An autumnal visit to relaxing Hanmer Springs is just what the doctor ordered, finds Shandelle Battersby.

The first time I visited Canterbury spa town Hanmer Springs was en route to the West Coast a couple of summers ago. It was one of those 30C-plus South Island days when dunking yourself in hot water is one of the stupidest ideas you've ever had. Christchurch had been hot; Hanmer was a furnace. We had to wait until the sun dipped before we made our move to the pool complex, which only left a couple of hours to explore its many wonders.

This time, on a much cooler visit in autumn, the thought of unwinding during a good soak in the pools was much more appealing.

People have been "taking the waters" in this pretty alpine resort town since the Lands Department built the first bathhouse there in 1883, though hundreds of years before that early Maori would pause here to recuperate during their journeys across the island.

During World War I Hanmer was the place soldiers would go to convalesce after their service, taking up residence at the new Queen Mary Hospital for Sick and Wounded Soldiers and at Robert Hood's The Lodge.

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After many years of service the Queen Mary is now unused but is ripe for redevelopment, and the historic Lodge now operates as the Heritage Hanmer Springs, our comfortable base for the weekend right in the centre of town.

The brisk, clean mountain air, picturesque South Island scenery - particularly glorious in autumnal shades of russet and yellow - and natural mineral waters are a winning formula for a weekend of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation.

The village, which we reached in an easy 90 minutes after picking up our Jucy 4WD at Christchurch Airport, has sprung up around its namesake hot spring.

We arrived at night, and were welcomed by festive light bulbs draped in the trees outside the pools, giving the village a real resort-town feel.

Daylight revealed the village's boutiques, the impressive giant redwoods lining its main street, a quaint horse and carriage clip-clopping around, a busy Saturday market and little pedal cars driven by tourists trundling up and down the streets.

Pegasus Bay Winery is a great stop on the way back to Christchurch.-
Pegasus Bay Winery is a great stop on the way back to Christchurch.-

After a day out exploring some of what the area has to offer — biking, shopping, visiting the animal farm just out of town — we headed to the pools for a quick dinner at the newly renovated Tea Kiosk Cafe and Grill (in the original Government Tea Kiosk opened in 1904), followed by a much-anticipated dip.

When the complex, which hosts more than half a million people a year, opens for business each day at 10am a queue of people is waiting to to make a day of it.

The health benefits of its waters are far-ranging thanks to the sodium (good for arthritis), sulphur (relief for various skin conditions) and silica (anti-ageing properties) content.

The complex is made up of 15 open-air pools of temperatures ranging from 33C-42C, a freshwater lap pool with a lazy river, private thermal pools, and steam and sauna rooms.

If you're a fan of the best kind of water torture, check out the adults-only AquaTherapy pools, which have jets that pummel you with so much force you're knocked off your feet.

In the family zone you'll find an AquaPlay water park, two waterslides and a huge 15m-high megaslide that you sail down on either a single or double inflatable tube.

Next door to the pools is The Spa, a high-end facility offering a range of beauty treatments, including the ultra-soothing Unwind Your Back massage ($90 for 30 minutes) for the problem areas aggravated by hunching over a keyboard. The Spa also sells its own line of beauty products.

If you can, leave time during your drive back to Christchurch for a stop at the Pegasus Bay Winery in Waipara, about an hour from Hanmer.

Owned and operated by the Donaldson family, who have been involved in the local wine industry since the 1970s, the winery is among beautifully landscaped gardens where outdoor tables overlook a lake.

Its excellent restaurant serves up mostly local seasonal ingredients, and a menu crafted around its wine list: think the likes of Canterbury lamb rump or wild venison loin.

Top-notch wine, an award-winning restaurant and the perfect way to top off a relaxing Canterbury getaway.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Hanmer Springs is a 90-minute drive from Christchurch.

Details: Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa are at 42 Amuri Ave.

Further information: See christchurchnz.com.