Slashed by braided rivers, rolling hills and vine-wreathed fields, revel in the heart and soul of Hurunui, writes Mike Yardley.
Striking out north from Christchurch, the farm-fringed, vine-wreathed fields and rolling hills of the Hurunui, slashed by braided rivers on their march towards to the sea, all combine to create a bucolic medley for the road-tripper. If ever there is a place that showcases the fruits of all that toil and prowess, let me introduce you to the Amberley Hotel. It’s the consummate small-town country pub and unquenchable social hub. Late last year this grand dame reopened its doors after a muti-million dollar makeover, sporting a sleek, bright teal exterior to jolt the attention of jaded travellers.
Step inside and you’ll be treated to a contemporary take on a classic country hotel with stylish furnishings and art-filled spaces, headlined by the magnificent retro wall mural in the expansive courtyard beer garden, encapsulating a myriad of regional icons. The on-site Cork & Crown Restaurant is a culinary haven, offering a relaxed family-friendly atmosphere with booth seating and a hanging garden running the length of the room and a private courtyard beer garden. The freshest, premium quality and local ingredients underpin the menu, whether you’re calling in for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Top tip for dinner? Order up the braised lamb shoulder, which comes with duck fat potatoes, carrot puree, seasonal greens and gremolata. Fabulous. Another star feature of the hotel is the repurposed bottle store, now called Crown & Pantry. It’s a gourmet Aladdin’s cave, brimming with Waipara’s finest wines and a cornucopia of local, fresh produce and delicacies – everything you could ever need for your next cheese and cracker night. You’ll drool over the range of locally cured meats, relishes and cheeses, alongside produce from local heroes, like Sandy Mac’s original handmade dressings, Jack’s free range eggs and Rachael Scott’s freshly baked breads. It’s a hyper-local celebration of true community.
I headed further north on SH1 to Greta Valley and a pit stop at Fossil Point Cafe & Gallery. Warmly greeted by Kim Michaela Henderson, the artist and ceramicist beautifully displays her wares on-site. Her pottery is magnificent. As is the wildly popular Seafood Chowder, which is a roadside comfort food par excellence. You certainly can’t go wrong for a sinfully splendid slice of kumara & orange cake in toffee sauce!
From there I made my way to Domett, turning right at the Hurunui River mouth for a night of stupendous farm-stay hospitality at Tawanui Farm, in the Blythe Valley. Nestled on a gentle hillside of lush and rolling farmland, their glamping affair consists of two super spacious lotus belle tents, a central camp kitchen and living space and a generously-sized gas-fired cedar hot tub. The tents are loaded with home comforts to keep you toasty, while the brilliantly constructed rustic living space includes a solar-powered hot shower, kitchen facilities and even a USB charging port.
Booking out the glamping site is incredibly inexpensive and because both tents can sleep 4 people, you could have a wild family getaway here. Similarly, if it’s just you or you’re a loved-up couple seeking a romantic escape, you’ll have the place to yourself. From the lofty hillside perch wrapped in kanuka and pine plantations, I soaked up the wide horizon views, that look down on the artery-like braids of the Hurunui River, across the patchwork farmland and towards the inward Kaikoura ranges.
You could never tire of the panorama – nor the operatic birdsong, seasonally backed by bleating baby lambs. With next to zero light pollution, on a clear night, stargazing at the chandelier of constellations is my idea of celestial. My hosts were the lovely Loughnan family, the fifth generation of Loughnans’ to farm and live this land.
Mike and eldest son Tim share the workload running the 330ha sheep and beef farm along with its tourism ventures. Tawanui embraces regenerative farming practices, a far cry from bingeing on agrochemicals. All the animals are grass-fed year-round on healthy, nutritious pastures. You’ll see how healthy the green pastures look across their undulating property as you’re taken on an ATV farm tour, shifting the sheep and cattle from one paddock to the next, along with their trusty farm dogs. Tim also operates Energy Jet, the only jet boat riding operation on the South Island East Coast that zips you to the coastline. www.energyjet.co.nz
We met up at the mouth of the Hurunui River for an enthralling ride on their Hamilton Jet 171, first downstream, passing under several bridges, while navigating the shallow river braids, colossal boulder fields and pencil-thin canyons. On the upstream return, we ventured out into the surreal river mouth lagoon, where the majestic river intersects with the power of the Pacific Ocean. The lagoon is constantly changing shape, as is the sand bank that tenuously guards the lagoon from the thunderous breakers.
Trudging up onto the sand to marvel at the surging power of the surf was a sensory blast. The lagoon is like an oasis of calm with a storied history, with Māori settlements and inter-tribal battles playing out below the striking cliffs. The Loughnans’ sure know how to serve up hearty country hospitality, as you stay and explore their secluded pocket of the world. https://www.canopycamping.co.nz/tawanui-farm
Another banner Hurunui destination that never fails to disappoint is the restful, restorative allure of Hanmer Springs. From Domett and Cheviot, keep heading north on SH1 before turning off at the Leader River for a soothing ride through the tucks and folds of the Leader Valley to Waiau, before the final hop to Hanmer Springs. Alternatively, from Amberley, take the turn off at Waipara, romping through the Weka Pass and its whimsical limestone rock formations, like the highway-hugging Frog Rock, before taking in the echos of the region’s pioneering legacy at the time-honoured Hurunui Hotel.
