Twenty reasons to visit Christchurch

Recycling: The Re:Start complex is built from shipping containers.1 QUAKE CITY
Nanjing Night Net

When a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch at 12.51pm on February 22, 2011, the earth rose one metre. A short time later, the earth moved horizontally the same distance. In its wake, 185 people died and a city centre became a terrifying scene of collapsed and teetering buildings, falling masonry and giant palls of dust. Quake City is a visitor centre dedicated to telling the story of this and a less destructive, but more powerful, earthquake that hit about six months earlier.



Given the name of the city and the piety of its founders, it was especially painful that every church was damaged in the February quake. Among the worst hit was the 19th century Christ Church Cathedral, situated at the physical and symbolic heart of the city. Its 63-metre spire collapsed and, so great was the damage, no church member has returned and few treasured items, like hymn books, were recovered. Today, the cathedral stands forlorn behind hurricane fencing, its nave wall is just a massive gaping hole.


Three CBD buildings survived the quake almost intact: a strip club, the casino and a gym. But cathedral worshippers were not down for long. Today, choral music rings out across Latimer Square from the Cardboard Cathedral. Designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, its A-line roof is constructed of 98 cardboard tubes, each up to 20 metres in length and covered in polycarbonate sheeting. There’s also lots of steel, timber and, below ground, tonnes of concrete. Conceived as a temporary measure, it now has an estimated 50-year lifespan.


A few steps away from the new cathedral and close to the CTV building where many lives were lost, there’s a tribute that’s so stark and moving it simply stops you in your tracks. On a grassy, vacant block at the corner of Cashel and Madras streets, 185 white chairs stand starkly in rows of nine. There are dining, office, kitchen and outdoor chairs, stools, a baby’s basinet and a wheelchair. Each one represents a life lost.


For a long time, the CBD was in the so-called red zone and closed to the public. Today, it’s a scene of vacant blocks, half-demolished buildings and limited commercial life. With almost no high-rises, a statue of a bloke on top of C1 Espresso’s grand premises is easy to find. And find it you must for fabulous coffee, great corn fritters and buttermilk pancakes. The cafe’s quirky features include DIY water via an antique sewing machine.


C1 also does brisk trade selling a pre-quake street map poster emblazoned with the words “There’s nothing to see here”. It’s harsh, but even the locals confess to sometimes forgetting what once went where. But life is returning. Where buildings once stood, some truly inspirational developments have grown. Places like the Pallet Pavilion, a series of outdoor rooms created using stacks of blue pallets as walls, seats and planters. Food and drinks are served at the site from a double-decker bus and old caravans.



Fancy a hit? The par 6, second hole of the Gap Golf putting course is located beside Pallet Pavilion. It’s one of nine holes across the city in a project designed to get people to venture into what is known as the Garden City but has the contemporary nickname of “gravel city” because of its vacant lots. Each golf hole acknowledges its site’s history. Equipment available at the Pallet caravan.


Christchurch lends itself to another family game: I spy a shipping container. It’s easy because they are berthed everywhere. After the earthquake they were a quick, easy and stable solution for many homeless businesses. Bank branches and ATMs operate from them along with cafes, bars, a pizza shop and beauty salon. Some are used in their original state – often for storage – while others have been given the Grand Designs treatment with the sides opened, windows installed and superior paint jobs. But most are stacked, like Lego, supporting crumbling facades.


Containers come into their own at Re:Start, a pedestrianised shopping complex constructed almost entirely from the steel boxes. In primary colours and placed single and double storey with awnings stretched across the pathways, the funky containers are home to more than 40 retailers such as former city bookshop Scorpio Books. Fashion labels include Mimco, Nicholas Jermyn shirtmakers and cool Kiwi outfits like Soeur Design, Kathryn Wilson designer shoes and Christchurch jeans institution Hunters and Collectors.


Kiwis and Australians share a love of fine coffee. One of New Zealand’s best, Hummingbird, was established in 1990 and hand roasts about 20 single origins. It’s a good reason to visit the two-storey Hummingbird Cafe, constructed of three containers, at Re:Start. Another is the terrific food. At breakfast, try juicy mushrooms on thick toast with spinach, warm fetta and a squeeze of lemon. Choose Re:Start blend coffee and a donation goes towards the historic Court Theatre rebuild.


