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The lure of Hanmer Springs

It took 32 years for Jo Ferris to revisit Hanmer Springs — partly to see family, partly to soak in the thermal bliss of the village’s mineral pools. Given the current thrust to get Kiwis discovering their own country, this South Island alpine village is a must-do.

Anyone of a certain age who recalls the expensive airfares of past decades will also remember that it was cheaper to cross the Tasman than fly over Cook Strait.

If families were split between either island, contact was either a toll call or by letter. Remember those? Today's youth probably find it all quite laughable — but airfares were simply cost-prohibitive. Gizzy folk might argue they still are. It also explains why I have nephews, nieces and grand relations who barely see — let alone know — one another.

All of which, made a return to Hanmer Springs all the more sentimental. The old memory bank was obviously dusty, because the reality was like a new experience. That first trip was in winter — lambing on the rellies' farm and snow on the hills. This visit was the beginning of autumn, just before Covid-19 lockdown. It was exquisite — sunny, hot, beautiful. The trip was on the back of a four-day bike trail down South, so I simply hired a car at Christchurch airport and tiki-toured up the highway.

The road is a pleasant drive and obviously popular. Judging by the sheer numbers of people in town, it's easy to see this gorgeous village relies on tourism. The cavalcade of campervans was extraordinary — visitors from around the world. Among them was a German couple enjoying a picnic, as the young woman put the finishing touches to a fashion folio she was entering in an Italian competition. Groups of English tourists wandered up Conical Hill to the lookout's stunning vista. While soaking in one of Hanmer's thermal pools, I met an Australian woman who recalled how her house just missed being ravaged by last year's fires — long forgotten here, once the global pandemic struck.

There were Kiwis of course, like the Auckland couple I met while strolling around the eerily-empty Queen Mary Hospital where my sister-in-law once worked. A former sanctuary for war veterans and re-hab centre, the derelict buildings nestle in serene tranquillity amid towering trees. The splendour of these gracious grounds and indeed the township itself is awe-inspiring. The forethought of Hanmer's pioneers is to be envied.

The obvious lure of the thermal pools aside, nature is a big reason why Hanmer is a ‘must-do' — even more so now, since Covid-19 halted overseas travel. This quaint place caters for everyone and all ages. The physically-challenged can simply stroll amid trees lining the main street's central greenbelt. Gentle circular walks veer off side streets to allow anything from a 30-minute amble to a 90-minute trek through Hanmer's Heritage Forest. There's mountain biking suitable for novices to purists, while bridle paths cater for horse riders.

Conical Hill — while a relatively steep 550-metre zig zag — is easily tackled, proven by the 80-plus trio of women I encountered. For serious trampers, maps can be bought at the local i-SITE, which cover the full gamut of treks. These range from a half-day waterfall hike to full-day tramps to the likes of Mt Isobel and Mt Dunblane. With no less than 20 walks in and around town, golf, archery, paint ball, jet boating, rafting and bungy jumping, Hanmer Springs covers many things within a remarkably-small circuit.

Hanmer's pools hard to beat for family fun

Heading it all, however, Hanmer's thermal magnetism is arguably its biggest drawcard. What started with the discovery of a near- boiling water hole in 1859, grew into an adjunct for the sanatorium next door in the 1900s. In 1960, the complex was bought by the local community and gifted to the council. Now a multi-million dollar facility, it's a family leisure park, aqua exercise and mineral water soak all in one. The choices are diverse — from large geothermal pools, intimate rainbow and rock pools, sulphur soaks to private saunas. Temperatures range from 32 degrees to the delicious 42-degree therapy in the sulphur pools. Combined with a luxury massage or beauty package at the spa, it's little wonder Hanmer is a popular escape — be it romance for honeymooners or therapeutic treatments for the retired.

When it comes to families, however, this place is hard to beat. Tucked in a speciality corner, the activity pool offers big-slide fun, a waterfall and dumping bucket. The super bowl towers 15 metres above for an open-air whirlpool head rush. The latest attraction — the Conical Thrill Slide and the only one of its kind in the country — opened last November to add a further adrenaline buzz.

Despite the fact the Heritage Hanmer Springs Hotel has closed as a result of Covid-19 and businesses in the town have obviously been affected during the lockdown, Hanmer has lured back neighbouring South Islanders. One can only hope Air New Zealand will follow the ‘see Kiwi' mantra and offer better deals from Gisborne to bring the provinces within reach. I have instructed the kids that a family reunion in Hanmer Springs is in order.

There's a diverse range of pools at Hanmer Springs' acclaimed thermal spa complex. Pictures by Jo Ferris
Hanmer's Conical Thrill Slide is the only one of its kind in New Zealand.
Hanmer's village cruisers are a popular way of riding around town.
The zig-zig path up Conical Hill might be steep, but even people over 80 enjoy the walk.
The road to Hanmer crosses the historic Ferry Bridge over the Waiau River, home to bungy jumping and jet boating.