Praised as one of the most incredibly scenic train journeys in the world, the TranzAlpine chugs its way from Christchurch to Greymouth, via Arthur's Pass, daily.
Making its way from one coast of New Zealand to the other, from the Pacific Ocean to the Tasman Sea, the train crosses the broad expanse of the Canterbury Plains to climb the Alps via a series of four viaducts and 19 tunnels known as the Staircase.
The train journey reveals a stunning sequence of valleys, mountains and Southern Alps, including river valleys covered in beech rainforests, sky-mirrored lakes and snowcapped peaks.
The train carriages include group and individual seating, plus there’s an open-air carriage for top-quality photo opportunities. Food and beverages are available on board.
Experience everything you want to know about the icy continent of Antarctica at the International Antarctic Centre, from indoor ice storms to ATV rides and penguins.
Feeding time at the NZ Penguin encounter is hugely popular, as is the Penguin Backstage Pass tour for an up-close view of these cute creatures. Go for a rough and ready ride on the Hagglund all-terrain vehicle, watch snow being made and throw snowballs, chill out in an ice cave and see the aquarium displays of Antarctic wildlife. Don’t worry about keeping warm: chillproof jackets and overshoes are provided.
Hop aboard a vintage tram for a leisurely tour of central Christchurch. It’s the most relaxing, fun way to get your bearings and see the city's attractions and landmarks.The trams leave from Cathedral Square in downtown Christchurch. The route then crosses Worcester Bridge over the River Avon, loops past the Botanic Gardens and travels along past the shops of Armagh Street. All trams have an informative on-board commentary. Why not combine sightseeing on wheels with your evening meal, and take an evening ride on the Restaurant Tram? The colonial-style tram has every comfort, and the menu features local lamb and seafood.
Enjoy a bird’s-eye view from more than 1,640 feet (500 meters) above sea level on the Christchurch Gondola. Take in 360-degree views as the Christchurch cityscape competes for your attention with views of the Canterbury Plains, the Southern Alps and the Banks Peninsula. The trip takes 10 minutes each way.
The Gondola Base Station is located in Heathcote Valley. Parking is available if you’re coming by car, and the summit Station is at the top of Mt Cavendish. There’s a café and shop in case you need some souvenirs. There are also walking and biking tracks nearby, so come prepared to spend time outside.
Christchurch is known as the garden city, an Anglophile settlement of well-tended gardens and tree-lined streets. Pride of place in this flower-loving town goes to the Botanic Gardens, attractively set within a loop of the winding Avon River. The gardens are planted with thousands of exotic and indigenous plants, with particular note going to its lime tree walkways, inviting lawns and seasonal flowers such as magnolias, azaleas and roses.
A number of conservatories protect a range of species, including desert plants, tropical blooms, begonias, alpine plants and orchids. The gardens are an ideal location for a picnic, or to find a relaxing spot for an hour or two, away from the bustle of the city.
When first constructed in the 1930s, New Regent Street was famously lauded as “the most beautiful street in New Zealand.” Today, after the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the street has rebuilt its colorful façade—built in a Spanish Mission style—where colorful, two-story buildings host retailers, restaurants, coffee shops, and cafés. When the street was first built in the Great Depression, only 3 of the original 40 buildings were occupied by lease-paying tenants, due to the economic hardships of the time and the tenants’ inability to pay rent. Gradually, an increasing number of businesses were established, and the street was reconstructed as a pedestrian mall in 1994. When the fateful Christchurch earthquakes struck, New Regent Street was one of the first places to rebuild and reopen its doors—though many repairs were only temporary and are in need of a permanent fix.
Without a doubt, Hagley Park is the greenest, most relaxing, yet also most happening 1 sq. mile in Christchurch. On the relaxing side, this central park offers dozens of opportunities for leisurely moments in the city. Paddle the waters of the Avon River which borders the park on one side, or spend an hour sniffing through the botanical gardens which are completely surrounded by the park. Lay a blanket on the expanse of grass and enjoy a midsummer picnic, or photograph the wildflowers which famously bloom as the park comes alive in the spring.
For as mellow as Hagley Park can be, however, it can rapidly change into a pulsing gathering place during one of the numerous Christchurch festivals. At large events such as the World Buskers Festival or the Great Kiwi Beer Festival, tens of thousands of Christchurch locals can descend on the spacious grounds.
