Entering the tunnel that connects Christchurch to Lyttelton is exciting.
The white Victorian tiles flashing past give a feeling of strength and safety within the sturdy walls.
This structure remained intact throughout all the earthquakes despite
so much crumbling around it.
Popping out the other end, Lyttelton Port greets us with towering piles of logs like giant matchsticks as far as the eye can see. A complicated jumble of cranes, ships and all manner of vehicles busily bustle around the South Island’s largest port.
Turning right we head along the coast, passing Te Ana Marina. This project is ongoing, but beginning to breathe life back into Lyttelton’s west side waterfront, with an upgraded marina, promenade and eateries, reflecting the colourful character of this historic township.
Lyttelton Harbour is a vast ex-volcano, the sides of which form the Port Hills above. We keep a sharp eye out for fur seals and cute little Hector's dolphins that live in this huge, flooded crater but none are showing themselves today. Yachts, ferries, motor boats and bright kayaks criss-cross their way across the blue-green water, or pull gently on their moorings.
The most popular of a succession of bays we pass is Corsair Bay. Well equipped with toilets, changing rooms and an outdoor shower, today we find it chocablock with families picnicking and enjoying the calm, shallow water.
Quail Island, out in the bay, has a diverse history, including being a quarantine station for new immigrants and a leper colony. Now a recreational reserve, ferries from Lyttelton visit daily.
As the road winds along the coast there are clusters of houses; tiny wooden baches, creaking with age, alongside gleaming chrome and glass holiday homes. Although their differences are obvious, there is a distinct similarity; they all gaze out over the water to that mesmerising, ever-shifting view. Haphazard collections of mismatched letterboxes adorn the roadside, hinting at homes hidden away behind trees. There is some sense of busyness as the roads are dotted with occasional walkers, cyclists and cars, but everyone is looking seaward where the feeling is anything but busy. Dark mountains layered far off into the distance fronted by shimmering water emphasise the vast expanse.
The road slowly rises, eventually bringing us to Governor’s Bay.
On the left is She Universe, a restaurant and chocolate shop with a spacious outdoor decked area and some of the best harbour views.
We opt to lunch at the historic Governors Bay Hotel opposite, with its sophisticated menu and extensive outdoor seating, much of which comes with that stunning outlook.
Reluctantly dragging ourselves away from the view, we continue along the coast until we reach St Cuthbert’s church, hidden behind a screen of trees. A pretty little church built in 1864, it is a delightful mix of England and New Zealand with dark stone walls and a huge, red, corrugated iron roof.
Just a stone’s throw away on the left is the internationally renowned Ōhinetahi Gardens. This spectacular formal garden is privately owned but generously shared with the public throughout the summer months.
Carrying on down the hill, we skirt the water’s edge and on the left, Allandale Reserve. It’s really only a patch of grass and picnic table but we are lucky enough to arrive at low tide and are rewarded with a dazzling display of bird life swarming across the mud flats.
As the road heads inland, a grand, tree-lined entrance on the right leads to Orton Bradley Park, a privately owned 650-hectare property with walking tracks, bike tracks and a large adventure playground. We stop for a stroll and discover beautiful Victorian- style tea rooms surrounded by trees and a cluster of heritage buildings.
The road continues along the water’s edge, past a cheerful little boathouse welcoming us to Charteris Bay, the home of the Optimist. (The Optimist being a small, single-handed dinghy with a sail, popular with learner sailors.)
We are now almost at our destination but we delight in the decision to take a slight detour down James Drive on the left, which eventually loops around to the main road and provides marvellous views back across the harbour to the port.
As we approach Diamond Harbour, the sun glistens across the water transforming it into a vast sea of sparkles hinting at the origin of the harbour’s name. Here we find the Dark Star Ale House – a rustic, friendly place with craft beer and live music. Across the road is Preserved, with a small but impressive menu and a cooking school. Stoddart's Cottage, Diamond Harbour’s oldest house is nearby, recreated in colonial style and open to visitors.
A small shop is tucked inside, packed with beautiful pottery and handcrafts produced by local artists.
So ends one of Canterbury’s most charming drives. The route end-to-end can be done in under an hour but take the time to enjoy and appreciate all this captivating stretch of Banks Peninsula has to offer and an entire day will disappear.
Reported for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue
Lyttelton is a colourful town with a bohemian vibe. It has an impressive range of cafés, restaurants, arty boutiques and interesting, original shops; the Saturday morning farmer’s market is famously good.
Walking tracks around the Diamond Harbour area include short treks, overnight options and trails past historic sites. Road trips are a great way to see this part of New Zealand.
Articles to inspire more exploration can be found on AA Traveller's Things to Do pages
Lyttelton is around 20 minutes’ drive from Christchurch; from Lyttelton to Diamond Harbour is 26km. See AA Traveller for maps and travel details.