There’s a calm sense of tranquillity as the early evening sun bounces off the Avon River while we gentle float past the Botanic Gardens on a warm Friday.
Now suitably relaxed after a long week, we’re snuggled comfortably on one of Christchurch’s Edwardian punting boats as our punter tells us about the wildlife and history of the ‘Garden City’.
Our relaxing punting tour was the perfect way to kick off an amazingly romantic weekend along the Alpine Pacific Touring Route. From Christchurch into the Hurunui through to Kaikoura and back down to Hanmer Springs – the excitement was building on being able to escape for a few days with the promise of adventure, relaxation, and of course a staple of a good romantic getaway… great food.
Lucky for us, our dinner destination was just a few minutes-walk along the beautiful and newly created Avon River Promenade which leads to The Terrace entertainment precinct.
Botanic Restaurant is perfectly located, with views overlooking the Avon River.
Our entrées of scallops with artichoke puree, bacon, and caper dressing and braised pork cheek with cauliflower puree, salsa, watercress and jus were divine, and the relaxed atmosphere across the river precinct added a lively feel to the city as we made short work of our delectable meals and enjoyed each other’s company.
Well satisfied and with excitement building on thoughts of the weekend ahead, we headed back to our room for the night at the distinguished Copthorne Hotel to enjoy a stress-free rest of our evening.
Motivated to hit the road, we were up early the next morning heading north through the small towns of the Waimakariri and into the heartland of the Hurunui to savour some of the fruits, literally, of what this region offers.
Within 45-minutes we were heading down a gravel driveway past rows of bright green vines to Terrace Edge Wines, centred within the internationally recognised North Canterbury Wine Region.
Terrace Edge is one of the leaders in the organic winemaking, and as we pull up next to the tasting room we’re met by the down to earth and hospitable owners Bruce and Jull Chapman. We soon discover that these are common characteristics of people in this part of New Zealand.
As we sampled the range of award-winning wines and heard about their unique features, it’s easy to see why the many growers in the North Canterbury Wine Region are so successful. Their innovation, passion and authenticity really does shine through. We were so enamoured with their gorgeous rosé that we brought two bottles.
After the sampling we had time to take in the expansive views across the Hurunui plains, having the place to ourselves to take a little time to enjoy a glass and some quiet quality time on an unhurried Saturday morning.
However, the rest of our romantic escape was calling, so we bundled up our bottles of rosé and again headed north towards the coastal settlement of Gore Bay.
The drive through to the Gore Bay winds through rolling valleys and true Hurunui heartland. The narrow valleys almost feel like a gateway into a hideaway from the hustle of the outside world. Certainly, this is a big part of the allure of the laidback and isolated beachside community.
Any trip to Gore Bay isn’t complete without a stop off at the renowned Cathedral Cliffs, which rewarded us with panoramic views of the rugged coast lines and wind-swept beaches this part of New Zealand has in abundance.
With time on our side we took our chance to take off our shoes for a quintessential romantic walk along the quiet beach. It was too nice a day not to have a quick dip in the seasonally warm waters too, before heading back out to make it in time for our next adventure.
It’s a short drive over the Hundalee range as we made our way towards Kaikoura,
a region famous for its wildlife, it’s seafood, and its easy-going nature. It’s not long until we’re greeted with the iconic coastline and the South Pacific Ocean stretching into the distance on a perfectly blue day.
This this one of the most scenic drives in the country, if not the world. Sunbathing New Zealand fur seals were easy to spot as we travelled towards to quaint Kaikoura Airport where we were set for a scenic journey you won’t find anywhere else.
Walking through the entrance to the hub of whale watching flights, we were greeted by our pilot from South Pacific Helicopters for a slightly different romantic adventure.
We’d been told about New Zealand’s newest lake nestled in the Kaikoura alpine ranges behind us with the most incredible turquoise waters. Being armed with a bottle of our Terrace Edge rosé and a small picnic, we couldn’t think of a better place to enjoy another glass.
After all the flight checks were done, we hit the skies and within 15 minutes were winding our way up through alpine valleys and underneath mountain peaks following the natural curves towards the glacial origins of the Hapuku River.
As we climbed over another rise New Zealand’s newest lake was instantly recognisable, with its striking and stunning milky blue colours juxta positioned against the otherwise sandy and green coloured landscape.
We landed within feet of the lake and stepped out onto shingle fallen from the above valley creating a natural helipad.
As the rotor blades came to a stop the peaceful silence perfectly reflected this special spot as we popped open our wine and found a prime picnic spot looking out over the lake and alpine valleys around us to take it all in.
After a generous hour and a few glasses of wine later, we were ready to head back to the coast and into Kaikoura to sample some of the cuisine this seaside town is famous for.
Zephyr restaurant is all about championing the abundance of fresh locally sourced ingredients on offer, with the restaurant itself a contemporary and relaxing setting along the main street of town.
Owner Corrina greeted as we walked in famished and ready to sample some of the delicious flavours we could smell emanating from the kitchen.
The recommendation was the local venison, and freshly caught tarahiki, a recommendation we gladly accepted as we settled into a corner table. Ten minutes later our food was delivered, with the hero of the dish front and centre and smelling delicious.
