Canterbury, New Zealand. It’s often the place visitors pass through to get to somewhere more exciting. But for the last 12 months, it has been our home. And we’ve gotten to explore some of this often overlooked part of New Zealand. There are some gems in the area, some well-known, some not so well-known. Here’s what we saw.
Most people’s idea of Canterbury is farmland. Large swathes of farmland dominate the landscape, containing everything from corn to sheep. The farm landscape is very reminiscent of Iowa, where I spent my university years.
However, there is one visible difference that marks this landscape out – the huge snow-capped mountains on the horizon. And they are quite striking – because of how narrow the South Island is around here, the mountains loom quite large over most of the Canterbury plains.
Canterbury is effectively a mixture of the American Midwest (Iowa) and the European Alps (Switzerland). Flat green farmlands bordered by big mountains.
Due to the open plain, Canterbury is a great place to view some interesting weather phenomena.
The other thing that marks out Canterbury from Iowa or Switzerland, although not visible from everywhere, is the ocean. The Pacific Ocean borders Canterbury to the east. Unfortunately, most of the coastline is rocky and the currents make it unsafe for swimming.
The rocky nature of the coast however ensures some interesting natural formations. Combined with great weather, the coast can produce some spectacular scenes.
That is not to say that the coast is devoid of human activity. Fishing along the river mouths, boating, and surfing are quite popular among the hardy Cantabrians.
The towns and parks
Canterbury is quite sparsely populated. With a total population of 575,000, there’s only one city, Christchurch (population 375,000), and four towns with populations of over 10,000 each (Ashburton being one of them).
The towns are quite similar to the American Midwest, with a very car-oriented culture and layout. Many small towns with aging populations, many old and abandoned buildings. But there is an undeniable small-town charm, where everybody knows everybody else.
Life in general is quite relaxed and unhurried.
The one downside of town life in Canterbury is the lack of varied cuisine and cultural options. Which is a shame, because when there are town events, they are well-attended and diverse. The Waitangi Day events, celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, is a case in point — the food festival, done by the locals, runs a whole wide range, from Ukrainian to Brazilian, to Samoan, and many others. The annual Kite Festival, the Christmas Parades, are all fun events. It would be good to have more of such events throughout the year.
Vintage cars are a popular hobby for Cantabrians. Interestingly, vintage American cars from the 60’s and 70’s are very popular. The multiple small car shows during the year allow owners and fans to mix and view these fantastically maintained and customized vehicles.
One thing that has to be said for Canterbury towns is that they are very green — and red, and yellow, and pink, and all other colours. It is a very fertile area and all manners of plants, fruits, and flowers grow automatically here. Just in our garden, we had strawberries, raspberries, cherries, plums, peaches, lemons, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, and several other things growing, without needing any special treatment or care from us. From pines to palms, almost every kind of tree or plant seems to grow here.
The parks around Canterbury are quite delightful. Every town has one major/central park, called the Domain, and usually showcases some fantastic flora.
The foothills and forests
Just west of the plains, the land starts rising up. Given the flat plains, the mountains are visible from much of Canterbury, and they do look quite imposing, seemingly rising straight up — quite similar to the European Alps.
The foothills are an interesting mixture of landscapes. Some parts are quite dry and arid, similar to the foothills outside Denver, Colorado.
Some parts are quite rocky, like the very dramatic Castle Hill area (used in the filming of the final battle scene in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe). Huge limestone boulders make for a great fun area to play around in.
And some others parts are very wet and lush; walking the main trails in the area are like losing yourself in a rainforest.
The mountains and lakes
Finally, we come to the mountains. The mountains elsewhere on the South Island are more well-known, and justifiably so, but the peaks on the western edge of Canterbury are no slouch. They are quite dramatic and jagged, with Mt. D’Archiac being one of the highlights. The best and most easily accessible views to the mountains from Mid Canterbury are in the area known variously as Erewhon and the Rangitata River Valley, especially the Ashburton Lakes.
With so many spectacular places on the South Island, Canterbury is often overlooked. But if you do spend the time to explore, there are some great places in the region. And because it’s overlooked, there are very few crowds.