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. Just a quick 90 minute hop from Christchurch, turning off SH1 at Waipara for the inland drive on SH7 to Hanmer, rolling through the Weka Pass. It is a cinematically mood-lifting drive, an underrated escape landscape of awe and saga.
Wizard hat-shaped alpine peaks shuffle into view, interspersed with lush green pastures, rolling tussocks, rushing rivers and the whimsical scattering of limestone outcrops like the highway-hugging Frog Rock. Crossing the Waiau Gorge bridge, into the high country Amuri basin that Hanmer is situated in, a blissed-out sense of surrender washed over me. This broad bowl of earth-brown farmland is spectacularly encircled by imperial mountain ranges, streaked in early spring snow and slender fingers of mist.
This alpine village of vitality has faithfully served as a sanctuary for the weak, weary and leisure-seeking for centuries. Not only have travelling Maori used the area as a resting place for a 1000 years, but returning soldiers were sent to Hanmer to recuperate, after both world wars. Even though Maori first discovered the naturally occurring hot spring water many centuries ago, William Jones was the first European to do so in 1859, when he noticed steam wafting across his path, on the banks of the Percival River. The springs were developed as a publicly owned health spa in 1883, fortuitously chiming with the insatiable Victorian passion for geothermal water and its therapeutic qualities.
Back then, the amenities didn’t extend beyond a tin shed for segregated nude bathing. Fast forward to the present day and Hanmer is still the premier destination to get into hot water. Luring over half a million visitors annually, Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa is a sizzling watery wonderland, where you can hop-scotch between the 22-strong network of rockpools, aquatherapy pools and sulphur pools. The latter are completely natural, containing unfiltered mineral water, with a soft and silky feel and piping hot at 42-45C. 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, loll about in the freshwater lap pool and lazy river, or enjoy some high-action spills on the waterslides, headlined by the latest instalment, the Conical Thrill. 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. Last year, 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. Legendary Paralympian, Mark Inglis, was heavily involved in seeing the project reach completion. I caught up with the Hurunui Trails Trust co-ordinator, to ride a few tracks in the Hanmer Trails network, which takes full advantage of Hanmer Forest, with over 70km of dedicated walking, mountain-biking and horse-riding trails. From the easiest trails to the most extreme, there’s a track to suit you. Mark took me on a blast through a selection of MTB trails, some of which he has just finished constructing, cleaved out of the forest floor. He spent much of lockdown building some new trails in the forest. A recent addition to the Hanmer Heritage Forest, off Jollies Pass Road, that was developed two years ago, was 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. https://hanmertrails.nz/
Where to dine? I enjoyed a divine and generously sized brunch at the Powerhouse Café. Located in a historic hydro power station, you’ll find an enticing menu of hearty fare, sensational coffee, boutique beers and superlative Waipara wines. It’s a hospitality winner in this restorative hot-spot of holiday healing. Spoil yourself with dinner at No. 31 Restaurant & Bar. Housed in a characterful main street cottage, 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 a grass fed 30 day aged beef fillet, accompanied with pommes anna, seasonal vegetables, a grilled mushroom filled with red onion marmalade and topped with steak butter and drizzled in Terrace Edge pinot noir jus. The desserts are deliriously good too, plumping for a warm sticky licorice 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. https://restaurant-no31.nz/
Where to stay? Boasting the largest suites in Hanmer Springs and only a 10 minute drive from the village, Braemar Lodge is a boutique-style haven specialising in stylish comfort, solitude, impeccable service and expansive valley views across the mountains and forests cradling Hanmer Springs. Nature’s magic had painted the ranges in a fresh coat of overnight snow, as I awoke to enjoy a Mixed Grill breakfast in the divine on-site Altitude Restaurant, with floor to ceiling windows lustily embracing the landscape.
Open for breakfast and dinner, you can dine on fresh seasonal cuisine whether you’re staying in-house or as a casual diner. My 60sqm sized Superior Spa Suite was incredibly spacious, with warm tones, rich fabrics, stirring oil paintings, a gas fire, private balcony with hot tub, luxurious marble bathroom with double spa bath and a super-king size bed. Spoil yourself with a radiantly indulgent escape in the cradle of supreme comfort at Braemar Lodge. www.braemarlodge.co.nz
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 biking and hiking trails through the forest, the Hurunui District is primed for indelible holiday experiences. make your first stop the region’s official visitors website. https://visithurunui.co.nz/
Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.