Sarah Bennett and Lee Slater go from deep-green forest to golden high country on the ever-improving trails around Hanmer Springs.
This town's thermal springs have drawn visitors for a century or so, but in recent years Hanmer Springs has gained popularity as a hotbed of mountain biking with trails suited to all levels of rider.
An energetic trail-building team is organised under the Hurunui Trails Trust. Trust manager and trail-builder Mark Inglis says the team is focused on cementing Hanmer's position as New Zealand's top-ranking "Trail Town".
"With 80km of walking and riding trails, hot pools to soak in and cafes for recharging, Hanmer Springs epitomises the concept of a true trail town," says Inglis. "Our 10-year strategy is to double the amount of trail in our area while keeping them perfectly formed and mostly hand-built. The possibilities here are endless."
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Hanmer Springs nestles around the foot of Mt Isobel, which is cloaked in forest and threaded with trails ranging from wide and gently undulating to steeper, tighter singletrack.
The mountainous high country beyond town offers more epic adventures, most notably in the historic St James and Molesworth stations. There are day-rides aplenty, but connector routes such as the Rainbow Road and Hurunui Heartland Ride have seen Hanmer Springs emerge as a key hub for top-of-the-South bikepackers too.
GETTING YOUR BEARINGS
The Hanmer Springs Mountain Bike Trail Map details various forest trails, all clearly graded from easy to expert. Information boards are located at the main entry points and junctions. The map and more info about region-wide trails can be found at hurunuitrails.org.nz.
Bike hire, maps and advice are available from the Top 10 Holiday Park and Hanmer Springs Adventure Centre.
A TOWN TOUR
From town, it's just a couple of minutes' ride to Hanmer Forest and its 80 kilometres of trail. The Easy Rider loop is an excellent starter. It takes in the pretty scenery, picnic areas and fun pump track around Dog Stream, and ventures through stands of handsome exotic trees including larch, Norway spruce, alders and oaks.
Some plantations date back more than a century, and the whole heritage forest is now protected by Crown covenant. As some have died off or been harvested, areas have been replanted or naturally regenerated. It's a lovely mixed bag with all its shapes, forms and fragrance. Cycling through it feels soothing, healthful, primal.
The trails get a tad more sporty on the slopes of Mt Isobel, but there are some fabulous options for beginners looking to nudge their limits. If this is you, check out the skills area and Swoop/Swamp Loop.
The newest trail, Tombstone, is a must-do for solid intermediate riders. The hand-dug trail climbs gradually to a peaceful hang-out spot, then rewards the effort with an exhilarating, swooping descent with a few tricky bits that are well signposted so you can get off and walk.
The St James Cycle Trail, one of New Zealand's 22 Great Rides, starts around a hour's drive from Hanmer Springs. This spectacular 59km high country journey is often knocked off in a day by the dudes, but it's best enjoyed over two days, overnighting in one of three huts.
We stayed at the slightly spruced-up Pool Hut and found the St James Cycle Trail riding way better than when we rode it a couple of years ago. The Hurunui Trails Trust have been very busy in here, bless them.
The Homestead Run Loop is a terrific option if you're looking for a day ride on the St James. It starts just 25 minutes' drive from Hanmer Springs, takes two to three hours, and is suitable for solid beginner mountain bikers.
Starting at the historic homestead with its rustic old farm buildings, it heads up the tussocky Peters Valley to reach a big vista before heading down the Edwards Valley and back to homestead via Tophouse Rd.
When it comes to lookout architecture, it doesn't get much more Kiwiana than Hanmer's Conical Hill, a 20-minute zigzag walk from the town centre. It's a seriously last-century structure crafted in stone, concrete and timber, its quadrants framing fabulous 360-degree views.
Hanmer Springs has plenty of decent places to eat. O'Reilly's Irish pub is our go-to for hearty meals, the rugger, and a game of pool, but on this trip, we discovered the delicious wickedness that is chicken schnitzel topped with nachos from the Monteith's bar next door. We've said it more than once, we bike to eat!
Daytime options include the Powerhouse, which does good counter-food and espresso, and Mumbles Cafe which doubles as the town's bike museum with a display of vintage models.
The orangutan, squirrels, a beaver and Gollum. Yes, all these and more await discovery on the Forest Amble, a 20-minute loop walk in the heritage forest. Hewn from an old redwood by Christchurch artist Andrew Lyons, these sculptures are surprising, crazy and creative. The kids will love them.
Of course, the other must-do is a soak at Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools, which we must declare New Zealand's best hot pool complex (although Wairakei does come close…). If there's a better way of dealing with tight quads and bike bum, I don't know what it is.
HAZARDS & CAUTIONS
Should you bump into local trail-builders including Mark, Johno, Steve, Tom and Flynn, be prepared for a chinwag that could easily eat up an hour. To say they're passionate about their trails is somewhat of an understatement.
If you're heading into the big country behind the town, consider taking a personal locator beacon. The riding is remote and occasionally rough, rivers can rise, and cellphone coverage is scant.
BIKE TOWN RATING
A few weeks ago I saw a very cool documentary about Downieville, a small Californian town that has become synonymous with off-road cycling. Over three decades, natural and human forces have combined to create an adventure biking scene with big wins for nature, the community, visitors and the local economy. I thought to myself, where is New Zealand's Downieville?
Hanmer Springs' mix of landscape, established track network, holiday-town vibe and passionate trail community have set it up for trail town glory. But maybe Rotorua already owns it? We're headed there next, so let's see.
CHECKLIST: HANMER SPRINGS