Lyttelton By Sea - And Via Tunnel


Lyttelton is a busy port town at the north western end of Banks Peninsula, close to the South Island's biggest city Christchurch. It's eclectic and well worth a visit. More than 3,000 live here and although badly damaged in the 2011 earthquake, it has bounced back with cute cafes, lots of artists, a brewery bar and an iconic Saturday Street market.

Twilight at Lyttleton Harbour

At Lyttleton the cruise ships have returned too and the tour operators have good information about the port's history and some of the old buildings you can visit on foot. Some of the streets are steep though the locals are happy to steer you in the right direction and the walk up the Lyttelton side of the Bridal Path to the top of the hill and the view over Christchurch and the plains, is well worth it.


How close is Christchurch - and Is there transport to Christchurch?

Public transport runs both ways through the Lyttelton Road tunnel. Built in the early 1960's and opened in 1964, the tunnel's about 3 kms, is well lit, two lanes wide and easily handles the heaviest of vehicles. 

It's worth noting that in the 2011 earthquake, the epicenter of the fatal quake was near the Christchurch side of the tunnel entrance, yet the tunnel itself suffered little, with just a handful of cracked wall tiles and has been compromised in any way.
Lyttelton to the city center is a little over 12kms distance and takes about 20 to 25 mins.
Uber is available.

Some Additional History

The early 1960's and the advent of the Heathcote to Lyttelton road tunnel saw huge changes for the port town. Lyttletonians who hadn't been to Christchurch in years, ventured through the hill to the city and vice versa. Opening day of the tunnel was a huge occasion. I remember Dad joining the procession with all of us packed in the Morris Oxford family station wagon and blasting the horn to join the cacophony of sound heralding the moment. I think we all felt so rebellious. Initially a toll road , it paid for itself pretty quickly and has for a long time been a free ride.

Can I cycle or walk through the tunnel?

The simple answer is no.

I love Lyttelton. I lived there for near a decade in the 1980's. I was young and single then, therefore fair to say Lyttelton didn't love me too much..however that's another story.

Back in the day, Lyttelton had something of a frontier image which was fiercely protected by the locals. The 1951 Waterfront (port workers were locked out in a wages strike) dispute is to this day remembered as a lockout, which it was and the hardships of the port families well documented.

Lyttelton has always had more than it's share of characters. Some have moved on, or passed on, just as the tone of the town has changed too.

There used to be pubs on every corner, with competition between all of them. Especially the famous annual Gayley Shield day. This featured darts and pool, as well as many other pub style events and had huge local support. 

Charlie ran the Mitre Tavern, which opened at 7 in the morning to cater for the watersiders doing early shifts, Gretna ruled like a colossus over the Boogie Woogie Down Under bar, Tubby traded round the waterfront, the Wunderbar had the Germans playing the Jews in table soccer, Mrs Chan's diner on the corner always had a feed and being a port, one could usually find a 'coastal hostie'.

World Famous in New Zealand - the Lyttleon Wunderbar

What's it like now - Is it a friendly place?

Lyttelton is a very friendly and relaxed place to visit. There's a hint of the Bohemian these days, as there is a wealth of history and New Zealand English is the language. Ask a local and he or she will proudly tell you a story.

Lyttelton And The Harbour

Lyttelton and its harbour is one of two major harbours on Banks Peninsula, the other being Akaroa read more about that here...
Both have long since dormant volcanic origins and are surrounded by bays and inlets. The peninsula is bordered by hills from Christchurch known as the Port Hills.
I mentioned earlier the Bridle Path track from Lyttelton over the hill to Christchurch. This was the initial route for many colonisers who arrived in the port from Britain, on what were known as the first four ships, bringing the first real organised settlers to Christchurch and the province of Canterbury. 

The ships arrived in 1850. They were the Charlotte Jane, Cressy, Randolph and Sir George Seymour and those names remain ingrained in local history. 

Can I walk the Bridle Path - How do I get there?

Yes, the route is open 24/7. The 'path' or climb is nearly two and half kms long. It's highest point is 333 meters (1093 ft) 
It's a shared track, with mountain bikers, walkers and runners and is a smooth surface.

