The Garden City's under-rated Port Hills offer walking tracks with stunning views, says Mary de Ruyter - and there's always a good cafe nearby.
What's one of the first things you do when you go to a new place? Chances are that like most people, you go somewhere high. To get the lie of the land, orient yourself, before getting down to exploring.
Christchurch's Port Hills serve that purpose, yet they're also an under-rated mecca for walkers and mountain bikers – and only 20 minutes from the central city.
Many tracks link into the Crater Rim Walkway, which stretches around the ridge of this old volcanic crater. Christchurch City Council's website has an interactive map of walking paths, and Crater Rim Walks offers guided trips for a more in-depth experience.
Here are three tracks in the Port Hills, ranging from a quick jaunt to a more challenging walk, which will reward you with memorable views – and nearby places to enjoy a hot drink (or a glass of something) afterwards.
This short walk provides maximum reward for very little effort. At 573m high, Ōmawete/Coopers Knob is the highest point of the Port Hills. From atop this rocky outcrop, you'll enjoy glorious 360-degree views all the way down Lyttelton Harbour, and across the Canterbury plains to the snowy Southern Alps.
Park at the Gibraltar Rock carpark and look for the track entrance just north of the carpark and on the right. A short track leads you up to the Crater Rim Walkway, and the summit is only a few hundred metres away. The views from the ridgeline are spectacular, but it's worth doing the easy rock scramble to reach the top. All that scenery, and only 10-15 minutes from the carpark.
Drive north along the winding Summit Rd and you'll find Sign of the Kiwi – not a discreet hand signal for a secret Antipodean order, but a cafe at the junction of Summit and Dyers Pass Roads. The Category 1-listed stone building was once a teahouse, then the park ranger's family home. Competition is fierce for the terraced outdoor seating, with its views of the city and the Southern Alps. Bag a table and order cabinet food, hot chips or hot drinks (and sometimes beer and wine).
Godley Head Loop Track
Although the tip of Awaroa/Godley Head is closed until summer, it's still well worth doing the loop track. Park at Te Onepoto/Taylors Mistake – a popular surf beach, named for a navigational error made in the mid-1800s by not one but three ship captains named Taylor – get your bearings from the information board, then walk up on to the headland.
The undulating path skirts the peninsula, with only one steep section, and gives views up the coast towards Kaikōura on one side, and along Lyttelton Harbour on the other. It should only take 2.5 hours instead of the stated three, and marked poles help you navigate the detour. The landscape is rugged yet accessible, and quite exposed to the elements.
This is one of four tracks that Crater Rim Walks offers guided tours along, and owner/guide Nicole Ellwood is full of stories about the wildlife, the small hut once used by Captain Robert Falcon Scott that found its way here via Antarctica, and the cute historic baches at Boulder Bay. It's worth walking down to the rocky beach and sparing a thought for the families who had to carry in all their food, water and necessities for the holidays. According to Ellwood, the ratio of beer to water being transported was carefully weighed up.
Then it's over the hill to Sumner Beach. One block back from the water, locals' hangout Joe's Garage serves fine coffee, and is open for breakfast until late afternoon (it's licensed too). Beach restaurant and bar is right on Sumner Beach, and open day and night.
Urumau Reserve Harbour Lookout
Described as "for the nimble-footed who like narrow cliff paths", this 3.5-hour loop walk follows a semi-circular ridgeline above Lyttelton, offering views down into the suburb – and at the top, across Christchurch and the Canterbury plains.
It's all uphill for the first 45 minutes, then along the ridgeline and back down, with some rocky scrambling to be done. The path isn't as well marked as Godley Head, and it's quite exposed, but intrepid walkers will revel in the challenge and the reward. Crater Rim Walks offers a shorter guided walk if you want to experience the views without worrying about navigation.
Refresh yourself by the fire at Lyttelton's Civil and Naval, a cosy, relaxed eatery that offers delicious tea and other hot drinks, wine, craft beer and "house hooch" (aka their interesting take on certain cocktails). Of course, a big walk calls for an immense serving of their crispy, chunky chips with rosemary salt, and before you know it you'll be tearing into meltingly tender lamb ribs with harissa and gremolata, and unable to move afterwards. A fitting reward.
CHECKLIST: PORT HILLS
For more information on what to see, do and where to stay in Christchurch, see christchurchnz.com