The Banks Peninsula is a side of Christchurch that too many visitors miss out on. This mostly-undeveloped, circular peninsula juts out from Christchurch like a swollen thumb, yet despite its obvious prominence on a map, a large majority of Christchurch visitors make the mistake of never exploring the area.
The lone exception is the town of Akaroa which is one of the most popular day trips from Christchurch. This charming outpost of French heritage is located a 90-minute drive from Christchurch, and the boutique shops and rose-lined cottages gaze out towards a protected harbor. The harbor itself is the flooded caldera of the volcano which formed the peninsula, and the calm waters are a popular place for boating and swimming with dolphins. Along the drive to Akaroa you weave through pastures and farmlands, and a handful of wineries and gourmet food stops are sprinkled along the highway.
To the native Maori, the Avon River was an area of swampland which was used as a seasonal fishing spot. The area around the rivermouth was mostly uninhabited, and fresh water which trickled from springs was used for sacred healing purposes.
Today the Avon is a meandering river which weaves its way through Christchurch, its mellow waters bringing a calming presence to the urban bustle of the city. The river bisects the western suburbs such as Riccarton and Fendalhead, and then passes directly through the center of Christchurch and sprawling Hagley Park. To the east of the city, the Avon finally spills into the Pacific not far from the beach town of Sumner.
In downtown Christchurch, punting on the Avon River from Hagley Park is a popular visitor activity. Sit back and relax as expert steersmen push the flat-bottom craft along the river, and watch as peaceful scenes of Christchurch drift along on the banks.
The Arts Centre of Christchurch was long the creative hub of the city. Located in Gothic Revival buildings that were once home to the University of Canterbury, the center took a hit in 2011 when a major earthquake damaged 22 of the 23 buildings. The Arts Centre is currently closed to the public, but work is underway to reopen the Art Centre in stages.
The site’s origins date back to the late 1800s. Along with the University of Canterbury, the buildings housed a girls and boys high school. Both high schools moved off-site and by the mid-1950s a growing population forced the University to move to a larger campus. That’s when the Arts Centre was created.
Even though a scant eight miles separate Sumner from the city center of Christchurch, this coastal suburb set right on the beach may as well be its own island. Sumner Beach is the de facto “beach town” that is associated with sprawling Christchurch, where bikini-clad sunbathers and wetsuit-clad surfers mingle on the golden shores. Sleepy in winter but pulsing in summer, Sumner is a hangout of sun-seekers and sportsmen who flock to the beach and the hills. Joggers and walkers stroll on the boardwalk which parallels the popular shore, and paragliders and mountain bikers play on the hills which rise just behind town.
A relaxing, slow-paced, agreeable outpost, when the large earthquake of 2011 triggered landslides in the surrounding hills, Sumner Beach and its associated community were almost completely cut off from the city. Though the road has been fixed and Sumner is accessible again, evidence of the earthquake is still evident in the massive rock piles by the coast.
Much like the fascinating Te Papa Museum in Wellington, the Canterbury Museum offers an in-depth look at the history and culture of Christchurch. Located in the Christchurch city center (and only sustaining minor damage in the 2011 earthquake), visitors can ogle over the Neo-Gothic architecture before even stepping foot in the door. Admission to the museum is technically free of charge (though donations are gladly accepted), and you can easily spend hours getting lost in the culture of Christchurch, Canterbury, and New Zealand.
Exhibits at the museum run the gamut of history, from the early days of Maori discovery to the modern street art of Christchurch. The museum itself was established in 1867 by the explorer Julius Haast (for whom such places as the town of Haast got their name), and the Canterbury Museum has been deemed a historical site that you can visit during a day trip to Christchurch.
Separating Christchurch from Lyttleton Harbor, the Port Hills are a playground for Christchurch outdoors-lovers who are looking to work up a sweat. Rising to height of nearly 1,800 feet, the Port Hills are located a short distance from downtown and are criss-crossed by multi-use trails. Hit the hillside on a rented mountain bike or go for a scenic hike, or watch as paragliders leap from the slopes overlooking the beach town of Sumner. Many of the trails were closed as a result of landslides in the 2011 earthquake, but most of the trails have since been reopened and are a refreshing getaway from the city.
In addition to the trails, the Port Hills are known for the native birds which make their homes on the hillsides. Catch a glimpse of a New Zealand wood-pigeon as it floats above the hills, or hear the call of a native bellbird as it rustles about the bush.
