Making the most of Christchurch, New Zealand

This is a compilation of three earlier articles written after visiting Christchurch in 2016.

Christchurch, New Zealand is still recovering from a major earthquake that devastated a large swath of the city in February 2011 but still has much to offer visitors today.

I arrived in Christchurch on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the bus terminal that was 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, New Zealand Art Gallery
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 residents' collective 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, Christchurch, New Zealand
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.

Christchurch for Foodies

There is quite a selection of very good restaurants that either survived, or opened since, the quake so the foodie scene is alive and well. During my short time in the city, I was able to experience a handful of restaurants, mostly around the Cathedral Square area. While this is based on nothing more than my limited experience, I can unequivocally recommend each of these establishments.

There are a number of restaurants that run the gamut from international chains like Wendy’s and KFC to local haunts, dives and fine-dining venues within easy walking distance of Cathedral Square, which was the location of my hotel and the site of “ground zero” for the Feb. 2011 Canterbury earthquake that so heavily damaged this city.

Potstickers at Auntie Dai's Dumplings in the Christchurch bus depot
Potstickers at Auntie Dai's

My first experience happened, as I mentioned earlier, when I was just off the bus (literally) from Christchurch Airport (CHC) at the city’s recently opened bus interchange. There in the terminal was a little shop called Auntie Dai’s Dumplings.

One of a number of such outlets in the city, it offers a dozen freshly made potstickers with a variety of fillings ranging from vegetarian to traditional pork, chicken and others for between NZ$10 to $13. Either boiled or pan fried, they were prepared to order and delivered to one’s table piping hot. Bottles of hot chili oil and soy sauce were waiting on each table. Very fresh, very tasty, very reasonable.

After checking in to my hotel, I wandered around the area and happened into New Regent Street. At one end, I popped in to the Last Word Whisky and Cocktail Lounge where I enjoyed a Laphroaig cask strength scotch before heading across the street to the restaurant 27 Steps.

Eggs Benedict at Fiddlesticks for Sunday brunch
Eggs bene at Fiddlesticks

Named for the 27 steps leading to its second-floor location, some sources call it one of the best spots in Christchurch. I can’t vouch for that, but the mushroom risotto I had with a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc made me vow to come back for a more extensive meal another time.

A self-proclaimed breakfast snob, I had to try another well-regarded establishment called Fiddlesticks Restaurant & Bar for my Sunday breakfast. Although it was Mother’s Day, I arrived early enough to be seated immediately. Beginning with a glass of champagne hoisted in my late mother’s honor, I then moved on to the eggs Benedict. Not strictly traditional, as they were served on ciabatta bread instead of an English muffin, but freshly prepared and flavorful, although the Hollandaise sauce could have used more lemon for my taste.

Dinner was light. I stopped at an establishment called Three Cows on Victoria Street for a glass of wine and a pate’ appetizer. Excellent flavor with just the right touch of gaminess to the liver, it was accompanied by a quenelle of tomato marmalade and a Mud Bay Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand, of course.

Shakshouka, a dish of eggs in a spicy sauce, at Black Betty's, Christchurch, New Zealand
Black Betty's Shakshouka

Another morning, another breakfast place. This time, I sought out Black Betty, a coffee shop and restaurant near the Catholic Cathedral College. While I thought the the pour-over coffee was a bit weak, my main dish of Shakshouka – a dish of eggs baked with spicy tomato sauce and chorizo sausage – was outstanding. Topped with shredded fresh spinach, both the tomato sauce and the chorizo had a distinct kick. In addition, the dish was accompanied by toast and what was clearly house-made strawberry jam. It definitely got my morning off to an excellent start.

For dinner that night, I indulged in a bit of kitsch: Dinner on the Christchurch Dinner Tram. Not unlike the Napa Valley Wine train, but with less focus on the wine, dinner on the tram has been rated as one of the best dining experiences in Christchurch. Again, I can’t vouch for that but I can confirm it was delicious. In fairness, I should point out that the food is prepped in the kitchen of Maddison’s Restaurant in the Heritage Hotel, just across Cathedral Square from Cathedral Junction, the tram’s point of departure, and finished on the train.

Wine service on the Christchurch Tramway Restaurant, New Zealand
Wine service on the dinner tram

Dinner started with a glass of Peter Yealando sparking blush wine and an amuse bouche of broccoli and egg. That was followed up by a snapper tartare with popcorn for a bit of crunch and salt, braised wild venison that reminded me of pot roast, and a cheese plate of New Zealand cheese accompanied by ruby port.

