Journey through spectacular natural scenery

MARK CHIPPERFIELD
Last updated 05:10 15/03/2014
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KAI TIME: Fresh seafood in Kaikoura.

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Emma Duval
ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE: KiwiRail's Coastal Pacific service winds its way along the Kaikoura coast line.

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Take to the road, the rails or bicycle tracks for nature's finest show on earth.

The prospect of a 223-kilometre journey traversing the beautiful Southern Alps from the comfort of a custom-designed train carriage with panoramic viewing windows and ample space to stretch your legs is delicious.

The TranzAlpine, which links Christchurch with Greymouth on the wild West Coast, has a wealth of scenery. Soon after leaving the placid Canterbury Plains - we stop to pick up freshly baked muffins in Springfield - the robust train forges steep ravines, crosses fast-flowing glacial rivers and glides through dense beech forests.

Each train has an open-sided viewing carriage which brings these sights and smells closer.

With its constantly changing landscapes, compact size, snow-capped mountains and quaint stations, the Canterbury region is a marvel for rail lovers. Passengers can hop on and off en route or spend a few days exploring the West Coast - a popular option - before completing the return trip across the Alps to Christchurch.

KiwiRail also operates the Coastal Pacific service between Picton and Christchurch. As the name suggests, this journey showcases dramatic coastal scenery, with stopovers possible in the Marlborough Sounds, the whale-watching centre of Kaikoura and two of the country's famous wine districts, Marlborough and Waipara. In summer, the Coastal Pacific service connects with the Interislander ferry from Wellington.

Exploring the Canterbury region by car is an equally captivating way to enjoy constantly changing vistas, and the absence of motorways means you tend to linger rather than rush.

From Christchurch, the drive north to Kaikoura provides a gentle introduction to Canterbury, crossing the pastures of the Canterbury Plains and the wine-rich Waipara region before tackling rugged coastline between Oaro and the Kaikoura Peninsula.

The 183-kilometre drive can easily be completed in about two and a half hours, but most travellers stop at cafes in Cheviot and Domett or enjoy a relaxed vineyard lunch in the Waipara Valley, home to 80 cool-climate wineries.

Afterwards, venture inland to Hanmer Springs, an alpine spa resort which dates to the Victorian era, for its thermal baths and spa retreats. Visitors often spend at least one night here before rejoining the inland route to Kaikoura via Mount Lyford.

The shorter route, a 75-kilometre drive from Christchurch to the Francophile coastal settlement of Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, is equally rewarding. Locals have long enjoyed this beautiful stretch of water (Akaroa means ''Long Harbour'') where they sail, kayak, snorkel and swim with Hector's dolphins - the smallest dolphin, found only in New Zealand - and New Zealand fur seals. Now the rest of the world has discovered this idyllic place of weatherboard B&Bs and chic cafes.

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Stop to admire the harbour, once the crater of an active volcano, from the hills above Akaroa which was claimed, unsuccessfully, by French settlers in 1838.

For many New Zealanders a great view should be earned and although tramping, or bushwalking, continues to be a national pastime, Kiwis are increasingly hopping on their bicycles to explore.

With its alpine scenery, fast-flowing rivers and a coastal plain that resembles a billiard table, the Canterbury region is ideal for cycling. The 300-kilometre Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail is becoming New Zealand's most popular two-wheel adventure. Despite starting in the Southern Alps, the terrain is fairly gentle and suits riders of all abilities.

From Mount Cook, the trail descends about 600 metres to Twizel and then to the coast via Lake Ohau, Omarama, Kurow and Duntroon. Along the way, riders experience varied terrain, from glacial lakes to tussock and rolling vineyards. The trail ends at the historic city of Oamaru, the childhood home of celebrated author Janet Frame.

Mountain bikers can find plenty of challenges in Canterbury. The Four Peaks High Country Track provides a gruelling off-road experience for both hikers and mountain bikers. Cyclists carry a day-pack with food and water, while the host company provides comfortable lodgings in shepherd's huts and transports your gear.

Whether your definition of a great journey involves pedal power, rail or a hire car, you are bound to find transport that fits the bill, so slow down and enjoy the experience.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

STAYING THERE

HAPUKU LODGE, KAIKOURA

A modern lodge with ocean and alpine views, Hapuku has rooms from $NZ805 a night; funky treehouses from $NZ1093 a night. See hapukulodge.com

BEAUFORT HOUSE, AKAROA

A slice of colonial gentility, Beaufort House overlooks the ocean. Doubles from $NZ350 a night, including breakfast.

See beauforthouse.co.nz

TOURING THERE

BY RAIL

The TranzAlpine service from Christchurch to Greymouth runs daily; adult one-way fares $NZ198. The Coastal Pacific service hugs the coastline between Picton and Christchurch; adult one-way fares $NZ159. Passengers can combine journeys and have stopovers.

See kiwirailscenic.co.nz

BY CAR TO AKAROA

Akaroa, a village on the stunning Banks Peninsula, has French heritage, a lively dining scene, eco-adventures and plenty of boutique accommodation.

See akaroa.com

BY CAR TO KAIKOURA

Drive north of Christchurch via the Canterbury Plains and Waipara vineyards. Kaikoura has outdoor activities and cultural tours. See kaikoura.co.nz.

WHILE THERE

ALPS 2 OCEAN CYCLE TRAIL

The 300-kilometre trail from Mount Cook to Oamaru can be completed in six days. Cyclists carry food and gear and there is accommodation en route.

See alps2ocean.com

FOUR PEAKS HIGH

COUNTRY TRACK

Mountain bikers and walkers explore South Canterbury high country and stay in musterers' huts. Experienced riders can complete the 60-kilometre track in three days; walkers tackle a shorter, 40-kilometre circuit.

See walkfourpeaks.co.nz

Garden city helicopters

This operation offers a 90-minute flight over the Canterbury Plains, the Waimak River Gorge and Arthur's Pass National Park. Flights to Canterbury's wine region, including lunch, are also available. See helicopters.net.nz

KEY EVENT

Le Race, on March 29, is a 100-kilometre community bike ride from Christchurch to Akaroa. It's open to cyclists of all abilities. lerace.co.nz

- FFX Aus

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