The Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is spectacular. More than one-third of the park has a blanket of permanent snow and glacial ice. Of the 27 NZ mountains that stretch over 3050m (10065ft) high, 22 are in this park. The mighty Mt Cook, known to Maoris as Aoraki, the 'Cloud Piercer', is the highest peak in Australasia at 3755m (12,391ft).
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The Botanic Gardens comprise 30 riverside hectares planted with 10,000-plus specimens of indigenous and introduced plants. There are conservatories and thematic gardens to explore, lawns to sprawl on, and a cafe at the Botanic Gardens visitors centre. Get the kids active in the playground adjacent to the cafe. Guided walks depart daily from the Canterbury Museum, or you can ride around the gardens in the electric ‘Caterpillar’ train. Hop-on, hop-off tickets are valid for two days and include a commentary.
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The absorbing Canterbury Museum has a wonderful collection of items of significance to NZ. Highlights include the Maori gallery, with some stunning pounamu (greenstone) pieces on display; the coracle in the Antarctic Hall used by a group shipwrecked on Disappointment Island in 1907; and a wide array of stuffed bird life from the Pacific and beyond. Don’t miss the statuesque Emperor penguin. Guided tours (donations appreciated) run from 3.30pm to 4.30pm on Tuesday and Thursday. Kids will enjoy the interactive displays at Discovery (admission $2).
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Christchurch Art Gallery
Set in an eye-catching metal-and-glass construction built in 2003, the city’s art gallery has an engrossing permanent collection divided into historical, 20th-century and contemporary galleries, plus temporary exhibitions featuring NZ artists. Guided tours provide an excellent overview, or you can hire an audio guide ($5) for a self-guided tour.
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International Antarctic Centre
The International Antarctic Centre is part of a huge complex built for the administration of the NZ, US and Italian Antarctic programs. See penguins and learn about the icy continent via historical, geological and zoological exhibits, including videos of life on Scott Base. There’s also an aquarium of creatures gathered under the ice in McMurdo Sound, and an ‘Antarctic Storm’ chamber where you get a first-hand taste of minus 18°C wind chill (check at reception for ‘storm’ forecasts). Admission includes unlimited rides on the Hägglund outdoor adventure course. An optional extra is the Penguin Backstage Pass taking visitors behind the scenes of the Penguin Encounter. Transport options include the City Flyer airport bus – it’s just a short walk from the main terminal – or the Penguin Express shuttle departing Cathedral Sq on the hour from 9am (adult/child return $6/3).
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Orana Wildlife Park
Orana Wildlife Park has an excellent walk-through native bird aviary, a nocturnal kiwi house and a reptile exhibit featuring the wrinkly tuatara. Most of the grounds are devoted to Africana, including lions, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, lemurs, oryx and cheetahs, and Asia is well represented with an array of Sumatran tigers. Guided walks start from the native bird feed at 10.45am and around the African lion enclosure at 2.30pm. The Orana Wildlife Park shuttle departs Cathedral Sq at 10am and 1pm daily.
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