For a South Island weekend that ticks all the boxes, pick up a car in Christchurch and head north on SH1 and the Alpine Pacific touring route says Patrick Smith.
Mountains, sea, wine and whales —the new Alpine Pacific touring route has it all. From Christchurch, this 450km loop takes in the vineyards and wineries of the Waipara Valley, the hot pools, spas and holiday attractions of Hanmer Springs and, at its apex, Kaikōura's rugged mountains and coastline, salty wildlife encounters and kai moana.
Forty minutes north of Christchurch, Amberley is the main service town of the Hurunui district. If you arrive on a Saturday morning you'll find a farmers' market in full swing. The market runs from 9.30am to 12.30pm with stalls selling cheese, nuts, crusty bread, honey, olives, eggs, preserves and more, all grown or made in the Hurunui region.
It's a good place to pick up some picnic supplies, maybe matched with a nice drop from a winery up the road in the Waipara Valley.
Not all the many wineries have cellar doors, but Pegasus Bay, 3km off the main road at the southern end of the valley, makes some cracking wines, which you can sample and buy (Saturdays and Sundays, 10am-5.30pm) in their tasting room. Other cellar doors include those at The Boneline, Terrace Edge, Waipara Hills, Greystone, Waipara Springs and Black Estate.
There are some fine vineyard restaurants, too, among them Fiddler's Green, Waipara Springs and, at the northern end of the valley, Black Estate.
We decided to head on up to Greystone Wines at Ōmihi. Their four-course set lunch sounded delicious, but we opted for a sharing platter and wine tasting, sitting outside at a long table looking out over the vines to the brown Teviot Hills.
Well-fed and clutching a bottle of the winery's excellent organic riesling, we set off towards Hanmer Springs via SH7, a pretty drive through the villages of Waikari, Hurunui and Culverden.
Autumn, we found, is a picture-perfect time to visit this part of the world and we slipped into Hanmer village to a blaze of colour: an avenue of oaks glowing red and gold in the afternoon sun.
At any time of year, the 22 outdoor hot pools at Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa weave their therapeutic magic for thousands of people, as they did for us that afternoon. Elsewhere in the complex, four hydroslides and other watery thrills keep the kids happy.
Hanmer is a year-round kind of place with lots to do, from mazes and mini-putt to jet boats and bungy; forest walks and cycle trails to horse treks and pedal-powered "village cruisers". Not to mention shops, pubs, restaurants, cafes and a wide assortment of accommodation.
We'd booked into 8 on Oregon, a boutique lodge on the side of Conical Hill with just three very nice rooms, each with great views over Hanmer town and basin. After a glass or two of riesling on our private deck we headed down into the village for a zesty Indian feast at Spice Village.
Next morning, after a lazy breakfast, we strolled through the lovely Hanmer Heritage Forest.
It would be easy to spend the whole weekend at Hanmer, but Kaikōura beckoned. We chose the Inland Road (70), a scenic route that twists and turns up to Mount Lyford before dropping down to the coast just south of Kaikōura some 90 minutes later.
It's been a tough few years for Kaikōura since the devastating 2016 quake, but the town has pretty much returned to normal – apart from the glaring absence of international visitors.
The iconic blue Whale Watch boats still make three daily trips out to the deep Kaikoura Canyon. You can still swim with dusky dolphins and playful New Zealand fur seals, or encounter giant albatross at sea. But with limited time to spare (and one seasick-prone partner), we settled for lunch at The Pier, a characterful Kiwi pub sitting beside the water with mesmerising views across the bay to the Seaward Kaikōura Mountains.
The food's pretty good, too. On this sparkling autumn day we found an outdoor table and hoed into bowls of crayfish chowder.
After lunch we drove to the end of the peninsula and walked up the steep path to the lookout, then strolled around East Head, counting seals and shags on the rocks below.
The 2½-hour trip back to Christchurch along SH1 follows the rocky, upthrust coastline before turning inland and climbing up over the Hundalee Hills, then winding through farmland to the rural township of Cheviot. A detour here takes us out through Gore Bay and by the weather-sculpted Cathedral Cliffs before joining SH1 again at Domett.
From there it's all plain sailing back to the Garden City. But if you fancy a great wood-fired pizza and a special ale, pause at Amberley and drop into Brew Moon, which bills itself as North Canterbury's original craft brewery. Oh, you're driving? In that case, I can have another?
More information: www.alpinepacific.nz