The centre of New Zealand’s South Island can feel a million miles away. Wild, rugged & windswept full of beech forests, alpine passes and abundant nature.
Welcome to the wilderness of New Zealand’s Central South Island. A place I had little experience with, despite growing up right around the corner. That was until twenty-twenty arrived, the pandemic hit, and I set out on an adventure to explore my own backyard.
Lewis Pass and the Maruia Valley are often lesser known by tourists, but the area is full of wildlife, hot springs & natural beauty as well as excellent food & drinks if you know where to look – so it was a great choice for a few short getaways from Christchurch.
Red Beech Forests
Towering red beech trees make up the forests around here, with a smattering of smaller silver birches growing underneath.
Pure beech forest is the dominent forest cover in the Lewis Pass, and numerous other parts of the country – it covers more than 2.9 million hectares of New Zealand. The Lewis Pass is an excellent area to see this type of forest, and experience the fairytale-esque woodland vibe by meandering through towering beech trees, huge mossy tree roots and delicate ferns spread out across the forest floor.
The red beech forests of the Lewis Pass and Maruia Valley provide a wonderful opportunity for some shinrin-yoku (forest bathing)
It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.From FOREST BATHING: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li,
St James Walkway
Located off State Highway 7, The St James Walkway is a multi day hike through sub-alpine conservation and reserve areas. It’s a great trail for wildlife spotting and covering 66 km of diverse scenery over 4–5 days.
It’s considered a good introductory trail to multiday walking, although as Michal points out it’s still the New Zealand wilderness, which can be demanding and dangerous if you encounter bad weather conditions. So it’s important to go well prepared for this, or any other hikes in New Zealand.
There are a number of huts in the St James area where you can rest the night, however, during the summer months it is recommended that you carry a tent with you, as accommodation in the huts is limited and available on a first come, first served basis.
You can read read more details about the St James walkway on the Department of Conservation Website.
Marble Hill + Deer Valley Campsites
If you’re looking for a couple of nights to pitch a tent and kick back out in the wild, Marble Hill and Deer Valley are both excellent, relaxed & off the beaten track campsites.
Marble Hill campsite is tucked away off the main road, bordering the forest. The sunsets are beautiful and there is wildlife all around. It’s very easy to camp here, and no bookings are required – you simply pay cash ($8 per night/per adult + additional fees for children) at the self-registration stand on arrival to the campsite.
Deer Valley campsite is a scenic small space in the beech forests, on the banks of the Lewis river. There are 10 non-powered tent sites here, and you do not need to (nor can you) book in advance – spots are available on a first come, first serve basis. Just like Marble Hill, you pay cash on arrival ($8 per night/per adult + additional fees for children)
Maruia Hot Springs
The Maruia hot springs are, in my opinion, the crowning glory of the Maruia valley. I may be bias, however, as I am a touch obsessed with hot springs.
Maruia Hot Springs totes itself as a wellness resort, and boy does it deliver – Japanese style onsens and rock pools amidst, native bush and surrounded by mountains and towering beech forests. Birds call and the river babbles by as you sit back and enjoy one of the numerous pools, steam room, sauna or cold plunge pool.
Maruia means place of shelter, and was a resting space for Māori people passing through on their way to the Pounamu on the West Coast. The hot springs were a location of many a night of rest, recovery, and often battle too.
The new owners of Maruia have done an exceptional job to turn this into a luxurious and world-class experience – their is excellent food, guided nature walks, massage, yoga and the premisis is even powered by its own hydro-power.
You can visit with a day pass, or make the most of the various accomodations options available – ranging from camping, to glamping pods, up to luxury hotel rooms.
You can see the different accomodation options & packages here
Native Bird Spotting
Here in New Zealand we may not have many large mammals to spot, but what we lack in bears we make up for in an abundance of native birdlife.
The Lewis Pass and Maruia Valley area is a haven for native New Zealand birds. If you’re lucky, you might spy some of the following:
- Kākāriki / New Zealand parakeet
- Pīwakawaka / Fantail
- Ruru / Morepork
- Korimako / Bellbird
- Whio / Blue Duck
Reefton Distillery Co.
Just past Maruia Springs when coming from Christchurch you will find the charming West Coast township of Reefton. Reefton is delightful in its own right, thanks to the preservation of an old-town West Coast village vibe.
But, scenery and villages aside, the Reefton Distillery Co. is well worth a visit just to sample some Little Biddy Gin an exquisite local gin made from wild, New Zealand native botanicals. I’m a bit of a fan of interesting Gins, and this is one of my favourites. In an unusual way it tastes just like the NZ forests, go and give it a try!
On the outskirts of the Lewis Pass (on the Christchurch Side) lies the Waipara region, well worth a mention for the excellent wineries that you can find here. It’s a small wine region for NZ, but it packs a punch.
I’m particularly partial to Waipara Reislings, and you can try my two favourites at Pegasus Bay Winery and Waipara Hills Wines – the latter being an excellent stop to try out their Medeterranian styled vineyard restaruant.
If foods your thing, then make sure not to miss Greystone Wines to try one of their equisite tasting menus.