Fanning out from Ashburton and bounded by the Rakaia and Rangitata rivers, Mid-Canterbury is a land of dramatic contrasts. Pancake-flat coastal plains give way to abruptly rising hill country, while large sweeping braided rivers, crystal clear alpine lakes and the serrated glory of the Southern Alps all add to the scenic medley. It is an understated region ripe for discovery and exploration, particularly when you’re road-tripping the Mainland. If you’re tripping down from Christchurch, give the lofty 12 metre-high Rakaia Salmon statue a wave, before turning off State Highway 1 onto the Rakaia-Barrhill-Methven Road, which runs parallel to the mighty braided river.
Make your first stop at Highbank’s Lowes Cutting Farm which is home to the DIRT Bandits UTV experience. This striking riverbed location has been developed into New Zealand’s most diverse purpose-built UTV playground. Highly suited to the Can Am Maverick X3, whether you’re a first-timer to dirt riding or a seasoned off-roader, there’s a variety of circuits to choose from. It’s engineered roll cage and the racing bucket seats with 4-point harnesses ensure both yourself and your pilot stay firmly planted no matter what the terrain. The CVT gearbox makes driving a dream and the smart lock ensures that you can safely navigate even the most insane looking terrain, underpinned with a whopping 24 inches of suspension. You’ll reach speeds of up to 100kph across the purpose built UTV fast track, satisfying the most hungry adrenaline junkie. From rookies to motorsport enthusiasts, a DIRT Bandits experience is the nation’s ultimate off-road rush – and you’ll be in the safe hands of experienced drivers. Unleash you inner-Bandit! www.dirtbandits.co.nz
Photo / Supplied
After those rollicking off-road thrills, I was eager for a spot of lunch and just ten minutes’ away is the tourist town of Methven. The emblematic Blue Pub is a main street treasure, with nearly 110 years of trading history under its belt. First built in 1916, the hotel was roughcast in 1976 to aid its preservation, and painted blue, which when the Methven Hotel transformed into the Blue Pub. This time-honoured hospitality beacon is a major year-round crowd-pleaser, whether it with the après ski set or summer road-trippers. The comprehensive menu spans snacks, salads, platters, pub grub and main meals. You can’t go wrong with their winning Kiwiburger.
Photo / Mike Yardley
While in town, don’t skip the chance to savour the wrap-around splendour of the Ōpuke Thermal Pools & Spa project. Heavily supported by the Provincial Growth Fund, Ōpuke has been a runaway success story since opening two years ago. It’s not only a spectacularly designed pool complex, with mountain fed water powered by the sun, but its economic impact has been profound. It has helped turbocharge Methven’s pitch as a year-round tourist town – not just a ski town. Ōpuke’s General Manager Matt Turner tells me that guest demand continues to outstrip their expectations, with impressive international visitor numbers now flocking to the pools. The Tranquility Pools serve up a premium adult’s exclusive experience including an interconnected network of pools, star lit caves and swim up bar, offering complete indulgence.
The elemental design touches, artfully swathed in native grasses, heighten the sense of being at one with nature. The water is a toasty 38.5C which, on my December visit, was accentuated by a dramatic hailstorm which cast the surrounds into a theatrical winterscape! The swim up bar service is a delight to watch in action, with all manner of poolside drinks and meals, set afloat in the pool in surprisingly sturdy baskets. My eggs benedict was sensational. Tranquility Pool guests also gain access to the family-friendly Discovery Pools, which run the gamut from relaxation pools to plunge pools and crazy river. If you haven’t taken a dip at Ōpuke yet, you’re in for a real treat. It’s the new gold-standard thermal pools experience in New Zealand. www.opuke.nz
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Purring through the pastoral folds of Mid-Canterbury farmland, the bustle of Ashburton is just a 30 minute drive away. The colourful town centre is continuing to transform, with a glittering new $42 million library and civic centre anchoring proceedings. I love how their still so many independent retailers in the shopping heart, including the family owned fashion store, Sparrows which has been in operation since 1887! The fabulous The Ashburton Arcade was originally built in the late 1800's as a livery stable and wool sale yard and now hosts a slew of great stores, including The China Shop, an in-the-know treasure-chest of Waterford Crystal, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Aynsley, Lladro and Swarovski crystal.
