Body & Fitness

Thrillseekers getaway in Hanmer Springs

You know it as the pampering destination, but Hanmer Springs has quite a lot to offer adventurous thrillseekers, as Good Health Choices editor Rachael Russell discovers.

My husband peers over the railing of Thrillseeker Adventures at the murky river below.

“Boy, that water is flowing fast,” he comments. “This should be fun.”

Hmm. I’ve signed on for my first ever white water rafting experience while on holiday in Hanmer Springs. Three weeks ago, sitting in my office in Auckland where the late autumn weather was still hitting the 22°C mark, this seemed like a really fun idea. Now I’m huddling into my puffer jacket and wondering if they might just call the whole thing off. Are those rain clouds in the distance?

Hanmer Springs, an alpine town an easy 90-minute drive from Christchurch, is known for its hot pools and spa treatments. But as I’m discovering, this compact little town offers much more than pampering. Boasting numerous mountain biking tracks and day walks, and with the Waiau River nearby, this is the perfect place for an action-packed holiday. I just need to brave the action.

Dani, our cheerful young rafting guide, confirms that this Grade 2 river is running nearly three times faster than normal. But rather than be concerned, Dani insists we are going to have a really great time. She seems genuinely enthused, so I decide I might as well be too.

Dressed in wetsuit and dry jacket, booties and gloves, I find white water rafting to be both warmer and more relaxing than the safety briefing implied. Once on the water, the sensation is less hardcore-thrillseeking, more leisurely cruise. We spend a good deal of time just holding on to our paddles and admiring the scenery as the raft is carried along by nature, only paddling when the river narrows and we get a little action on the rapids. We don’t even notice how fast we are going until Dani points out that we’ve passed the two pick-up points they usually use for this trip – and we’re barely halfway through our time.

Our raft takes us past Marble Point Winery, a glass-front building that appears to be hugging the cliff edge, and through gorges reminiscent of Lord of the Rings scenery.

Wet and wild

As we drift, Dani entertains us with stories of tourists, including the once-a-week query “Does this river go round in a circle?” from rafters curious about how they’re going to get back again. “I’ve learned that common sense isn’t that common,” she muses. As for how we are getting back – usually by van, but today we’re in for a special treat.

We’re instructed to pull into a lay-by to wait and soon hear the roar of the Thrillseeker Adventures jet boat approaching, with a group of rather freezing looking travel reps on board. Our raft goes in the back, we go in the front, and so begins the wet and wild part of the trip as we race back up the river, with a few 360° turns thrown in for good measure. It takes a surprisingly long time to get back; our little raft had gone 10km down the river while we chatted. The jet boat is fun but as I finally get soaked in river spray I decide I’ll take the warmer rafting option any day.

There are few sensations greater than peeling off your cold wet clothes in the knowledge you’re a five-minute drive from a hot spring. And this isn’t just any old steaming water; Hanmer Springs’ extensive network of thermal pools allows you to choose between different temperatures of outdoor pool, go completely private in an indoor pool, or brave the nip in the air to go down one of three hydroslides. There’s something extra special about being in a hot spring as night descends and the outside temperature dips below 10°C. I had every intention of going down the slides, really I did, but I just couldn’t rouse myself.

It’s a very short walk back to our room at the Heritage Hotel, a grand building with a history dating back to the 1890s when the area was officially proclaimed a ‘health giving resort’ (soldiers came to recuperate here after WWI). The current hotel dates from the 1930s, and includes a large outdoor pool in its beautiful grounds – very popular with guests when the temperature hits the high 20s in summer and hot pools become a little less enticing. But with snow on the hills, I’m simply thankful for the central heating.

Everything on track

The next morning I check my Facebook feed to find most of the country is sheltering from horizontal rain. Not us. We wake to patches of blue sky and no wind – perfect for a walk up the town’s landmark Conical Hill. The path begins at the end of the main street, and zigzags its way up the hill under cover of a tall canopy of trees. Although the ground is slippery with fallen pine needles, there are a few people choosing to run to the top, and one brave soul pushing his baby in a pram. It’s about 20 minutes to the lookout, where we are rewarded with gorgeous views of misty mountains and a valley basking in the last of its autumn leaves. There are more track options for those after a longer walk, but we head back down so we can saddle up for our next adventure. Not horses, but mountain biking. Hanmer Springs is a popular destination for mountain bikers, thanks to an extensive network of trails catering to all levels of experience. On the more adventurous end is the option to be shuttled 3000ft up to the top of Jacks Pass and ride back down, on a track I’m told has magnificent views. However, I am Level 1 (if 1 is nervous Nellie who is certain she’ll skid off the path and injure herself). We pick up our bikes from Hanmer Springs Adventure Centre and are given a map to a beginner track in the Hanmer Springs Forest Park that should only take an hour to complete.

Pure bliss

The track turns out to be a little damp, and I spend the first half hour timidly going over tree roots and trying my best not to skid sideways and get a saddle in the you-know-where. It is eerily quiet; no birdsong, and no other people around, which is a blessing because I would probably be holding them up. But eventually I relax and get my confidence up. The tree roots become less of an impediment, more of an opportunity to prove to myself that I can still ride a bike like the fearless kid I once was – I am just a bit out of practice. By the time we near the end, I’m racing ahead, full of the buzz of exercise and fresh air… and the knowledge that as soon as I return my bike I’ll be heading to Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa for a full body massage.

Hot springs and spas go together like avocado and toast; it is just about compulsory to treat yourself to an hour of bliss in a town like this. I’m impressed with the spa before I even get in the massage room. First, they have copies of the latest Good Health Choices magazine on display in the inner waiting room (the one where you sit around wearing a bathrobe; the first step to feeling like a pampered person). Second, they have underfloor heating. A complete stranger and I actually take a minute to walk around barefoot and marvel at how grand life would be if all floors warmed your toes this way. The massage itself is also superb; just the right pressure and no chit-chat. I float back to the hotel happy to forgo dinner for an early night in my comfy hotel bed. If life is about balance, then Hanmer Springs is definitely the place to come to get the mix right; thrills and spills, pools and pampering – I’ll be back, and next time I’ll try that hydroslide, promise.

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