Service is very gracious and a fair selection of wines and port are available. The only caveat is that it is simply dinner in a rolling tram car. There is no narrative offered so that guests can have uninterrupted conversations among themselves or with other diners.

Croque monsieur at Vic's Cafe on Victoria Street, Christchurch, New Zealand
Croque monsieur and coffee at Vic's

For breakfast my last morning in Christchurch, I sought out another well-rated establishment, Vic’s CafĂ© on Victoria Street. Starting with a “long black,” a double-shot of espresso with just a splash of hot water, I soon received my toastie version of a croque monsieur. Not a “proper” croquet monsieur in the sense that it wasn’t topped with grated, melted cheese but it was satisfying just the same. The sandwich had two types of cheese in addition to the ham, lettuce and mustard that are the hallmarks of this dish.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of Christchurch’s culinary offerings, it represents a starting point as well as encouragement that, despite the challenging conditions that persist since the 2011 earthquake, locals are not going to let the foodie scene be numbered among the quake’s casualties.

Sights to be seen

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.

Lyttleton Harbor as seen from the gondola

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.

Detailing the disaster

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. Christchurch, New Zealand, has many things for visitors to see and do, including learning about the major earthquake that devastated the city in February 2011 and the inspirational story of the region’s ongoing recovery.

The date was Tuesday, Feb. 22. The time was 12:51 p.m. when central Christchurch was busy with shoppers, and workers on their lunch breaks. For 24 seconds, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked the city. Many locals reported being flung violently and almost vertically into the air, and scientists reported the peak ground acceleration exceeded 1.8, almost twice the acceleration of gravity.

Christchurch, New Zealand's cathedral, before and after the 2011 earthquake
Christchurch Cathedral, before and after

The hardest hit area of Christchurch was the city’s downtown area. Built on an infilled swamp, much of the soil liquefied when the earthquake struck. Deprived of their previously solid footings, some 1,800 buildings in the central business district collapsed or were so severely damaged they had to be demolished.

The spire of the iconic Christchurch Anglican Cathedral in Cathedral Square was destroyed; the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament less than two kilometers away was also heavily damaged. Walls and verandas had cascaded down on shopping and strip malls, and two multi-story buildings had pancaked.

In the top photo, a popular postcard by Dave Foster of Post Art Ltd., shows the cathedral before the quake. The photo below shows the way it looks today.

A total of 185 people were killed, including 115 who died when the six-story Canterbury Television building collapsed.

Immediately after the quake, most news photos and video of the damage showed a downtown area that looked like a parking lot filled with rubble. Today, it more closely resembles a parking lot swept clean. Many of the major buildings that either fell down or had to be taken down are gone, and work is underway to repair and restore many others that were less badly damaged.

While it might seem macabre in a sense, the story of the earthquake and the subsequent, ongoing recovery is something that should not be missed.

Canterbury Chief Post Office, Christchurch, New Zealand
Canterbury Chief Post Office

RedBus, a local company that provides transportation and tours, operates a Christchurch Rebuild Tour and provided me with a ticket to the tour so that I could experience and write about it.

Convening outside the Canterbury Museum, which was damaged but has since reopened, visitors board a bus that wends its way through the area while a docent from the museum talks about the past, the present and the plans for the future.

The tour goes through Cathedral Square, past the ruins of the Christchurch Cathedral with weeds growing through the pavement and rust forming on the supporting I-beams. Directly across from the square stands the Canterbury Chief Post Office building, its doors and the clock in the clock tower boarded up and silent.

Less than a mile away, the bus passes the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. So badly damaged was this building that engineers used a camera-equipped drone to assess the inside of the structure rather than risk the safety of one of their own.

Returning to the central business district, the tour turns toward some of the more positive aspects of the recovery, including one of the most amazing things to come out of the disaster. At the corner of Hereford and Madras Streets is the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral or, as it is called by many locally, the Cardboard Cathedral, a name I am told that many of the parishioners loathe.

Christchurch, New Zealand Transitional Cathedral, or Cardboard Cathedral
Christchurch Transitional Cathedral

Designed pro bono by Japanese “disaster architect” Shigeru Ban, it uses prestressed cardboard tubes for the framework and corrugated plastic that is the same construction as cardboard for the sheathing.

