Keith Lyons discovers there’s everything and nothing to do at New Zealand’s spa resort of Hanmer Springs
It is true that Hanmer Springs, in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island, doesn’t feature on the itineraries of many overseas visitors on a quick two-week loop of the Southern Hemisphere nation’s two-island highlights. It is equally true that most of the travellers who make it to the alpine village wish to stay longer, enjoying the natural scenery, the wide range of outdoor activities and the fresh air.
Situated at a high-country basin 338 m (1,100 ft) above sea level, a nearby mountain does offer skiing in winter, but Hanmer Springs’ attractions and attractiveness are year-round. Located 90 minutes’ drive north of the South Island’s main city Christchurch, and about the same distance from the marine-life coastal town of Kaikoura, Hanmer is close enough for a big day trip. But it is best experienced with at least one night in the resort village, which is home to less than a thousand permanent residents.
Any visit might start and usually ends with a soak in the award-winning therapeutic hot pools. Found in the centre of the quaint tree-lined village, Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa offer a range of 22 pools and temperatures, including mineral-infused sulphur hot pools, freshwater aqua therapy pools, and outdoor-themed rock pools, as well as facilities that invite relaxing, including shade umbrellas, native forest plantings, lazy rivers, and adults-only areas.
Good value two-day passes, and an on-site cafe & grill provide other reasons to soak, eat and rest. The largest waterslides in New Zealand (including two on a raft), a lazy river and aqua park are popular with youngsters and families, while more mature visitors can let the healing waters do their magic on aches and pains, or savour a therapeutic massage followed by rejuvenation in a private hot pool.
The hot springs were known to Māori, and after the first European settlers arrived, bathing facilities were opened nearly140 years ago. Hanmer Springs became a convalescent hospital after the First World War, with the hospital later turned into the national drug and alcohol treatment centre – the leafy grounds of the Queen Mary Hospital are still open for wandering, though the rehab hospital closed two decades ago.
Nature therapy is on offer in the forests and hills around Hanmer Springs. To really feel like you deserve the late afternoon soak in the hot pools, there are a variety of walks, ranging from short strolls and easy grade trails to longer day efforts such as the Mt Isobel hike.
The most popular walk goes up the main street, zigzagging up Conical Hill, with 360-degree views from the lookout over the area after a 20-minute walk up. Rather than retrace your steps, you can go off towards Dog Stream, which runs beside the township and connects many of the walk and cycle routes.
A favourite for young and old alike is the Forest Amble, with quirky wooden sculptures along the way, designed to delight and surprise walkers. The outdoor art, made from a redwood tree originally on the grounds of the hot pools, includes a large dog, a falcon, and an orangutan.
Young children can be kept entertained further downstream where the Fairy Doors Walk has painted fairy houses and trinkets hidden away beside the trail. Hanmer Springs is the gateway for the more-demanding St James Walkway and St James Cycle Trail loop, which features a ‘free’ riverside hot pool off the Lewis Pass highway which connects to the West Coast and Nelson regions.
You will find over 30 km of purpose-built mountain bike trails, mostly single-track in the Hanmer Forest Park. The Easy Rider loop trail of inter-connecting bike tracks and forest roads is non-technical enough for beginners on hire bikes, with much of the 6.5km route through old plantation forest known as the Heritage Forest, planted in the 1900s.
Best done anti-clockwise, this mix and match bike trail through larch, spruce, pine and fir forest will give you an idea if you can tackle the intermediate level routes such as Mach 1/Upper Dog Stream. There are more advanced, one-way single-track trails in steeper sections behind Conical Hill into the Hanmer Range for more experienced riders including ‘Detox’ and the ‘Tombstone Trail’.
For more sedate activities, walk to the Hanmer Animal Park, an open-air petting zoo with farm and exotic animals including sheep, goats, pigs, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, ostrich, emu, water buffalo, deer, and wallabies. Thrill-seekers should head to the Waiau bridge to take a jet-boat ride on the river, or for more adrenaline rushes, try plunging freefall 35m from the historic bridge towards the surging river below at Hanmer Springs Bungy.
There are inflatable canoe trips available, along with quad bike tours, fly fishing experiences, and nearby, horse treks. As well as the scenic 18-hole golf course east of the village centre, more fun is on offer at crazy and mini-golf courses.
Given the area’s popularity for weekends away, there is a wide range of accommodation available, from the landmark Hanmer Springs Hotel set in beautiful gardens in the heart of the village, and other luxury hotels like Braemar Lodge & Spa, to motels such as the Settlers Boutique Motel, backpackers and forestry worker cabins at the Hanmer Springs Forest Camp.
When it comes to eating, there’s always a queue waiting for the freshly made treats including massive cinnamon scrolls at Hanmer Bakery Cafe, while dumplings at MK, north Indian at Spice Village, and live music at O’Flynn’s Irish Pub (which shares the space with The Roasted Bean, which as you guessed, roasts its own coffee) are top recommendations.
Fire & Ice Cafe, Restaurant and Bar has alfresco seating and signature dish ‘Farm on a Plate’, while the delicious pies sold at PJ’s Chalet in the centre of town (made by two Swiss-trained chefs) are now available nationwide, but best enjoyed on a bench in the park, or as part of a picnic lunch on the lawn.
Just a short drive from the village is Waiau River Estate, which has an award-winning reputation for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, with wine tastings available. Back towards Christchurch is the Waipara Valley, with 90 vineyards and 30 cellar doors – ’10 wineries in a day’ tours are available from Hanmer Springs. The historic Hurunui Hotel, which first poured beer in 1860, and holds the longest continuous liquor licence in New Zealand, is an ideal rest stop serving home-cooked pub meals.
A perfect gift from Hanmer Springs can be found in the two handmade fudge shops in the village, or from the good children’s dream shop candy store, The Lolly Pot.
If you stay overnight at Hanmer Springs, the natural wonders of the area are also often on display, with astonishing star gazing, including constellations and shooting stars. Thank your lucky stars you found Hanmer Springs, the beautiful alpine village offering a great escape from life’s worries.
Tell Me More About Visiting Hanmer Springs
Christchurch is the gateway city to Hanmer Springs, with flights from London Heathrow with the award-winning national carrier Air New Zealand via Los Angeles for as little as £888, as well as other routes and connections with direct flights from Singapore and Australia, and the Emirates A380 route Dubai-Christchurch. From Christchurch it is 90 minutes’ drive to Hanmer Springs, or the comfortable Hanmer Connection goes from the city centre each morning, with a late afternoon return.
visithanmersprings.co.nz – more information on visiting Hanmer Springs
hanmersprings.co.nz/plan-your-visit/ – Hanmer Springs thermal pools and spa
visithurunui.co.nz – information on what to do in the region
Hanmer Springs Hotel has rooms from £90
Braemar Lodge & Spa rooms start at £125
Settlers Boutique Motel has rooms from £95