I took that trip north many times, delighting in the passage through Weka Pass, checking out Frog Rock, a massive outcrop over the road resembling you know what. Once we hit the sleepy hamlet, a walk up Conical Hill was obligatory; the forest track zig-zagging up between pines to a promontory built by an early runholder. From here, you can look down behind the township to where the road to Molesworth snakes up into the Southern Alps.
After some kiddy cross-country running down the hill kicking cones it was off for an icecream then a splash.
Not much has changed. Frog Rock these days does remind me of a Lord of the Rings set, the views from Conical Hill now take in growing subdivisions of holiday homes and the pools are altogether more enticing after major redevelopments in recent years, but the sleepy nature of the town still remains.
This is partly thanks to the tree-lined avenue of the main street, the parklands of the former Queen Mary Hospital and adjoining, splendidly scenic golf course. The hospital, once a residential alcohol and drug treatment facility, is now owned by dominant South Island iwi Ngai Tahu and sadly stands mostly empty. But its vast grounds, which back onto the Hanmer Springs Thermal Resort, are the leafy centre of a town that can get searingly hot in summer.
Thoughtfully, the 14 open-air hot pools where visitors spend much of their time come in many temperatures and sizes, including a terrific, cooler waterplay pool with slides for the younger set.
Facilities are modern with lockers and picnic areas. Grown-ups can adjourn to the charming wooden cafe at the heart of the complex or book some me time in the newly expanded $3 million spa - now the busiest in the country and offering, as well as the usual treatments, a range of water therapies such as Vichy massage.
The pools themselves have been open for more than 125 years and the springs were first discovered by Europeans in 1859. Like the spa they are owned by the Hurunui District Council and provide many jobs in a town of 1000 permanent residents, but which routinely plays temporary home to many more. Nine out of 10 visitors to Hanmer are reckoned to take a dip.
The more adventurous of them can also head off for anything from challenging back country tramps to easy forest strolls. Although at higher altitudes there are stunning native beech forests, in the town surrounds exotics are more common. But it's not all pine. The woodland walks include Douglas fir, poplar, redwood and larches.
Mountain bike trails abound and there's horse-trekking, bungy jumps over the Waiau River and jet boats on it. Families will enjoy the Wai Ariki Nature Park on the town's edge and there are several mini-golf courses and playgrounds.
The town's information centre is at the thermal resort's main entrance. There are plenty of motels and holiday homes in which to stay, though at peak periods it pays to book ahead.
We stayed practically over the road from the pools at the Drifters Inn, where friendly host Kate Poiner proves an information centre in herself, giving advice on restaurants and attractions. This modern two-storey facility has a pleasant and spacious communal kitchen, dining and lounge with log fire, giving guests a self-catering option - there's also an outdoor barbecue area.
We take our chances out on the main street and amble up the gentle slope for a drink at the Heritage Hotel's Spanish Mission property, a beautifully landscaped landmark - once known as The Lodge and over a century old. Then it's off for a tasty fusion meal at the excellent Malabar Restaurant.
Bakeries and cafes provide plenty of breakfast and lunch options and there are several fine dining options in the evening, but we found food quality a tad uneven. so do ask about.
A few days puddling about Hanmer Springs is indeed the tonic the resort promises from its waters, but there's plenty to see on the way. Sleepy farming hamlets, such as Waiau to the north and Culverden - home of the delightfully named Three Bored Housewives Crafts shop - Hawarden, Waikari, with its nearby Maori rock drawings and Amberley to the south, can all be whizzed through, but a stop off will lead to the discovery of thriving cottage and craft industries.
The Hurunui Historic Hotel is also worth pulling over at for a pint - it's the country's oldest hostelry.
North Canterbury is known for some spectacular gardens so if that's your thing then check out what's open for public viewing at an information centre. The Weka Pass Railway is also one for enthusiasts of a different sort.
Local produce, including the excellent Rutherford and Meyer lines of fruit pates and pastes and Lowry Peaks preserves, are worth buying as a souvenir and if you're looking for something for the wine cellar, then Waipara is a must.
The wine district, which does a mean pinot noir and some excellent white varietals, is fast-growing a reputation as one to watch. From established names like Daniel Schuster to boutique brands, there's plenty to sample and a new wine centre helps point the way as do wine trail brochures. For casual dining for the whole family, Waipara Springs is hard to go past, and the wine's more than quaffable. Pegasus Bay is another reliable option.
All in all, a trip to Hanmer Springs with the odd detour is a delightfully relaxing journey.
Getting there: Hanmer Springs, an alpine basin, is an easy 90-minute drive from Christchurch. We drove Jucy Rentals, available from nearby Christchurch Airport. Ph 0800 399 736 or (03) 358 6924.
Where to stay: Drifters Inn, 2 Harrogate St. Ph (03) 315 7554 or 0800 DRIFTERS (374 383). Studio units from $98, standard $165, with complimentary continental breakfasts. Adjoining units can cater for families.
Where to eat: Malabar Restaurant, 5 Conical Hill Rd, Hanmer Springs. For lunch and dinner. Phone (03) 315 7745.
What to do:
Hanmer Springs Thermal Resort: Amuri Ave. Ph (03) 315 0000.
Weka Pass Railway: Steam train rides from Glenmark Station (in the Waipara wine district) to Waikari on an 1880s line. Two-hour trips every Sunday in January and thereafter twice monthly, departing at 11.30am and 2pm.
Waipara Springs Vineyard: Open 7 days from 11am to 5pm.