Canterbury Tales

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.

The plains

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.

Somewhere in Iowa?
Definitely looking like somewhere in Iowa

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.

The typical Canterbury landscape, from the edge of our town
Farms and mountains

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 Nor’West Arch, signifying warm weather


Morning storm
Sunset clouds
Rare lenticular clouds over town
Rainbow outside Methven

The coast

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.

Wakanui Beach outside town

The rocky nature of the coast however ensures some interesting natural formations. Combined with great weather, the coast can produce some spectacular scenes.

Sunrise at Taylor’s Mistake, Christchurch
New Brighton Pier, Christchurch

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.

Surfer on a cold morning
Local rowing club at practice

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.

Highway 1 through town — the main highway on the South Island is a plain 2-lane road complete with stop-lights through many towns
Ashburton town “square”
Cargo trains run through town a few times a day
Ashburton Operatic Society

Life in general is quite relaxed and unhurried.

Sunday morning cricket in Christchurch

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.

Japanese drumming at Waitangi Day celebrations
Ashburton Fly-In
Haka at the Domain
Ashburton Kite Festival
Ashburton Kite Festival
Filipino dancers at the Christmas Parade
It does feel a bit strange to see a Christmas Parade while wearing t-shirt, shorts, and sandals (or jandals, as they’re called in NZ)

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.

Car show at the Domain
Custom builds/mods are quite popular, like this fully Steampunk model
Most of them are meticulously maintained
A piece of Americana

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 silver fern, the symbol of New Zealand
Strawberries in our garden
There were more raspberries than we could pick and eat
Autumn mushroom

The parks around Canterbury are quite delightful. Every town has one major/central park, called the Domain, and usually showcases some fantastic flora.

Ashburton Domain in spring
Ashburton Domain in spring
Rose garden at the Domain
Places to rest
Path through the fog, Ashburton Domain

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.

Southern Alps rising up from the Canterbury plains

The foothills are an interesting mixture of landscapes. Some parts are quite dry and arid, similar to the foothills outside Denver, Colorado.

Foothills near Ashburton Lakes

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.

Castle Hill
Exploring Castle Hill

And some others parts are very wet and lush; walking the main trails in the area are like losing yourself in a rainforest.

Foothills greenery
Abandoned mine relics along the track
Sharplin Falls

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.

The Southern Alps at Ashburton Lakes
Ben McLeod Range
Erewhon vista
Country Road near Ashburton Lakes
Autumn morning at Lake Heron, one of the Ashburton Lakes
Sunrise at Lake Clearwater, one of the Ashburton Lakes
Rangitata River Valley
Mount Sunday (foreground), the site of Edoras in The Lord of the Rings movies
Crossing over to Mount Sunday
Clearing storm near Arthur’s Pass
Waimakariri River

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.


3 thoughts on “Canterbury Tales”

    1. Thanks. NZ is an amazing place. The landscape is not unique — you can get similar places elsewhere around the world. What’s unique is the fact that so many different types of landscapes are crammed into such a small area. There’s something for everyone.

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