Maruia Hot Springs - Lewis Pass - Take a breath
21 September 2022
According to the World Health Organisation, “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease.” Now, more than ever, the need to look after ourselves and our wellness is high. So the case for modern-day spas is undoubtedly strong, and fortunately in New Zealand we don’t have to travel that far to find a hot spa or thermal spring to relieve tired muscles and ease our ailments.
Nestled among the snow-capped Southern Alps in the picturesque Lewis Pass Scenic Reserve lies Maruia Hot Springs. It is a haven of forest, riverbed and natural hot springs, just 2.5 hours from Christchurch or 50 minutes from Hanmer Springs. The award-winning spa and wellness centre is an ideal spot for relaxing, nourishing your soul with organic food and easing your mind and body from the stresses and strains of daily life.
Sick of the “fake beige suits of the corporate world”, managing director James White decided to take on this business back in 2015, with the help of investors.
“When we took over the business from the previous Japanese owners, it was almost completely derelict,” says James. “What we’ve created is a place for people to come to improve their lives – in whatever way that means for them.”
James was not new to this sector, having studied over 140 hot springs in 22 countries around the world as part of his MBA at the University of Canterbury. What he discovered through his research was that there was no one right way to operate spas. In other words, there is nothing the same across the sector in terms of the offering. In James’ words, the only common thread is, “the magic of the water.”
This “magic of water” has been part of our history for thousands of years. Romans adopted the practice of public bathing around 300 BC. It became a vital part of society and public baths were visited by both rich and poor. For many, it was the only place to wash after a week of manual labour. It became a place for men and women to gather and socialise. This tradition spread around the world and adapted according to different cultures.
The hot pools at Maruia have been frequented for hundreds of years. Initially used by Māori pounamu traders as a place to rest and rejuvenate, we can only imagine how delightful it would be to stop here on their arduous walk to and from the West Coast. Indeed, the word ‘maruia’ in te reo Māori, is said to mean ‘shelter’ or ‘haven’.
In the late 1800s, European settlers built rudimentary huts, which evolved into a pub with time. Before the age of antibiotics and mass medical intervention, people would come to the springs to treat their conditions. These benefits remain today, with people saying the hot sulphurous water improves their sleep, reduces stress and anxiety and improves circulation, arthritis and skin conditions.
The Japanese understood these benefits and in the mid-1990s carried out a tasteful renovation of the property, in tune with the natural landscape. The owners converted the pools into a Japanese onsen natural hot springs. This onsen concept was born from Japan’s plentiful volcanic activity, and it’s said that the Japanese practice of soaking in thermal baths for healing stems back to when Buddhism spread to Japan in the 500s. But the cultural protocol of requiring nudity to visit a Japanese hot spring didn’t always work for the New Zealand market.
“There is something quite egalitarian about spending time here in your togs. Hot springs exist in every culture. It’s something that belongs to humanity, so it should be available to all.”
With the average source temperature of the water reaching 56 degrees Celsius, the ‘magical’ water at Maruia is then cooled to between 37 and 42 degrees for bathing. The pool water is always fresh, and approximately 500,000 litres of natural geothermal water flows through the pools daily. The water’s high mineral content contains a plethora of dissolved minerals, providing a habitat for black algae, which is similar to spirulina and floats peacefully around the pools.
To reach Maruia Hot Springs, you’ll get to drive on a stunning winding road that takes you from Canterbury to the West Coast, passing nothing but picture-postcard scenery at every turn. This is New Zealand at its finest.
On entering the Lewis Pass Scenic Reserve, you enter a stunning alpine environment. The actual pass itself is 860 metres above sea level. The region takes you among mountain top ranges, steep gorges, ravines, rivers and valleys, sloping along the Lewis River. The vegetation is predominantly turpentine scrub, bog pine, red tussock, moss and lichen.
And then there are the stunning subalpine beech forests dripping with lichen. There’s also plenty of birdlife, with kea, grey warblers and robins top of the list. And beware, you will likely encounter some pests too. Possum, Norwegian rats and deer are lurking within the mountainous terrain.
The area offers an extensive network of well-formed tracks through varied mountain scenery. I spoke with David Deck, Acting Operations Manager at Greymouth. David has lived in Greymouth for eight years and manages the Reefton DOC field base. He suggested a couple of favourite walks.
“The Alpine Nature Walk is a great short loop track through open tussocks, alpine wetlands and beech forest,” says David. You’ll get a great view of Gloriana Peak on the Spenser Mountains. Then there’s the walk to Cannibal Gorge Hut, which is the first hut at the Lewis Pass end of the St James Walkway. It’s a manageable distance for beginner trampers and should take you about three hours each way.
If you’re looking for something shorter, you could just go to the Cannibal Gorge, which is about one hour 20 minutes return (30 minutes down, 50 minutes up). Once you’ve entered the bush you descend a steep zigzag into Cannibal Gorge on Maruia River. A swing-bridge crosses the gorge to the true right bank.
If you’re after a back-country adventure, the Lewis Tops Route is highly recommended. The route starts across State Highway 7 from the Alpine Nature Walk carpark. It involves a two-hour uphill climb with the reward of good views. You’ll need above-average fitness for this one, as there are steep sections on the 1300m climb. Allow three to four hours.
And what about the sandflies? In winter, they disappear, and they come and go in summer depending on the humidity. Wear long sleeves and pants as well as insect repellent. If you’re on the move, you’re fine.
All of this is just 2.5 hours’ drive from Christchurch, off State Highway 7. And what better way to travel than in a Wendekreisen Koru Star 2 Freedom campervan. Yes, it’s a van, but it drives like a car. The firm suspension means it doesn’t feel like you’re rolling around the corners or bouncing over every bump. The visibility was great, and the reversing camera was handy, too. After just a couple of kilometres on the road leaving Christchurch, we felt like we’d got the hang of it.
With chilly nights, it was great to know the heater in the van runs from the diesel tank, so you don’t need to worry about changing gas bottles. Our van got to a toasty 24 degrees Celsius. The inside of the campervan is large enough to be comfortable for two but small enough to feel like you can easily manoeuvre it in a supermarket carpark.
I also particularly loved the insect screens attached to all the windows and hatches. It meant we could have that breezy holiday feeling throughout the campervan without allowing all the bugs in. And when you’re travelling in the Lewis Pass region, that certainly counts for something.
Maruia Hot Springs is an authentic eco ‘off-grid’ resort entirely powered by water with its own hydroelectric power station and natural thermal spring. The Lewis Pass region is the epitome of New Zealand’s natural environment. If you’re needing a recharge and a natural experience, this is the perfect place to take a breath.
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