In a city centre that goes spookily dark and silent after nightfall, Re:Start is a lively daytime hub. To follow the action after nightfall, head for Victoria Street which radiates from the CBD. On and around this notable eat street, find hip Asian favourite King of Snake and Harlequin Public House, a smart restaurant in a historic house. Take a seat at the counter of slick Japanese restaurant Sala Sala and order outstanding salmon and tuna sashimi with a glass of sake.;;


After the quake, people felt safer outdoors. That, and the necessity to use containers, created an awesome bar scene, much of it around Victoria Street. At Revival, a DJ plays, an All Blacks game is projected on a wall, chairs are made from supermarket trolleys and cocktails come from a converted container. A bus acts as a bar at Smash Palace, where patrons sit under giant umbrellas and fairy lights. It’s huge fun.;


The earthquakes are reshaping Christchurch, with much commercial development moving to the outer fringes and suburbs. Woolston, a thriving tannery centre in the late 1800s, is now home to a stylish centre of shops, restaurants and a brewery called The Tannery. In a restored brick and timber building once used for supplying hides to the shoe and boot industry, Cassells and Sons craft brewery operates alongside Gustav’s Kitchen and Wine Bar. Order mussel fritters and diamond shell crab with Alchemist pale ale.


Whisky lovers should not leave town without visiting cocktail bar The Last Word. It’s situated in New Regent Street, a delightful pedestrianised mall, fully operating in the city centre, and home to specialty boutiques, restaurants and shops. The Last Word has a wide range of whisk(e)ys but visitors also find shops selling jewellery, clothes and the famed Mrs Higgins cookies. Opened in 1932, the pastel-coloured terraced shops are Spanish Mission in style.


Hotels are among the first businesses to be re-established in the CBD and the granddaddy of them all is the Heritage Hotel. For more than a century, this imposing building with arches and columns aplenty has been a gateway to Cathedral Square. A government building for most of its life, the public rooms and bedrooms are on a grand scale with wide corridors, sweeping staircase and high ceilings. Modern necessities include a well-equipped gym and indoor pool.


No one is quite sure where Christchurch’s population stands. It was about 400,000 pre-quake, making it New Zealand’s second largest city, but many allegedly left town. A recent census will soon reveal all. In the meantime, look down on the city by riding the Christchurch gondola, or cable car, one kilometre up to the top of Mt Cavendish. The 360 degree views include the Southern Alps, ocean, Port Hills and the crater rim around Lyttelton Harbour.


Having looked down on the surrounding country, hire a car and take a drive. Head inland to Arthur’s Pass for a spectacular trip across the Canterbury Plains then uphill into the Southern Alps. The road is a mix of single-track bridges across wide, stony river beds and ice-blue waters, splendid vistas of snow-covered peaks and high lakes. This is Lord of the Rings country. Arthur’s Pass village is a good spot for lunch.


For an altogether more gentle day’s drive, head to Akaroa, the South Island’s oldest colonial town and the country’s only French settlement. It sits by a beautiful harbour and, when you’ve explored the historic town, take a cruise to see penguins, fur seals and the world’s smallest and rarest dolphins, Hector’s dolphins. There’s no escaping New Zealand’s shaky character … the peninsula originates from volcanos millions of years ago.



Christchurch is the world’s airline connection to the Antarctic. America and Italy are among those who use the airport, flying about 100 military aircraft with 5500 passengers and 1400 tonnes of cargo annually. Take a trip to the world’s coldest place without leaving the ground by visiting the Antarctic Centre. Dedicated to recreating the harsh continent, visitors can take a 3D simulated cruise, experience a storm at -8C, see an Antarctic light show and travel in a giant overland truck.


Few of us ever visit a disaster area – or want to – but there’s an element of it in Christchurch CBD, a fascinating study of a place in transition. There’s also vitality about the place and some of the world’s most creative minds are there to work on a blank canvas. Just walk to see exciting street art, new buildings, creative uses of ordinary objects. It’s an inspiration.

The writer travelled with assistance from Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism.

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