CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: Looking past the carnage

First of two parts

Christchurch, New Zealand, a city that was devastated by a major earthquake in February 2011, has a long way to go before it has fully recovered but still has much to offer those who choose to visit.

I arrived in Christchurch on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the newly opened bus terminal, just a short walk from Cathedral Square and my hotel. After grabbing a bite of lunch in the terminal, I walked through a downtown area still under renovation, then past what remains of the Christchurch Cathedral before reaching my hotel when it occurred to me that, just as when visiting Poland, I was going to have to make a conscious effort to find and do things that were not related to the disaster.

Christchurch Art Gallery and sign
Although damaged in the earthquake, the city’s art gallery has recently reopened and admission is free. Even before entering, visitors will see a sign that literally spells out the region’s determination: a message fashioned in colored light tubes on the side of the building says, “Everything is going to be alright.”

The region’s Canterbury Museum is located directly across Rolleston Avenue from the art gallery and features many exhibits detailing the region’s history, design and its people. Given New Zealand’s south latitude, it is a logical launching point for exploration of the Antarctic, and one of the museum’s most interesting exhibits is the Antarctic Exhibition on Level 3. The full-sized snow cat on display draws little boys of all ages like moths to a flame!

The Isaac Theatre Royal, literally a stone’s throw from the hard-hit cathedral, is featuring local productions as well as internationally known talent including the Ramsey Lewis Quartet and the Blue Man Group.

New Regent Street
New Regent Street, a pedestrian-only enclave of shops and stores, bars and restaurants, has not only survived but is thriving, thanks in part to Mother Nature’s unceremonious removal of a 10-story building on the north end of the street that blocked the sunlight for much of the day. Now, New Regent Street could fairly be described as “bright and airy.”

Shops and stores around Cathedral Square, which is the emotional epicenter of the quake if not the geologic epicenter, are recovering with several doing so in robust fashion. Some stores are operating in brick-and-mortar locations while others are operating out of temporary facilities in an area called Re:START Mall.

A short-term substitute for the downtown business core, stores from souvenir stores to coffee shops to high-end retailers are operating out of marine cargo containers that have been creatively converted to serve this special purpose.

The Avon River that flows through town has retained its idyllic character and punting on the Avon remains a popular activity. A “punt” is a small, shallow boat with a flat bottom and square ends, usually used for short outings on rivers or lakes and propelled by pushing a pole to the bottom of the body of water being navigated.

As I detailed previously, there are quite a number of very good restaurants that either survived, or opened since, the quake so the foodie scene is alive and well.

Lyttleton Harbor as seen from the gondola
Southeast of town, the Christchurch Gondola takes visitors to the top of the Mount Pleasant Scenic Reserve and provides views of Lyttleton Harbour, an area close to the quake’s geologic epicenter. Although the gondola’s departure point is served by public buses, a $10 shuttle bus picks up and drops off in front of the Christchurch Museum and goes directly to and from the gondola’s base. Particularly on sunny days, visitors get a great look down on the city, the ocean and the bay nearby. It is a great way to get a view you're not going to get anywhere else.

Hikers might enjoy one of several trails leading from the top down the mountain for some distance, ranging from short to long. Each is rated so hikers can pick something to suit their skill and experience level. There is a restaurant and snack bar on top, a "time tunnel" ride that gives a bit of history about how New Zealand was formed, and the ride itself.

Christchurch is also an excellent base for forays into New Zealand’s famous wine-growing regions. Trips include half-day excursions along the nearby Waipara Wine Valley, one of the South Island’s burgeoning wine regions, and other adjacent wine-growing regions. Farther afield, visitors can opt for longer trips to visit the country’s famous Marlborough region at the north end of the south island.

While there are many things to see and do in and around Christchurch, it is impossible to ignore the effects of the earthquake and the recovery that is underway. More on that aspect of visiting Christchurch in my next installment.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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