The tarahiki tasted like it had just been plucked out of the sea moments before, gorgeously fresh, and lavished with an incredible white wine sauce, it was difficult to save any for my partner to sample.
But as I was equally envious of her perfectly cooked venison, I managed to save a little for her to try, while I devoured the last of the spiced red wine jus and wild game.
Our home for the night was the famous Hapuku Lodge, which features several luxurious, secluded tree huts facing out to the coastline.
We were lucky enough to stay in the Olive House Suite. A gorgeous three-bedroom villa which used to house the Hapuku farm olive press, it has been renovated with a personalised touch unique to the natural environment surrounding Hapuku.
There was nothing more blissful than filling up the beautiful free-standing bath, grabbing another glass of our Terrace Edge wine, and soaking up the panoramic views as the sun set across the coastline. We couldn’t think of a better way to end our Saturday.
Despite wishing for a slightly longer sleep in in our cloud like super king bed, the alarm at 5am was beckoning us with a wildlife adventure which had been at the top of my list for too long. Swimming with wild dusky dolphins.
We arrived at the Kaikoura Dolphin Encounter with several other bleary eyed but excited visitors, as we were led out back to get into our wetsuits and hear a short briefing about these beautiful animals.
By 6am we were at the harbour and boarding one of their custom-built vessels and heading off into the South Pacific Ocean to find a pod with the sun rise painting the still waters in an extraordinary crimson red.
We didn’t have to wait long to find our first pod of Duskys, who are most active in the early mornings. Duskys are the most acrobatic of all dolphin species, and cries of delight echoed around the boat as we watched them flip and summersault in the distance.
A few minutes later the horn sounded which was our cue to jump in the water and make as much noise as possible through our snorkels to attract the attention of the curious dolphins, we even heard a few questionable renditions of Ed Sheeran from our fellow swimmers.
It did the trick however, as I dived below to be greeted by three inquisitive dusky dolphins who wanted to play. Their favourite game? Challenging you to keep up as they spin around you again and again, a game they always win.
Through my muffled laughter and pure joy, the Dusky dolphins took turns at swimming within centimetres of us before shooting off into the depths.
We were called back on to the boat to find another pod of equally friendly and cheeky dolphins who jumped, raced, and played alongside us as we headed back to shore. In the centre of the pod we were all again delighted with more acrobatic displays, almost as a little send-off.
Being this close to these wild Dusky Dolphins was such an incredible experience and we both felt very lucky these beautiful creatures allow us to hang out in their world for a while.
Back on shore, showered and dry, it was time to head back through the Alpine Touring Route south and on the New Zealand’s alpine spa village Hanmer Springs. The perfect spot to finish our romantic getaway with their famous thermal waters and spa treatments beckoning.
We didn’t waste too much time when we arrived in the picturesque village to drop off our bags at our hotel and head straight to The Spa, which is connected to Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa. We were booked in for one of their signature rituals…a couples traditional Hot Stone Massage.
Walking through the entrance of The Spa we were instantly transformed into relaxation mode. Their motto is stepping into ‘A World Away’, and with the relaxed and quiet atmosphere and soothing smells of aromatics, we felt we had escaped into our own little sanctuary.
We were given our robes, which we donned before spending a quiet few minutes in the relaxation lounge, before being guided by our massage therapists to our couples’ room to spend the next hour and a half in pure bliss.
Once we were comfortable the massage therapists tested the heat of the hot stones which were then placed along the length of our backs, legs, arm and neck. It was such a divine feeling having the heat from the stones melt away any minor tensions, before my therapist began expertly massaging any remainder of stress that may have existed.
The full body massage was 90 minutes of pure relaxation, and with my mind at ease, it was easy to forget about anything else and just enjoy this incredible treat.
Afterwards, feeling wonderful and still in a blissful daze, we were given water and a few moments before heading to our private thermal spa.
Getting private time in our own thermal spa was the ultimate luxury. We floated and soaked in the mineral goodness looking out the wide glass window into our own little private garden.
With each equipped with its own shower, it was the perfect transition from our massages to awaken ourselves ready to explore the many pools within Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa.
With more than a dozen pools filed with natural, mineral rich thermal waters, we carried on our current state of relaxation and headed straight for the Aqua Therapy pools. The three-layered pools feature a series of waterfalls, spouts and jets to massage and sooth.
Despite a deep desire to sink into the many pools on offer for the rest of the day, all that relaxing had built up an appetite, and we were both ready for another round of this region’s best.
Number 31 in the heart of the village has built a strong reputation for its local food. So much so we had heard they’d recently been awarded Beef + Lamb’s highest honour, which put us in good company to experience to best of the Hurunui heartland.
We ordered the Merino Lamb Lion and the Angus Beef Fillet. While nothing on the menu would disappoint, we again found we had chosen well with both meals artfully flavoured and superbly cooked, and left feeling suitable satisfied as we made our way back to our hotel.
As we arose the next morning to travel back to Christchurch with a strong longing to extend our romantic weekend, we reflected on the huge variety of activities, food and adventure the Alpine Pacific Touring Route offers.
From wine rich regions to coastal hideaways, to an abundance of wildlife adventure and blissful spa indulgences, and an immense talent for local cuisine, it’s hard to think of a better way to escape for a rustic romantic weekend. This is a route which exudes authenticity, heart and hospitality.
We’ll be back soon.