Article by Patrick Smith, Reprinted with permission from ACP Media. (Motorhomes and Caravans)
We were travelling around the South Island in a converted Ford Transit van. It was winter and the van’s insulation – if any – must have been thin because I remember being pretty damned cold at 380 metres above sea level.
But the upside of winter in Hanmer was something quite wonderful: sitting in a very large pool of hot water, snow falling silently from the night sky as clouds of steam billowed up to meet it.
I believe that in those days the mineral pools still had a therapeutic function for the nearby Queen Mary Hospital, then a residential treatment centre for drug addicts and alcoholics. If this small alpine village held other attractions in the mid-1970s, I don’t recall them.
Today, Hanmer Springs is an altogether different place and those pools – Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa to give them their full title – have become an award-winning attraction that last year pulled in 520,000 visitors.
The swish new Spa at Hanmer Springs opened this year as part of a $3.5 million upgrade and has already become the country’s busiest spa complex.
People have been coming to Hanmer Springs to “take the waters” for 125 years and the pools are still at the heart of the village and its tourism culture. Its alpine air, forest walks, rivers and mountains have always been major assets, too.
But the Hanmer we found as we drove in from Christchurch, 90 minutes to the south, was certainly a far cry from the place I overnighted in on my way to the Lewis Pass and West Coast all those years ago.
To start with, there was good coffee served in a number of smart cafés and restaurants. Good food, too, plus smart shops, and accommodation options that ranged from backpacker hostels and holiday parks to five-star retreats.
Motorhomes filled parking spaces beside the tree-lined Amuri Reserve near the pools, and tourists pedalled “Village Cruisers” around the streets.
Adventure activities are big business these days – from jetboating and rafting to bungy-jumping and quad-biking.
We took a 4WD trip up to Jollies Pass, where we looked down over the Hanmer Basin towards Lewis Pass. The next day we went horse-trekking, played golf on Hanmer’s picturesque course, and then strolled along a bush track beside a stream.
We ended the day back in the pools pondering the timeless appeal of hot water.