Floating over the Canterbury Plains. © David Wall

Mid-Canterbury: the South Island’s best-kept secret

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It doesn’t get more classic South Island than mid-Canterbury.

Only an hour from Christchurch, there are incredible mountains and activities in a region that often gets overlooked by its flashier neighbours. In mid-Canterbury, rural meets high country meets big mountains meets even bigger skies... Not only will you be quickly wooed by its natural beauty, which in and of itself is immense, but also by its welcoming locals who remind you there are still places in New Zealand where people are always smiling, trustworthy and more than a little bit friendly.

From Mount Somers to Rākaia to Methven and Ashburton, mid-Canterbury is undiscovered by large tour buses and unknown to many Kiwis.

Hakatere Conservation Park

Hakatere Conservation Park. © Liz Carlson

I still remember the first time I visited, which was by total accident a few years ago.

I ended up driving down Hakatere Potts Road because I thought it looked interesting and I had the time.  After discovering the amazing little community around Lake Clearwater, I decided to keep going down the gravel road. It was a perfect bluebird winter day without a breath of wind, rare in those parts, and I ended up stumbling upon Mount Sunday, a perfect big hill in the middle of an epic valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. As it turns out, it was a location in The Lord of the Rings but it made for a stunning winter picnic spot in the sunshine.

Winter in mid-Canterbury means snowboarding at Mount Hutt. Definitely one of New Zealand’s underrated ski fields, Mount Hutt is easily accessible from Methven via one of the most scenic – albeit slightly terrifying – dirt roads. It’s a great hill for all levels and is very affordable for those watching the budget.

Fuel up at Cafe Primo e Secundo in town beforehand, which might also take the cake for being New Zealand’s quirkiest small-town cafés. Packed to the gills with secondhand bits and bobs, you might never find your way out again. Dinner options mean choosing between the Blue Pub or the Brown Pub in town. Just give yourself time for both... 

Mount Hutt

View from Mt. Hutt in winter. © Liz Carlson

Perhaps one of the best ways to see Canterbury is from the skies. With the twinkling blue sea on one side, the long plains below and the foothills of the mighty Southern Alps on the other, it gives you a good understanding of the lay of the land. A region with stunning braided rivers and incredible alpine scenery unknown to most, it definitely is a great secret. I’ve flown with the local helicopter company to the surrounding hills and old musterers’ huts, but by far my favourite way to take to the skies is by hot air balloon. Literally in the middle of nowhere near Hororātā, you can balloon at sunrise over the Canterbury Plains, take in the amazing scenery and experience this part of the South Island in a truly special way.

Hot air ballooning on the Canterbury Plains

Sunrise hot air balloon over the Canterbury Plains. © Liz Carlson

While the South Island has no shortage of bright-blue braided rivers to explore, on the Rākaia River you can fish for salmon. It’s incredibly scenic and worth a visit, even just a drive over the creaky old bridge for a few photos. If you want something more adrenalin packed you can always spend your time here on the water jetboating. You get great views of the mountains, learn about the interesting geological features of the surrounding hills and get a thrill too. There is also a great walkway around the gorge.

Rafting on the Rākaia

Jetboating around the Rakaia Gorge. © Liz Carlson

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