The No. 28 Lyttelton / Rapaki bus will get you near the Lyttelton start point. It takes about an hour to walk in one direction and is deemed a hard hike.

History has it that those early settlers carried all their worldly goods over the path from the port to what was to be the `new city'. The Christchurch museum records the organ for the Christchurch Cathedral was likely dragged over that route.

The Canterbury Pioneer Women's Memorial at the top of Bridle Path

Through The Years

Lyttelton is politically and historically, a staunch Labour town and has struggled from time to time to maintain it's importance in the regional economy, though not in its popularity. 

It's still a significant container port, after years of being an inter island hub ferries, sailed overnight from Lyttelton to Wellington. The ferry train would leave Christchurch bound for the port of an evening, with many travellers making enough time for a beer at the Inter Islander Hotel across the road from the then railway station in the city. Lyttelton would be pumping too.

Does a passenger train still run between the two?

Sadly, no. Things got a pretty big shake up on April 10, 1968, when the new passenger 'roll on roll off' car ferry Wahine, which could carry rail vehicles too, having sailed overnight from Lyttelton, was blindsided by a massive storm, approaching Wellington Harbour early in the morning. 

This is still New Zealand's worst maritime disaster. The vessel capsized near the entrance to Wellington Harbour, losing power after hitting Barrett Reef. 51 people died after the order to abandon ship was given. Another died some weeks later, with a third, more than 20 years on, died as a result of injuries sustained that day. The Master survived and was largely exonerated, though only to live a tough life till his passing.

What are the attractions in the area?

Lyttelton Harbour is a long inlet surrounded by many bays, with Governor's Bay, Charteris and Church Bays and Diamond Harbour, the most populated. There are two islands in the harbour, Quail Island and Ripapa (or Ripa) Island, both with incredible histories. Neither of which are inhabited. 

However the Black Cat Cruises runs a launch service from Lyttelton, to and from Diamond Harbour on a regular daily time table, as well as charter cruises and frequent trips to Quail Island.

Quail Island

Named after a now extinct native bird, Quail Island is a stunning destination. You can walk the island, or enjoy a day on the safe and sheltered beach. There're public toilets though no shop as such.

The island was a quarantine station and leprosy colony, for the early settlers and the Antarctic explorers, Scott and Shackelton both trained sled dogs and ponies here before heading south to the ice. American commander Admiral Byrd also quarantined animals here. 

More recently the island was farmed before being converted to a recreational reserve.

Ripapa Island

Ripa Island's history is equally rich. In the 19th century it was a fortified Pa for Maori tribe Ngai Tahu, while later, it was also a quarantine station and a fortress for coastal defence. Fort Jervois as it was known, was built in the late 1800's in response to what was perceived as the Russian scare at the time.
Perhaps it's most famous inhabitant was 'Sea Devil', Captain Felix Graf von Luckner, master of the German Raider SMS Seeadler in WWI.
He was transferred here to see out the war, after he and some of his crew had escaped their grounded ship in the Pacific and made their way in open boat to Fiji to steal another. Though they were arrested and sent to New Zealand and a prisoner of war camp in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour. They escaped  there too, yet were recaptured in the Kermadec Islands, making world headlines and hence von Luckner was relocated to Ripa Island. 
Later a Count, it's said he'd been quite the gentleman during his time in captivity and later sent a letter to his captors in New Zealand, singing their praises and sending them every good wish.

The island is accessible by private boat or kayak from nearby Purau Bay, though don't plan on taking your dog with you, as they're not permitted. These days the place is administered by DOC. (Department of Conservation).

Ripapa Island

Lyytelton's piece de resistance ... The Farmers Market

This is undoubtedly the farmer's market that runs every Saturday from 10 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon. The locals have been doing this around 18 years now, spreading themselves along a large section of the main street with all manner of produce and artistry.

As Paul Simon sings, 'Take your burdens to the Mardi Gras, let the music wash your soul, you can mingle in the street, you can jingle to the beat of jelly roll..'

This market in 'the Port' really does have it all. 

Looking forward to exploring LYTTLETON? We can help with that!

Our New Zealand Self Drive Itineraries are a great place to start or Contact Us to discuss a bespoke itinerary developed with our expert travel consultants.

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 24 Jan 2023 (Last updated: 25 Jan 2023)

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