July 22, 2008

Spring Forth; Hanmer Springs

By ALEXANDER, Miriyana

Hanmer Springs has been revitalising the masses for more than 100 years. Miriyana Alexander lays back, exhales slowly and basks in the hot pools to find out how. -------------------- Fact file How to get there: Hanmer Springs is a 90-minute drive north of Christchurch, through the wine-laden Waipara Valley. Where to stay: Former Southlanders Virginia and John Bagrie opened the five star bed and breakfast Fontainebleau two years ago. Virginia keeps the champagne on ice as many a man has been moved to propose in its romantic forest setting. www.fontainebleau.co.nz, ph (03) 315-5189. Where to eat: The Alpine Village Inn is a great pub - the roast of the day will set you back just $12.50. For something a bit flasher, try Malabar. It's one of those Asian fusion joints and my pad thai was tasty. What to do: The hot pools, of course. Open daily 10am till 9pm. It's a very cheap $12 entry for adults and $6 for kids aged under 15 (or $15 and $7.50 respectively for a same-day return entry). Treat yourself to a massage at the spa ($90 for a 60-minute full body massage). Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa, www.hanmersprings. co.nz, ph 0800 442-663. -------------------- SUPERMAN STOPS us at the top of Conical Hill. We will not be permitted access to the lookout without a password. Umm, I falter. "Kryptonite," says my all-knowing husband, and just like that, the five- year-old in fancy dress nods and lets us pass.

Thank God he did. The view is magnificent. The Hanmer Basin spreads out and settles beneath us like a giant picnic blanket. The unseasonably warm winter sun glistens on the braided Waiau River, and at our feet is the alpine village of Hanmer Springs - world famous in New Zealand for its hot pools and former rehab centre.

We've made the 550m climb as an entree to the main event - a life- affirming soak in the thermal pools. We want to give our city legs a workout so we can enjoy the delicious sensation of aching muscles sinking into steaming water.

There's certainly something therapeutic about Hanmer Springs, population 900, found 140km north of Christchurch by hooking a left on to State Highway 7 at Waipara Valley.

It reminds me of Mt Cook, a few hours south. It's the obscenely stunning surroundings and the still alpine air that tastes so good it should be illegal. But most of all, it's the slow-is-good pace that tricks you into thinking your mini-break was a much longer holiday.

This year, 540,000 people will visit this charming little town for a dip in the hot pools. That's almost 1500 people a day. And plenty of lost togs and towels (the lost property department auctions them several times a year, though I'm not sure about the wisdom of buying second-hand togs).

There's lots to do here - bungy jumping, jet boating, quad biking, horse trekking, etc - but really, you can do that anywhere. To come to Hanmer is to come to the hot pools.

Bathing in thermal pools for the good of your health seemingly had its origins in the Bronze Age, 5000 years ago. Things were a bit more recent in Hanmer.

Local lore has it early Maori used the springs to ease the aches and pains of overland travel as they moved between the South Island's east and west coasts. In 1859, a Culverden farm manager by the name of William Jones was the first European to discover them, but the region's remoteness meant it was the 1880s before basic bathhouses were built for wider use. Segregated nude bathing was the order of the day - apparently the way to tell whether it was a men's or women's pool was the trousers or skirt hoisted on a pole alongside.

A visit to Hanmer then was known as "taking the cure" - early nights, forest walks, inhaling the alpine air and daily dips in the pools. There was a sanitarium (where treatment included a pipe over one of the hottest pools so people could inhale the steam) and then Queen Mary Hospital, which opened in 1916 to provide convalescent care for returned servicemen (before reinventing itself as an alcohol and drug rehab centre from 1971-2003).

Today's flash, multimillion- dollar hot springs complex is owned by the Hurunui District Council, which returns $1.5 million a year to the community from its profits. It has 12 open- air thermal pools, four private pools, sauna, steam room and spa. It closes just once a year (Christmas Day) and Easter Sunday is the busiest day of the year, when 4000 people churn through the turnstiles.

So down the hill to take the cure ourselves. It wasn't like this in the early days, but we start with a delicious, hour-long massage in the spa. We're in a couples room, but I've no idea why we thought that was a good idea. We don't speak the entire time, and I doze off, having one of those out-of-body experiences - it's only when the massage finishes that I awake, not really sure where I am and what's been happening, but unhappy it's over.

We recover in our robes and slippers, drinking green tea and feeling smug in that my-body-is- a-temple kind of way. The nice thing about a spa treatment (the massages, body wraps and facials cost $60-$170 and include use of the hot pools) is getting to use its lovely warm changing rooms, avoiding the crazily busy and much colder public changing sheds.

We brave the winter chill, dashing out the spa side door and into the nearest pool. The water is silky smooth and deliciously hot. I sink in up to my neck, but it's only a few minutes before my body adjusts and I crave more heat. Cue the Hanmer hot pool dance. Jump out, run to the next pool and submerge. Repeat several times.

The water is drawn from a bore 28m deep, at 52(Degree)C, and cooled before hitting the pools, which range between 33- 42(Degree)C. It contains a smorgasbord of minerals (sulphur, calcium, magnesium, etc) and while I'm not exactly sure of the science behind the reported benefits, the internet assures me they exist.

Heard of balneology? Me neither. It's the study of the therapeutic benefits of natural mineral waters, and according to the world wide web, balneologists have found soaking increases blood circulation and cell oxygenation, stimulates metabolism, reduces pain and increases mobility.

Did I feel like a new woman? Not really. Was I revitalised and rejuvenated? Yes. And really, what more can you ask for.

When we went to leave, our rental car wouldn't start. We knew how it felt: we didn't want to go either.

Miriyana Alexander visited Hanmer Springs courtesy of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism, and Europcar.

* www.christchurchnz.com


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