John Robert Godley, whose memorial statue until the recent earthquake stood in Christchurch's Cathedral Square, would have seen the spectacular views of the Southern Alps at the top of the Port Hills in 1850. The Canterbury Association, a British organization, had sent him to New Zealand to prepare for the arrival of settlers for a planned Church of England community. That year, four settler ships arrived bearing roughly 800 pioneers, and their new town was named for Godley's college at Oxford.
Built in a Gothic Revival style of dark grey stone, civic buildings such as the Arts Centre (originally Canterbury University) and Canterbury Museum give the city an English quality. This style, plus elements such as punting and cricket, often pegs Christchurch as a little slice of England. Though the city may have a conservative exterior, it has been a nursery for social change. It was here that Kate Sheppard began organizing a campaign that led to New Zealand being the first country in the world to grant women the vote. It has become known as the southern gateway to Antarctica and is developing a keen arts community and a vibrant cuisine scene.
Beyond Christchurch the wide-open Canterbury Plains sweep to the north, west, and south of the city. This is some of New Zealand's finest pastureland, and the higher reaches are sheep-station territory, where life and lore mingle in South Island's cowboy country. This is where young Samuel Butler dreamed up the satirical Erewhon—the word is an anagram of nowhere. But the towns here are no longer considered the back of beyond; communities such as Hanmer Springs, Akaroa, Timaru, and Geraldine are now favorite day-trip destinations. Arthur's Pass is probably the best place for a one-day-wonder experience of the Southern Alps while the Waipara Valley is one of the country's developing vineyard areas.
Arthur's Pass and Canterbury
East of the city, you can explore the wonderful coastline of Banks Peninsula. The peninsula's two harbors, Lyttelton and Akaroa, were formed from the remnants of two ancient volcanoes; their steep grassy walls drop dramatically to the sea. Looking north, consider stopping in Waipara and its wineries if you're en route to or from Kaikoura or Hanmer Springs. Hanmer Springs' thermal baths are good for a relaxing soak, or you can ride the white water on the river, ski, or mountain bike. Head south or west of town into the Canterbury Plains countryside, and you can ski at Mt. Hutt (in winter) or drive the scenic inland motorway to Geraldine and Timaru. Where once only sheep and cattle grazed, you're now just as likely to spot deer and ostriches. If you're heading to the West Coast by road or rail, then Arthur's Pass is worth investigating. You should set an entire day aside for any of these side trips, or, better still, stay overnight.