Pegasus Bay Winery is a family-owned and run winery and restaurant located in the Waipara Valley, north of Christchurch. Pegasus Bay wines are made with estate-grown fruit from the Donaldson family’s vineyards.
The Donaldsons have been growing grapes and making wine since the early 1970s. A husband, wife and three sons team, the family uses natural methods, and the winery produces a sauvignon, Reisling, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet. The winery is also known for half a dozen reserve wines.
Located at the center of town in what many are deeming the “New Christchurch”, the Bridge of Remembrance is a historical monument that holds significance for numerous sets of people. Initially, this arcing bridge over the Avon River was erected as a public war memorial. Commemorating the soldiers who lost their lives in the battles of World War I, the bridge also remembers the brave soldiers who fought valiantly in ensuing wars. Located on Cashel Street, the bridge was turned into a pedestrian mall in 1976. Then, in February of 2011, the bridge endured a terrible beating during the earthquake that devastated Christchurch. Battered but not broken, the bridge managed to still stay standing amidst the piles of surrounding rubble. Though access to the bridge will once again be available in 2015 (with certain sections re-opening in 2014 for the 100th anniversary of the Great War), the fact it remains standing have made it a memorial for lives which were lost in the earthquake.
There was a time when busy Cashel Street was the thumping heart of Christchurch; the devastating destruction of the 2011 earthquake, however, left the once bustling downtown in pieces. Aching for a center of commerce and activity to boost the morale of residents, the iconic Re:Start Mall opened for business only eight months after the quake. With colorful shipping containers in lieu of buildings, the structure got Christchurch outdoors and smiling again. Today, the city mall (also known as Cashel Street Mall) is a pedestrian thoroughfare of shopping, cafes, and top-grade people watching. Browse the department stores of high-end fashion or kick back with an afternoon tea in the open-air square to enjoy the spirit of downtown Christchurch as it literally emerges from the rubble. For a fascinating multimedia attraction, tour the Quake City exhibit in the mall, where you’ll hear stories of the Christchurch earthquakes and in many ways feel you were there.
Mona Vale is a sanctuary of calm in the midst of bustling Christchurch. Gardens lined with rhododendrons and camellia sit next to a brilliant fernery, and a colorful rose garden provides the perfect moment for stopping to smell the flowers. The 13-acre gardens border the Avon River, and surround a homestead of Victorian architecture that is listed on the historic registry. Dating back to 1897, the elegant property has seen numerous owners make their own improvements to the grounds, and the exceptional gardens are a favorite location for wedding ceremonies in summer.
Unfortunately, the devastating earthquake of 2011 damaged many of the historic buildings, although the gardens remain open for strolling the grounds and drooling over the architecture from afar. In 2014, however, the city council approved the funds for the renovation of Mona Vale, and the famous buildings such as the Bath House and Homestead will be once again be open for visitors.
For such an isolated country, New Zealand has a lengthier military history than you would expect from the island nation. After all, with its ties to England and the British Commonwealth, the Boer War and both World Wars played large roles in the nation’s history. Though the Auckland War Memorial in downtown Auckland offers a comprehensive look at New Zealand’s battle history, it’s the Air Force Museum in downtown Christchurch that provides the best insight into New Zealand’s flying force.
Home to 28 aircrafts and a realistic flight simulator which flies mock missions over Europe, the Air Force Museum is a must-stop in Christchurch for history buffs and aviation enthusiasts. The detailed history of the Royal New Zealand Air Force which is found inside of the museum offers intriguing parallels between the history of aviation and the military history of a nation.
This superbly scenic national park is in Central Canterbury, rising out of the plains. A magnet for wintertime skiers and summertime hikers, Arthur’s Pass National Park is also a popular day trip from Christchurch.
Easy day walks fan out from the visitor information center, leading to vantage points affording panoramic views of the surrounding snow-capped peaks.
Providing an instant snapshot of New Zealand's legendary natural beauty, a day trip to the park also reveals glimpses of extensive beech forests, rainforest, mountain passes and soaring peaks.
If you're planning on experiencing a bit of New Zealand 'tramping' (the NZ word for hiking) take note that this is tricky territory, and for experienced hikers only. Tracks are not continuously marked, and they can involve river crossings, plus the weather is notoriously changeable.