Why a cycling tour from Christchurch is a must-do in New Zealand

The countryside around the Southern Alps is best explored on two wheels on a day trip from Christchurch. The cherry on top? You can also sleep in a silo hotel.

Aerial view of Little River Trail landscape with 2 cyclists on the trail
  • Glenn Cullen
  • April 2020

They do love a good mountain in New Zealand’s South Island. There are snow-capped mountains. There are mountains that rise off the ocean floor like a giant shark’s tooth and pierce the sky. There are mountains that have hosted Frodo and the Lord of the Rings cast three times over. But on a crisp spring-like day in Christchurch, I am here to praise the valleys.

Wanting to cycle but not being gifted with the type of granite thighs required, I think I prefer riding on the flats and simply admiring the mountains, rather than attempting to scale them on two wheels. To that end, a daytrip from the outskirts of the city to the lush banks of the Little River on The Little River Rail Trail with bike tour company Natural High fits the bill pretty well.

Flanked by the mighty Southern Alps to the west and pierced by the Avon River in the north, with long stretches of undulating terrain between, Christchurch and its surrounds are a natural fit for cycle touring.

South Island scenery with Southern Alps as a backdrop
The Little River Trail offers sensational views along the way.

The rebuild of the city has only enhanced its bike-ability – the completion of the Southern Motorway in mid 2020 will add a dedicated cycle path from the centre of town. You can cycle year-round but spring and autumn usually offer less extremes of weather. Natural High Bike Hire and Cycle Tours can sort out all the gear, pick-ups and put together a guided or self-guided single or multi-day tour for individuals or groups.

For now, the best ride starts about 15km from downtown in Prebbleton. The ride, 45km in duration, quickly goes from sleepy suburbia to sublime countryside, much of it on the now disused rail lines that serviced the feeder towns along the Banks Peninsula to the South Island capital from 1886 to 1962.

These days the tracks – invariably on a flat gradient like most train lines – are covered in compacted gravel, making it a comfortable ride on a hybrid or mountain bike. The eight-kilometre ride to the township of Lincoln only really gets the legs warmed up before the countryside opens up on to a shingle track via the Halswell River on the way to Neills Road.

2 bikers looking at the view, one of them pointing at the distance
The flat landscape around Christchurch lends itself perfectly to biking.

A four-kilometre diversion to Tai Tapu and one of its wineries is an option or you can power right through to Motukarara as I do with guide and Natural High owner Steve Inns on my private tour. Here, early spring lambs frolic right beside you, competing for your attention before the rather less endearing lake flies that swarm along the mudflats have their say. Note to self and everyone else: ride with your mouth shut and save room for something to eat at Gebbies Garden Cafe instead.

From here the Southern Alps disappear into the background and we straightline near the lagoon-like waters of Lake Ellesmere where southern right and humpback whales will periodically retreat. Then we continue along to our ultimate destination: the peach-hued Little River railway station.

For those big of lung and strong of leg, the rather less undulating 42km to the gorgeous French-settled township of Akaroa makes an obvious Day Two but for us the journey ends.

A cluster of disused grain silos which is now a hotel
Disused grain silos are an unexpected accommodation option!

A poke around the Little River Gallery or beer at the Little River Hotel & Bar are solid options in this quiet town but the lure of what seems to be nine incongruously placed wheat storage units has my immediate attention.

As a city boy whose lasting childhood memory of silos comes from the 1985 movie Witness, where one of John Book’s (Harrison Ford) protagonists meets his maker after suffocating in several tonnes of grain, I am just a little on edge as I enter the oversized metal drum – the night’s accommodation.

I need not have worried. The architecturally designed silos at SiloStay were custom-built from new materials and are classic Kiwi quirkiness laid out in a giant tin.

Interior shot of a bed in a room at Silo Stay hotel
The custom-designed rooms at Silo Stay hotel are chic and quirky.

The funky two-storey space is equipped with a kitchenette and seating area that winds its way to the upper floor bedroom, shower and balcony via a sculptured steel staircase.

After a day of touring on flat land, this is the sort of vertical adventure I can get used to...

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