Whatever route you take, after crossing the Waiau Gorge bridge and entering the high country Amuri basin that Hanmer is situated in, a blissed-out sense of surrender always washes over me. This broad bowl of earth-brown farmland is spectacularly encircled by imperious mountain ranges, streaked in snow in the cooler months. It’s elementally dramatic and wild at heart.
One of life’s great truths is that nature is an unbeatable balm to reinvigorate your spirits and sooth the soul. Few places in New Zealand exemplify that better than Hanmer Springs, our premium alpine spa destination, with a long and lustrous legacy as a haven for healing. It’s a treat in autumn with the golden blaze of leaf fall in this specimen tree-filled town.
Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa is a sizzling watery wonderland, where you can hop-scotch between the 22-strong network of rockpools, cascade pools, aquatherapy pools and sulphur pools. The latter are completely natural, containing unfiltered mineral water, with a soft and silky feel and piping hot at 40C. The aquatherapy pools are massage-focused, studded with powerful jets to cauterise those aches and pains.
You can also laze in the highly-sociable hexagonal pools or beach-style rainbow pools, loll about in the freshwater lap pool and lazy river, or enjoy some high-action spills on the waterslides, headlined by the recent instalment, the Conical Thrill, and the extraordinary water flume ride, Super Bowl. Grab your inflatable tube and unleash your inner child!
In addition to the pools, New Zealand’s busiest day spa offers a slew of exquisite treatments, from facials to the full body affair. My body was treated to some prize-winning primping, preening and panel-beating, courtesy of a hot stone massage. For extra-pampering, the Artisan Spa is a standalone luxury day spa facility that operates in the Village shopping centre, lining Hanmer’s main street. After enjoying some body therapy, surrender to some retail therapy from the eye-catching assortment of independent boutiques, homeware and gift stores.
Two-wheeled and two-footed pursuits are a big draw in Hanmer and the wider Hurunui. Three years ago, a new cycle route traversing the heart of the district officially opened, the Hurunui Heartland Cycle Ride. The 205km-long on-road cycle route uses minor roads from Leithfield and Amberley to connect with Kaikoura, through scenic heartland countryside. In town, the Hanmer Trails network takes full advantage of Hanmer Forest, with over 70km of dedicated walking, mountain-biking and horse-riding trails.
A wildly popular addition to the Hanmer Heritage Forest, off Jollies Pass Road, is the animal sculpture trail on the Forest Amble walk. These whimsical wooden sculptures were created by Christchurch sculptor, Andrew Lyons, crafted out of a felled Redwood. They’re designed to delight and surprise walkers along the Forest Amble walk. The sculptures include a friendly giant, a hawk, a dog, possum and orangutan. The 30-minute return walk follows a flat and easy track and it’s become a perennial family favourite trail, suitable for toddlers, buggies and the elderly.
Where to dine? A go-to is the Hanmer Springs Hotel. This ninety year-old property with its Spanish-style architecture is nestled among elegantly sculpted gardens in the heart of the alpine resort town. Their in-house restaurant serves up an unmistakeable taste of Italy with a local influence. Dine alfresco on the patio overlooking luscious gardens as the sun goes down, or cosy up inside beside the roaring fire. The menu is loaded with temptations, but I highly recommend the Pollo Ai Funghi, which consists of a free-range chicken breast sauteed in a cream sauce with the house-made dry-cured bacon, accompanied with Portabello mushrooms and wild foraged porcini mushrooms. Magnifico.
Another place to spoil yourself with dinner is at No. 31 Restaurant & Bar. Housed in a characterful main street cottage, and celebrating its 10th anniversary, No. 31 is lauded for its upmarket intimate dining with NZ Beef & Lamb Ambassador Scott Buckler at the culinary helm. For my main, I feasted on Greenstone Creek Beef Eye Fillet, accompanied with potato whip, smoked mushroom pesto, seasonal vegetables, burnt tomato and jus.
The desserts are deliriously good too, plumping for a warm sticky liquorice pudding with salted caramel sauce, candied walnuts and vanilla bean ice cream. As you’d expect from such a decorated establishment, the cocktail menu is just as creative. Order up a feijoa and manuka honey mojito, crafted from fruity feijoa liqueur, sweet Manuka honey, white rum, lime and mint.
Whether you’re sampling wines in the coolest little wine region of Waipara, marvelling over limestone landscapes, soaking in thermal hot pools, recharging yourself on a high country farm-stay or blazing the magnificent coastal and forest trails, the Hurunui District is primed for indelible holiday experiences. Make your first stop the region’s official visitor’s website. https://visithurunui.co.nz/