For a culture fix, I headed to the Ashburton Art Gallery (AAG) and Museum, which are housed in the same building, adjacent to Ashburton Domain. The gardens are gorgeous and the specimen trees are simply glorious. At the centre of the AAG’s collection is the wonderful work of award-winning children’s book author and illustrator David Elliot. But it’s the great roster of visiting exhibitions that enrich the gallery offerings. A superb summer exhibition well worth perusing is Suffrage in Stitches. Hot on the heels of the 130th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, Suffrage in Stitches features a 300-metre long textile work made up of 546 individual panels, representing the length of the main Suffrage Petition presented to Parliament in 1893. Conceived by Wellington Museum, participants used a needle and thread to create something inspired by women. The resulting 546 textile panels honour the history, passion and persistence of the suffrage movement.
Photo / Mike Yardley
Ashburton Museum does a great job showcasing the district’s backstory, including some of its pioneer settlers like John Grigg, John Hall and more recent historic figures like Dame Jenny Shipley. They host some fascinating exhibitions including the current offering, From Tasman Glacier to Table Service. This vividly illustrates the remarkable assignment undertaken by three Ashburton men, Wilf Holland, Allen Kelly and Jack Pattle in 1958. They were tasked with cutting three blocks of clean white ice from Tasman Glacier, by Aoraki/Mt. Cook, and preparing them for shipping to New York. The exhibition follows the journey of the ice to New York City, where it was intended to be used to cool drinks at a ‘New Zealand Night’ dinner hosted by the Overseas Press Club of America. What an epic journey, by van, train, boat and plane, for a fragile piece of New Zealand!
But Ashburton’s greatest hidden treasure is its aviation riches. The town was actually used as a training base for the Royal New Zealand Air Force during World War 2, with 50 Tiger Moths based here. At the airport today, the Ashburton Aviation Museum displays almost thirty aircraft. These include a Skyhawk and Strikemaster, formerly used by the New Zealand Air Force, a Vampire FB5 and a Canberra B2 Bomber. The collection also includes the only British Aerospace HS Harrier "Jump-jet" GR3 in the Southern Hemisphere. The museum, which turns 50 this year, has ambitious expansion plans with new hanger space in the works. Entry fee is only $10 and it’s totally volunteer-run, by passionate locals and aviation buffs. It’s a real gem.
Harrier Jet at Ashburton Aviation Museum. Photo / Supplied
Where to stay? Revive on Oakview Boutique Accommodation and Spa is a private and peaceful retreat, nestled under oak trees on a 32 acre lifestyle farm. Situated on Longbeach Rd, this gorgeous little haven brims with comforts and trimmings. Beyond the bed and breakfast offer, enjoy free wifi, tea and coffee facilities, spa and hot tub. For added indulgence, seize the opportunity to enjoy a pampering beauty treatment in Nicky’s on-site Day Spa. The magnificent gardens and shady specimen trees heighten the sense of luxuriating in a bucolic slice of paradise. www.reviveonoakview.co.nz
Where to dine? Just three years old and perfectly poised in the heart of town, The Fine Lion has raised the bar in Ashburton. This multi-cuisine restaurant has a stylish interior with nods to the Art Deco age, in addition to a sun-splashed balcony. Plush pink booths, a gold and navy bar and eye-catching lighting are just some elements that make The Fine Lion so distinctive. With a menu anchored by premium local ingredients, the culinary array of delights is expansive, from free range pork belly and fillet with soy glaze, chorizo and smoked kumara, to ora king salmon rice en papillote, with rose harissa labneh, cauliflower and beetroot dip. The Silere lamb ribs and lamb burger dishes are wildly popular. Effervescent, outgoing service seals the deal on this exceptional restaurant experience. https://midcanterburynz.com
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