Splendour off the beaten track

Feeling like being on the edge of the world at Cathedral Cliffs and Gore Bay. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
Feeling like being on the edge of the world at Cathedral Cliffs and Gore Bay. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
North Canterbury’s Gore Bay Tourist Drive is a classic Kiwi detour, leading you along storied coastal nooks to geological wizardry and a sky-high place to stay above the clouds, writes Mike Yardley.

Gazing across the cinematic good looks of Hurunui’s Gore Bay, a shape-shifting spiritual force was seemingly stamping its mark on the coastline. A humdinger blanket of sea fog was unfurling its ethereal beauty at dawn, as the sun assertively poked its head through the ruffled duvet. 

The headland was soon consumed by plumped-up pillows of cloud, while long and slender fingers of mist coiled around the curves of the cliffs, like more delicate, artful phantom.

It was a spell-binding spectacle to start the day from the pampered surrounds of Cathedral Cliffs Bed & Breakfast.

Standing atop the towering sedimentary rock cliffs at the south end of Gore Bay, this enchanting accommodation experience should top your check-list in these parts. The hosts are Colin and Lynne Harrison. This charismatic couple took possession of the property more than a decade ago and will treat you royally, with a laid-back, charming and easy manner.

Super-boutique, it has two spacious suites to choose from, the Queen Suite and the Bedroom Suite. A sumptuous fully cooked breakfast is available too. (Much of the fruit and jams are sourced from the orchard.) Plump for the larger Queen Suite, loaded with creature comforts and accentuated with a large private deck overlooking the orchard and the sweeping ocean.

Historic Eliza Robinson summer cottage.
Historic Eliza Robinson summer cottage.
I felt like I was on the edge of the world, wrapped in botanical splendour. As the sun steadily burnt off the lingering morning mist, I gazed down at the deep blue ocean wondering if I had magically transported myself to the Amalfi.

The verdant setting and steep-sloped coastal outlook is uncannily similar — complete with citrus trees bursting with fruit.

Crowning the cliffs above Gore Bay and Port Robinson, the property’s 2ha garden thrives in its unique and undulating microclimate. First developed in the mid-1990s by the previous owner, Murray Elliot, the garden is a showcase of rhododendrons, including rare unnamed varieties that he bred.

It is fully protected from southerly and easterly winds, and the frost-free microclimate has enabled some plants to reach 7m high. Sprinkled around the garden, roses flower almost year round, while the perennial beds add to the pageantry.

The array of plant varieties is astonishing, from bulbs, to camellias and graceful magnolias. Sun-loving and drought tolerant succulents, agaves and proteas are in seventh heaven here. "Flourishing" doesn’t even begin to the describe the resplendent size of the cliff-hugging proteas.

Autumn’s mellow fruitfulness was in full blaze in the extensive orchard. The fruit trees were positively groaning in sublime citrus, apples and avocados.

Historic Eliza Robinson summer cottage.
Historic Eliza Robinson summer cottage.
Lynne eagerly implored me to fill up a bag of fruit to take home. Hell yes! My freshly picked lemons and Reed avocados are absolutely irresistible. Before you leave, be sure to try your hand at hitting a golf ball over the pond on to the high ground putting green that Colin has artfully designed. Alas, it wasn’t a hole in one for me!

Cathedral Cliffs B&B is an elevated oasis fit for the gods, underpinned by the Harrisons’ delightfully disarming country-style hospitality. A stay here will linger long as a holiday highlight. It’s a next-level experience on the Gore Bay Tourist Drive — and it won’t break the bank.

Heading up from Christchurch on State Highway 1, I turned off at Domett to commence my romp around the 21km tourist drive circuit.

It is your classic detour.

Before reaching Gore Bay, head down to the Hurunui River Mouth, doted over by trout and salmon fishers. The views alone are stupendous, as the river winds through the beach to reach the ocean, the crumbling golden clay cliffs forming a magnificent backdrop.

From here, I struck out on the Manuka Bay track, a 3km-long walk, embracing the coastal elements. It takes about 90 minutes each way and you will encounter a selection of scenic treats, from the striking Hurunui Lagoon and lush broadleaf forest to fern-filled gullies and regenerating manuka forest — all against a backdrop of the big blue ocean.

From the unruffled solitude of Manuka Beach, I then tootled along the coast to size up the remains of Port Robinson.

Botanical blaze at Cathedral Cliffs.
Botanical blaze at Cathedral Cliffs.
It is named after William Robinson, who was at the forefront of 19th-century pastoralists and the self-sufficient pastoral kingdom of Cheviot Hills.

Better known as "Ready Money" because he usually paid in cash, Robinson not only developed his great estate of Cheviot Hills, he also built the Hurunui Bridge and the Port Robinson slipway.

Echoes of his legacy are ever-present in these parts. His incredibly ambitious slipway on such an inhospitable coast enabled ships to anchor in the lee of the headland, while boats ferried the wool clip to them, from the slipway. Today, the remnants of that daring slipway can still be seen, after a gnarly 10-minute walk down the hillside track to the cove. The main trunk railway line from Christchurch finally reached Domett in 1907, rendering the "port" redundant.

Back on the road, I drove down the hill to soak up the simplistic, timeless charm of photogenic Gore Bay. The money shot is undeniably at Cathedral Cliffs lookout, serving up drool-worthy views of this sprawling eroded siltstone and sandstone formation, conjuring the grandeur of a cathedral with its grand assembly gothic-like fluted columns.

It is a star specimen of badlands-style erosion. When the rain falls, the gravel layer at the top protects the softer sedimentary layers directly below from being eroded and washed away, allowing these vertical rib-like formations to take shape.

It’s a view to take your time over as you marvel over nature’s dramatic artwork.

Super-botique, Cathedral Cliffs Bed & Breakfast.
Super-botique, Cathedral Cliffs Bed & Breakfast.
With a classic Kiwi beach vibe, Gore Bay is renowned for having the most consistent surfing in Canterbury, a very safe swimming beach, and it is laced with fabulous walks.

At low tide, you can walk to Port Robinson from the beach at Gore Bay. "Ready Money" built a summer cottage for his wife, Eliza, here in 1867, enabling her to take the sea air when his mates arrived at the homestead for mannish pursuits. It is uplifting to see this historic cottage looking so well maintained.

A superb walk is the Tweedies Gully Track, which zips you through rich broadleaf coastal forest featuring five-finger and kawakawa, serenaded by bellbirds and fantails, before topping out at an open lookout with enormous views of Pegasus Bay and the ravishing topography.

You will also get some close-up perspectives of those legendary Cathedral Cliffs from the bottom of this canyon. Recent heavy rain has damaged parts of the track, so follow the detours.

Complete the circuit by driving around to Cheviot. I adore the Ready Money Trail, a recently developed walking track within the wonderful woodlands of Cheviot Hills Reserve. Great drifts of golden leaf fall are just cracking into life for their seasonal outing, while in spring, the woodlands would make William Wordsworth blush, ablaze with daffodils.

The 50ha reserve was originally owned by William Robinson who planted an eclectic range of English, European and Australian trees in the 1860s, most of which are still standing today. He also set out miles of hawthorn hedges, parts of which still survive around Cheviot.

The remains of his stables and even the concrete foundations of his acclaimed 40-room mansion, that burned down in 1936, can be found in the reserve. The mansion’s original front steps now support a small cricket pavilion, while the manager’s house and the estate’s original bell tower are now in private residence, on Gore Bay Rd, close to the reserve. Follow the 3km-long track around the reserve and get a sense of the back story from the signposted historical sites along the way.

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