A block south of the Cardboard Cathedral is an artist’s installation of 185 chairs that represent those killed in the quake. As no two people are the same, the artist determined that no two chairs should be alike.

Farther north, where Manchester Street meets the Avon River, sits one of the most recently completed projects: the Margaret Mahy Playground. Driving by on the sunny Mother’s Day Sunday I was in town, it had obviously become an instant hit.

The Christchurch City Council Chambers are being rebuilt a couple of blocks away, work has started to turn the former Forsyth Barr building a block north of the Christchurch Cathedral into a new Crowne Plaza hotel, and the empty lot that sits kitty-corner is the site for the city's new convention center.

In the downtown core, just east of the World War II memorial the Bridge of Remembrance is the area’s temporary business center, the Re:START Mall. Located near Cashel and Colombo Streets, temporary stores are situated in modified marine cargo shipping containers and provide a downtown shopping district to keep the area afloat until more permanent structures can be rebuilt.

Re:START Mall in Christchurch, New Zealand

Understanding that, without a retail core, the downtown area would likely die out, merchants joined forces and pulled together the temporary mall to make a very interesting, if temporary, shopping center. On weekends, musicians play for the crowds as people shop, mingle, and generally get on with their lives.

Most encouraging are areas where more has already been done. A short walk west of Cathedral Square is a residential neighborhood that has been returned more or less to normal. Work on a few larger projects continues but, along with the Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Art Museum has been reopened and is welcoming visitors. Numerous businesses dot the streets, ranging from espresso stands set up in cargo containers to white table cloth, fine-dining restaurants.

The story of the earthquake, including some amazing video of a building as it collapses during the quake, is told vividly at Quake City. An arm of the Canterbury Museum, Quake City occupies a storefront across from Re:START Mall and has a wide variety of static and interactive displays that provide a bit of the area’s history. It also includes a chronicling of the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and a cataloging of their effects. It is well worth the price of admission.

Much accomplished, much yet to be done

Shortly after the quake, political and business leaders as well as ordinary citizens saw that the devastation had provided the area with a unique opportunity.

“How many times do you get to re-invent your city?” more than one local said during my visit. But, as so often happens, the ideal came into conflict with reality.

Consensus, it turned out, was not easy to come by. While civic leaders and concerned citizens agreed that the city could be rebuilt better and stronger, that was where the agreement ended. The “how” became the bugaboo.

In the five years since the quake, some consensus has emerged. The city plans to widen Manchester Street, a main north-south thoroughfare, adding additional bus lanes and a protected bike bath. Building codes have been updated and new buildings will be limited to seven stories in height. But much inertia has yet to be overcome.

Christchurch, New Zealand cathedral in ruins
Christchurch Cathedral at present

In a very public display of procrastination, the Anglican Church still has yet to decide the fate of its damaged cathedral. As a result, many of the other damaged buildings in Cathedral Square remain in limbo. Without knowing the fate of the cathedral, which is the Square’s and the downtown area’s anchor, it is difficult to assess whether the cost of repair or rebuilding will be worthwhile. If the ruins remain or the cathedral is razed, the area might not have the appeal that would enable projects to be profitable. If the cathedral is rebuilt, it might have quite the opposite effect.

Around the area, empty lots are ubiquitous. Reasons range from owners who are banking on the future and holding their vacant land to those who refuse to accept that their land no longer has the value it once held, to parcels that are tied up in probate because their owners have died, either during or since the quake.

Finally, the recovery is slow by U.S. standards because New Zealand does not have a disaster relief infrastructure like the one that exists in the United States. There is no organization or government ministry analogous to FEMA to assist municipalities or the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to lend money to disaster victims at low interest rates to facilitate rebuilding. The recovery is being, and will continue to be, funded by insurance claims – not all of which are settled – and private funds.

As a result, some residents estimate the area’s full recovery could take a generation. And while that is unfortunate, the people with whom I spoke are generally making the best of things, happy to be getting on with their lives, and more than willing to talk with visitors about what they went through and how their lives were changed a little more than five years ago.

It may not be the most serene or beautiful place one could visit, but one of the reasons we travel is to become acquainted with and understand other people and other cultures. The opportunities for that in Christchurch are abundant, and will be for some time to come.

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Photos by Carl Dombek unless otheriwse noted
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