Guide to Hanmer Springs, the South Island's Spa Town

Hanmer Springs
Getty Images / Fernanda Feijó / EyeEmOwner

While many travelers know about the sizeable geothermal area of the central North Island, around Rotorua and Taupo, fewer are aware of the South Island's favorite spa town, Hanmer Springs. The small town in the mountains inland from Christchurch is the South Island's go-to place for steaming hot pools, spa treatments, and fun waterslide rides for kids. Travelers have been attracted here for a long time, since at least the 1880s, when pools were constructed, and the 1890s, when a sanatorium was built. Here's what you need to know about visiting Hanmer Springs.

How to Get to Hanmer Springs

Hanmer Springs is a two-hour drive north of Christchurch, so it is exceptionally easy to reach if you fly into New Zealand's second-largest international airport. Self-driving is the most convenient way of getting there, as bus services are limited, and there are no trains to Hanmer. From Christchurch, head north on State Highway 1 until you reach Waipara, where you'll turn onto SH7. The drive is mostly flat as it crosses the Canterbury Plains, in contrast to many South Island road trips that include challenging mountain roads!

Hanmer Springs is also easy to reach by road from the north if you're traveling from Nelson or Picton (or on a ferry from Wellington). From Nelson, there are two possible routes: the inland route through Murchison and Maruia (SH6, 65, and 7), which takes about four hours, or the coastal way via Blenheim and Kaikoura (SH6, 1, and 7), which takes about 5 1/2 hours. While the inland route is more direct, the coastal route passes through the Marlborough Sounds, Marlborough wine country, and Kaikoura so it can easily be extended over a few days.

What to See and Do in Hanmer Springs

  • Thermal Pools and Spa. The number one reason why most people visit Hanmer Springs is to soak in the thermal pools. Whether you're seeking fun or relaxation, there's something for you here, with rock pools, sulfur pools, a lap pool, a lazy river, water slides, and spa treatments. The mineral-rich waters originate up to 1.2 miles beneath the ground. Tourists have been coming to Hanmer to take the waters and the air since the 1880s.
  • Jet boating. Travelers seeking a more thrilling activity should join a jet boat tour up the Waiau River. Zoom in an open-air boat through narrow gorges, over white-water rapids, and along braided rivers, reaching speeds of up to 55 miles per hour. As well as being exciting, this is a great way to experience the scenic beauty of the area. Just brace yourself for the 360-degree spins that your driver will surprise you with from time to time.
  • White-water rafting. New Zealand offers all kinds of white-water rafting experiences, from waterfall drops to remote heli-rafting on Alpine rivers. The rafting at Hanmer, however, is more gentle and family-friendly. The Waiau River has Class II rapids, which are easy enough for (older) kids and beginner rafters to enjoy while still having a bit of a thrill. Stretches of calm water allow you to enjoy the views between the bouncing rapids.
  • Hike up Conical Hill. This is a relatively easy walk that only takes about an hour, but it does ascend quite steeply through pine forest, so it is good for a quick burst of exercise. The views of the town and mountains from the top of Conical Hill, at 1800 feet, are impressive. There's a shelter at the top where you can sit with a picnic. Embark on this hike either earlier in the morning, or later in the afternoon.
  • Mountain bike along the St. James cycle trail. Just north of Hanmer Springs, at the St. James Conservation Area, is a challenging intermediate-level mountain biking trail. The whole trail is 37 miles long, between Maling Pass and the St. James Homestead, but a shorter half-day section can also be done, between St. James Homestead and Peter's Pass.
  • Skiing. There are a couple of options for skiing near Hanmer Springs. The privately-owned Hanmer Springs Ski Area is quite a contrast to other nearby South Island ski fields: it's uncrowded and relatively affordable. Intermediate skiers and snowboarders can enjoy the alpine bowl area. Mt. Lyford offers ski runs for beginner, intermediate, and advanced skiers. The ski season in New Zealand generally runs from June to October, with some regional variation depending on local conditions.

Where to Stay

Hanmer Springs offers a range of motel, camping/cabin, and backpacker-style accommodation, as well as some low-key boutique and resort offerings.

The Hanmer Springs Forest Camp is an especially good option for families, groups, or travelers on a lower budget, as you can book campsites or simple cabins with bunk beds and kitchen facilities.

For a bit more luxury, check out the Braemar Lodge and Spa, which offers its own spa treatments in case you're seeking more than the thermal pools can offer.

If you'd rather stay in a more memorable location away from town, 8 on Oregon is located high on Conical Hill, so has excellent views of the city and mountains.

Best Time to Visit

Hanmer Springs is a year-round destination, and different aspects can be enjoyed in different seasons. Summer (December through February) gets quite warm in Canterbury, and summer is an excellent time to enjoy the outdoor water park and other outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking. The thermal pools are also enjoyable when the weather is cold. The nearby ski fields also attract visitors in the winter, and a soak in the hot pools after a day on the slopes is the ultimate luxury.