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Mike Yardley: Hot footing it to Hanmer Springs

Mike Yardley ,
Publish Date
Saturday, 1 August 2015, 8:16a.m.

Nature is the balm that soothes 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. In fact Hanmer is a byword for healing.  On a grizzled winter afternoon, I jumped in the car, involuntarily packing my man flu, for the quick 90 minute hop north from Christchurch to this village of vitality.

The inland drive on State Highway 7, from the Waipara turn-off, through the Weka Pass and Hurunui District is a cinematic mood-lifter. It’s an underrated escape landscape of awe and saga. Wizard hat-shaped alpine peaks shuffle into view, interspersed with lush green pastures, rolling countryside, rushing rivers and the whimsical scattering of limestone outcrops. Crossing the Waiau Gorge bridge, a great sense of surrender washes over me, as I roll through the pancake-flat high country basin to Hanmer Springs, which sits 350 metres above sea level. This broad bowl of earth-brown farmland is spectacularly encircled by imperial mountain ranges, streaked in snow and slender fingers of mist.

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 half a million visitors annually, Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa is a rockstar attraction, reaping the rewards from its multi-million dollar makeover. l plumped for a nocturnal soak in the sizzling watery wonder, hop-scotching between the 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 spills with the two waterslides and SuperBowl mega ride. ( New Zealand’s only aquatic thrill ride.)

Lustily bracketed in native gardens, you’ve got 15 open-air thermal pools at your disposal.  Lounging in the soothing watery embrace, I gazed in awe at nature’s theatric, the snow-draped mountains, the sky’s twinkling chandelier of stars, and the dense clouds of thermal steam billowing into the night. This wondrous multi-sensory experience is Hanmer’s calling card. After hauling myself out of the pools and hot-footing it to the changing rooms, I was staggered to discover that the facility was deliciously toasty, despite the mercury dropping into the negatives.  The complex has ingeniously developed underfloor heating in the high-tech changing rooms, whereby the thermal water is recycled to not only warm your tootsies, but heats the changing room air temperature and shower water. It was so snug and comfy, I was in no rush to get dressed –  not that loitering in a changing room is a good look!

The complex is not one to rest on its laurels, happily sitting back as the dosh rolls in. They are constantly perfecting the experience. The Greenhouse Café, one of the last remaining such tea kiosks, built in 1904 by the government, will reopen in September, after significant renovations and heritage preservation work. In addition to the pools,  New Zealand’s busiest day spa offers a slew of exquisite treatments,  from facials to the full body affair. Because I had a dose of manflu, I declined a treatment, not wishing to inflict an unsuspecting spa therapist with my ailments.  But in addition to luxuriating in the thermal pools, this is a fiendishly popular spot to treat your body to some prize-winning primping, preening and panel-beating.

The Spa is spreading its wings, confirming a new standalone luxury day spa facility will operate in the new Village shopping centre, which will open on Hanmer’s main street later this year. Recently, the pools people commissioned some expert analysis which indicates the thermal water is 173 years old. Beginning as falling snow or rain, the water seeps into underground reservoirs, 2km below the earth, where it is warmed by the heat of the earth’s core, before making its way back up to the surface bore and into the pools. So, as I lazed in the mineral-rich embrace, I marvelled in reflection that the pool water first fell as rain shortly after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

I do love a hotel with a sense of history, drama, prestige and romance, which is what infuses the Heritage Hanmer. Beginning life as The Lodge, the original wooden hotel opened in 1897 catering for travellers “to take the waters.” The Red Cross temporarily took possession in 1914, tending to soldiers returning from the horrors of WWI. In 1932, the original lodge ( which later burnt down in 1958) was joined by a striking new building, with Spanish-inspired architecture, featuring large colonnades, exterior and interior Moorish arches throughout the property and a lofty bell tower. Throughout its hallowed halls, gathering places and guestrooms, the character and charm of this grand dame lives on. 

Awakening to the flush of blue sky perfection and a ringside view on a cracking sun rise, I grazed indulgently from the full buffet breakfast, before making tracks to   Hanmer Springs Animal Park. With 20 acres of grazing land for the animals, this Noah’s Ark menagerie of wildife is an absolute thrill for children of all ages. Couples love it too, say the owners. Walk around the 2.5 acres of parkland open to the public, and revel in close-up, hands-on encounters with dozens of delightful animals. Kirsty and Tom purchased the park less than a year ago and have wasted no time giving the attraction a new lease on life.

The revamped on-site café is a great spot where parents can enjoy a coffee, while their kids go wild. They recently purchased a baby water buffalo, Billy, who’s proven to be an instant hit. They hand-raised him a bottle and will soon purchase a mate for him.  The park is also home to three new wallabies ( Hop, Skip and Jump) who were hand-raised at a Waimate sanctuary. You can hand feed a vast range of animals from sheep, pigs, goats and emu to llamas, alpacas, Tibetan yaks and deer. Add to that, donkeys, ponies, ducks, chickens , guinea pigs and flemish rabbits. Kirsty and Tom’s passion is infectious – this is an unmissable experience, with unrivalled wraparound panoramics of the snow-streaked mountains.

If you want to take the wildlife encounter a step further, Hanmer Llamas is a novel venture, offering full day or multi day treks into the pristine back country, with the assistance of Llamas.  Just as the Incan empire relied on these charming creatures as pack animals to transport crops, trade goods and war supplies, so these boys will haul your gear and belongings for you, too. What an amazing way to savour the alpine wilderness of the Hanmer Springs region, with a Llama companion and knowledgeable guide.  For further details , contact Tony and the team at www.hanmerllamasnz.com

In such a therapeutically-powered town, the pursuit of a little retail therapy is set to get dramatically better. 11 new stores will soon open in The Village shopping centre, adding to the already impressive array of independent boutiques, homeware and gift stores. Existing stand-outs include Majuba Gallery and Up the Garden Path, which is Hanmer’s legendary gift shop. From socks and clocks to totes and coats, this enthralling emporium is a must-see. A recent sweet treat that will have you drooling is Sue O’Callaghan’s The Decadent Fudge Company. The gourmet handmade fudges traverse a daring spectrum of flavours including crème brulee and chilli lime chocolate.

Finally, before hitting the road for home, 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.

Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturdays. 11.20am.                 

ON AIR: Larry Williams Drive

4p.m. - 7p.m.