How to spend 48 hours in Ashburton, NZ

Sitting pretty on the plains of the South Island’s Mid Canterbury region, and framed by the majestic Southern Alps, two major glacial rivers (the Rakaia and Rangitata) and the shimmering Pacific Ocean, regional hub Hakatere Ashburton is an altogether delightful spot to while away a couple of days.

Clean and green, the town has a diverse dining scene and a surprisingly large array of museums and cultural facilities (planes, trains and automobiles are all on the agenda for avid museum goers!). Those who love to toss in a line are also well catered for in the region, as are green thumbs and nature lovers. Pack some comfortable walking shoes!

Here’s how to spend 48 hours in Ashburton. Book your stay with Choice Hotels.

Day 1

8am: Do a scenic walk on the way

Chances are you’ll be heading to Ashburton from the city of Christchurch, a distance of 80 kilometres along State Highway 1. However, since you have a couple of days up your sleeve, we‘re sending you on the scenic route via State Highway 72 towards Windwhistle. There are a couple of amazing walks to do here, both with majestic Mount Hutt as a backdrop. The Washpen Falls Adventure Walk takes around two hours and is suitable for reasonably experienced hikers. A small fee is payable, which goes towards the upkeep of the private property track. Further on, the Rakaia Gorge Walkway begins just before you cross the Rakaia River and follows the course of the river gorge upstream. The whole walk takes about three hours and some fairly muddy tramping is involved. But it’s worth the mess!

Historic Rakaia Gorge Wooden Bridge crossing the Rakaia River in Mid Canterbury New Zealand
Rakaia Gorge Walkway. Image: Bigstock

12noon: Tuck into a country pub lunch

You’ve earned a hearty lunch at a classic country pub, and there’s a cracker located in the nearby town of Methven. The Brown Pub is warm and welcoming and serves up plenty of tasty pub fare. From there, it’s just a half-hour on to Ashburton. Check into your hotel and freshen up for the afternoon.

Related: Places to Discover Before 30: South Island NZ

2pm: Visit the Ashburton Art Gallery and Domain

The Ashburton Art Gallery and Heritage Centre is located right in the heart of town, just a stone’s throw from the leafy Domain. The gallery holds a fabulous collection of local art, and having taken in some pretty spectacular vistas this morning, it’s not hard to work out where local artists get their inspiration. The collection also holds some nationally significant pieces, and hosts touring exhibitions.

Take this opportunity to also explore the Domain, which is peppered with pieces of public sculpture. Meander along shaded pathways by manicured lawns, and say g’day to the ducks. The Domain hosts a variety of sports amenities, a playground and an aviary. Alternatively, you can choose to visit the Ashburton Museum to uncover the cultural and social heritage of Mid Canterbury and Aotearoa.

FC1H0A Ashburton Art Gallery and Heritage Centre, Mid Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand,Oceania
Ashburton Art Gallery and Heritage Centre. Image: Zig UrbanskiAlamy

5pm: Enjoy a lakeside tipple and dinner

Man-made Lake Hood and the Ashburton Aquatic Park lie eight kilometres south of the town centre. The Lake House Restaurant and Bar has a terrace overlooking the spring-fed waters of the lake, and it’s the perfect spot to enjoy a sundowner of a local craft beer or wine. Afterwards, head into the restaurant for dinner. Order from the American-style smokehouse BBQ menu (the smoke platter is awesome value) or the a la carte restaurant menu, which showcases the freshest local produce. The Lake House operates a shuttle service to and from town.

Image: The Lake House Restaurant and Bar

Day 2

8am:  Head to a cool café for breakfast

Get the day off to a good start with breakfast at one of Ashburton’s eclectic cafes. With its industrial chic setting, broad café menu and deli cabinet packed with home-baked treats, The Somerset Grocer is a top option. You can also shop for locally produced gourmet foodstuffs. The stylish wine bar is a must-come-back-to-later.

10am: Hook a selfie with the Big Salmon

It’s a short 30-minute drive east of Ashburton to the heritage town of Rakaia, situated beside the Rakaia River. As referenced by the town’s 12-metre high Big Salmon, the braided river is an angler’s paradise and is traversed by the longest road bridge in the country (1.7 kilometres). If you’re up for a stroll, there’s a walkway that follows the course of the river and offers good views of the bridge. Salmon Tales Cafe opposite the statue is a popular spot for lunch. Try the salmon salad or pan-fried option.

B7F3BN The 'Big Salmon' welcome sign, Rakaia, Ashburton District, Canterbury, New Zealand. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.
Take a selfie with the Big Salmon at Rakaia. Image: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

1pm: Choose a museum, any museum

Back in Ashburton, it’s time to visit your pick from the city’s six museums. Train spotters will love the Plains Vintage Railway and Historical Museum, which features a variety of locomotives and carriages from yesteryear, and a recreated heritage village. The museum has set open days, but you may be able to arrange access with a volunteer if the dates don’t line up. The Ashburton Fire Museum is also part of the Plains Museum Complex. Over at Ashburton Airport, the Ashburton Aviation Museum celebrates the history of flight in the region – including Ashburton’s role as a base for training fighter pilots in World War II. The museum has twenty different aircraft on display, including a newly acquired RNZAF Skyhawk. It’s open daily from 1 to 3pm.

Plains Vintage Railway and Historical Museum. Image: ART Collection/Alamy

3pm: Take a trot around Trott’s Garden

It’s hard to believe that Ashburton’s gorgeous Trott’s Garden was once a series of bare paddocks. This 40-year labour of love of passionate gardeners Alan and Catherine Trott was recently taken over by the Trott’s Garden Charitable Trust and is open to the public daily. Entry is by donation and highlights include the woodland area with its 600+ rhododendrons, the English-style formal garden, the red border, and the rose walk. The garden shuts at 4pm, so passionate gardeners may want to cut into their museum time and spend the whole afternoon here.

6pm: Bank a great meal at the Speight’s Ale House

End your day with a relaxed dinner and drink at The Speight’s Ale House, which occupies a heritage bank building dating back to 1898. The menu includes a range of small and shared plates, along with main course options. Pull up a pew in the shaded al fresco dining area or enjoy the contemporary interior setting. There are regular themed dinner specials.

Need a place to stay?

Only an hour’s away from Ashburton, the Comfort Hotel Benvenue in Timaru is the perfect place to base yourself for your time away in Ashburton!

About the writer

Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has previously had the opportunity to travel the world as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten.

Cover image: Rakaia River. Image: Matt Crawford

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