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Christchurch Attractions and the Canterbury trails: Day trips and things to do in Christchurch

Things to do in Christchurch + Day Trips from Christchurch

Known as the Garden City, there’s plenty of things to do in Christchurch on the east coast of New Zealand‘s South Island. The city is buzzing with innovative enterprises like Re:START, a collection of boutique shops, coffee spots and food carts housed within brightly coloured shipping containers. In the nearby port town of Lyttelton, you’ll discover premium coffee spots and hatted restaurants amongst an artistic atmosphere. Or if you’d prefer to explore the Canterbury region’s wineries and natural attractions board a helicopter or hire a care and embark on day trips from Christchurch.

Relaxing on the rails

Sometimes it’s better to be up close with the scenery: it’s how you can appreciate the soaring magnificence of the mountains. Though not the traditional luxury train experience you might find in Europe, the summertime Coastal Pacific train ride between Christchurch and Picton, with the option to stop off in Kaikoura, is unbeatable for striking scenery and among the top things to do in Christchurch. The route traverses the fertile Canterbury Plains and skims along between the mountains and the sea, popping in and out of tunnels before passing through Marlborough’s picturesque and world-renowned wine country.  It’s definitely worth adding to your list of Christchurch attractions to see.

A truly memorable year-round experience, the TranzAlpine runs daily day trips from Christchurch to Greymouth on the West Coast and back again. First comes the golden country of the Canterbury Plains, then the narrowing valley of the braided Waimakariri River, which runs fast and foaming through its gorge as the train enters the steep and rugged mountains. Marvel at the engineers who cut the line across the spectacular Southern Alps, before stopping at the mountain resort of Arthur’s Pass, where kea (alpine parrots), wait to greet the train before it descends through the dense beech forest of the West Coast.

Deep, fresh and full of riches – Kaikora Day Trip from Christchurch

Of the many Christchurch attractions and great things to do in Christchurch, not all of them are in the city proper.  Arriving by luxury car transfer, about two and half hours from Christchurch, or a short heli-ride, you’ll come to Kaikoura, a jutting peninsula on a narrow ledge of land between its magnificent snow-capped mountain range and the deep blue southern Pacific Ocean. Here the great Hikurangi Trench feeds cold, nutrient-rich waters right alongside the coast, bringing sea-life flocking to the area. Sperm whales are resident here, and humpback whales are common, making whale-spotting promises a sure bet for the local Māori-owned operation, Whale Watch Kaikoura. From one of their purpose-built boats you can stand eye-level with a whale’s great tail as it lifts, streaming water into the air. The view is even more spectacular from above. Hovering by helicopter, you can see the entire length of their body in the clear water. Marvel at the sheer size of them and admire their distinctive shape before they dive back below. 

There are other natural treats here, too. Large pods of dusky dolphins, numbering several hundred, are commonly spotted from the Whale Watch boats, and are the focus for dolphin-swimming operations. Exuberant, playful, energetic, they are natural-born entertainers – leaping, somersaulting and playing up for the crowds. It’s an unforgettable sight. New Zealand fur seals are resident here too, in colonies along the coast right by the road and around the peninsula, easy to spot as they sunbathe, snooze and galumph across the rocks. Just to the north of the town, along a bush track at Ohau Waterfall, is the area’s best-known secret: a seal cub crèche where, from May to October, scores of cute furry babies spend their days playing in the shady pool beneath the falls, safe from the pounding surf back down on the beach.

Kaikoura’s most famous gift of the sea is the crayfish, a delicately-flavoured and succulent lobster that abounds along the rocky shore. The best way to enjoy it is from the famous Nin’s Bin restaurant. From this humble seaside caravan savour this local delicacy warm, straight from the pot, wrapped up in paper along with lemon, and cracked open right there by the sea.

As fun as rustic, fresh seaside dining may be, don’t miss a more sophisticated culinary experience from the menu at Hapuku Lodge – nestled above the trees, it’s an architectural feat. Stylishly simple boxes of wood, glass and copper perched on tall stilts and surrounded by a stand of native manuka trees, they are furnished inside with quantities of goose down, merino, possum fur and a cosy wood-burner for those chilly winter evenings.

Alternatively, seek out Pegasus Bay Winery to the south, and find out why it’s the country’s most-awarded vineyard restaurant. Family-run, they are known for achieving perfection in pairing wine and food: few diners will dispute their skills.

Oh là là – Akaroa Day Trip From Christchurch

For something entirely different, take a short drive to the far side of Banks Peninsula, to the little French-founded fishing port of Akaroa. Tucked alongside a deep and sheltered harbour, its French heritage is unique in New Zealand. This makes it a great addition to any itinerary of day trips from Christchurch. From the Tricolour flying by the shore, to the streets labelled Rue with quaint heritage cottages, to its French-descended town crier, Steve le Lievre, in his double-breasted jacket and white gloves. Take a cruise out through the heads to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s rarest — and cutest — dolphins, and hope to see some little blue or yellow-eyed penguins too.

Stay on the far side of the Peninsula in one of Annandale’s four distinctive properties: from the quaint, historic, yet luxurious Shepherd’s Cottage; to two modern structures in remote and serene bays, Scrubby Bay and Seascape; to the tranquil homestead itself, full of Victorian refinement. Each comes with guaranteed privacy, comfort and Annandale’s unique specialty: ‘gumboot luxury’. Back towards Christchurch, backed by a distinctive volcanic peak, find yourself in the truly splendid surroundings of historic Otahuna Lodge, a symphony of arched verandas, turrets, wooden panelling and sculptural chimneys. Surrounded by sweeping striped lawns, mature trees, an architectural Dutch garden, daffodil fields and a lake, peace and comfort are guaranteed here.

If choosing to travel via helicopter, distances count for little: pop down to Oamaru in South Canterbury to enjoy the distinctive charms of Pen-y-Bryn Lodge, a grand building of Victorian heritage. Built in 1889, the rooms are spacious, offering modern comfort in a historic setting that is lined with English oak and furnished with antiques. While in this historic, limestone-built town, be sure to catch the march of the penguins: every evening a parade of little blue penguins waddles past purpose-built viewing stands on their way to their nests in an old stone quarry near the waterfront. Most numerous in November and December, they’re a magical sight and one you won’t want to miss.

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