Christchurch: A City Rebuilding
Christchurch took us by surprise. But we loved it. There's no denying, or hiding, the fact that the 2011 earthquake had a significant impact on the city.
Nearing the seven year anniversary later this month, the moment you arrive you can almost feel the love being poured into a city recovering. A magnitude 6.3 earthquake caused tremendous damage in Christchurch and Lyttelton, killing 185 people and injuring thousands. The earthquake’s epicenter was roughly six miles southeast of Christchurch’s Central Business District (CBD). It completely destroyed many older brick and mortar buildings, since it occurred merely six months after an 7.1 earthquake in September 2010. Despite the constant reminders of the damage, Christchurch is a funky, innovative city that's easy to fall in love with and route for.
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island. We stayed four nights, and at first, I feared it was too long. We have a flight to Sydney in early March, and since the South Island is so awe-inspiring, I didn't want to waste any time in just another city. However, Christchurch isn't any city and we were grateful to have the days to really explore. As we walked the city--nearly 40 miles in four days--we were constantly finding new gardens, streams, and side streets we hadn't previously discovered.
We stayed in the Canterbury House and it was so charming. Owned by a couple with an affinity for helping travelers, specifically backpackers, the hostel was homestyle accommodations. Whereas it's setup as a hostel, compete with bunkbeds, you're staying in their house. It was our first foray into longterm travel, as we were given full access to the kitchen and made many of our own meals. Although different than any other hostel I'd stayed in, we'd highly recommend the Canterbury House for anyone going to Christchurch. If anything, it's a fascinating business model.
Since the hostel was a roughly 20 minute walk from the city center, we got in a fair amount of walking. The first thing we did was buy baseball caps, since it reached 90 degrees some days, and we felt the real effects of a reduced ozone layer. It's a different sun. Will was diligent about reminding me to reapply sunscreen when I got lazy (you're welcome, Mom).
You get a real feel from walking any city, but this was heightened in Christchurch. We were perpetually rerouted from construction. Paths that were open one day were closed the next. And there were construction workers everywhere. On lunch break, at the post office, always drilling. And it's not difficult to see why. There were continual reminders of the loss. The Christchurch Cathedral, once a popular gathering and celebration spot, was roped off. After chatting with locals, it's polarizing whether to invest in restoring the historical structure.
As you carry on, you also get a feel for a young, cool city making a comeback. Graffiti art is ubiquitous and there is a rising up and coming food scene. For example, the container mall. It was an innovative, temporary solution for food stalls and retailers after the earthquake, which has sincec prevailed. Now, coffee containers and other fast casual eateries in containers are commonplace. I'd liken it to the food truck scene in Portland, Oregon.
If it felt like the city's restructuring is targeting the youth, that's because it is. The playgrounds themselves seemed like they're from the future. We spent one evening riding the zip line.
And flying down are surprisingly fast and massive slide.
Since we had a few full days, we were able to really take advantage of Christchurch's offerings. And there were many. A pleasant surprise was the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. It had an impressive collection. My favorite exhibition was Jacqueline Fahey: Say Something! She depicted love and despair in the 1970s by painting the intricacies of domestic life. The photo Georgie Pies for Lunch portrays her daughters eating takeaway.
We also spent a half a day at the Canterbury Museum, which also an extensive collection. We enjoyed the collection, Sir Robertson Stewart Hall of Antarctic Discovery. To be honest, I didn't know that Christchurch is the major gateway to Antartica. Of course it makes sense, I just hadn't thought about it. A picture that resonated with me was, "One Man's Courage," of David Lewis sailing though Antartic Waters, 1973.
Perhaps our favorite site was the Botanic Gardens. We spent a good amount of time meandering. The New Zealand Gardens were memorable, and felt like walking through a mini rain forest. As well as the the flowering gardens.
One late afternoon, we laid out a towel and read for a few hours in any shade we could find. Albeit apprehensive at first, buying Kindles remains one of the smartest travel decisions we made.
As we explored we continued to to find hidden gems.
We came across the Night Noodle Market, an Asian food pop-up in North Hagley Park. There were well over a dozen food stalls, plus games and live music. We stopped for a snack of pork belly bao buns and shared them on a bench just outside of the park.
For dinner, we were repeat customers at the Little High Eatery, which had eight different local stalls, each specializing in a different global cuisine. It had a fun, contemporary ambiance. A highlight was the acclaimed Bacon Brothers, a burger stall at a farmers market that upgraded to a burger bar. The burgers are loaded with creative toppings, and since they're quite decadent, a pro tip is to order a side of burnt broccoli.
In the evenings we'd also stroll down New Regent Street. It's a quaint street, originally opened in 1932, with cute boutiques and cafes.
We'd get ice cream after dinner at Rollickin' Gelato. The mint chocolate was made with real mint leaves seeped in organic milk and then whipped with chopped dark chocolate. Will said it was the best mint chip he's ever had.
Christchurch is the gateway to explore the South Island's epic landscape. It can be a jump off point for many tourists, but if you can, the city deserves a longer stay. In addition to the history alone, the city's hip, creative vibe is awesome.
Things we learned in Christchurch:
1) The States is doing it all wrong with pedestrian crossing. Christchurch has a world class pedestrian signage system. In fact, they even have blinking lights for bikers in addition to blinking lights for pedestrians.
2) How to quickly convert Celsius into Fahrenheit in your head: Multiply the temperature in Celsius by two and the add 30. For those advanced at math, the precise formula is multiply by 1.8, then add 32.
3) Sushi is far more affordable in New Zealand than the U.S.
4) Christchurch is clean. Despite the construction, you'd be hard pressed to find even a cigarette butt on the ground. Yet, public garbage cans were hard to come by. This was befuddling to us.
5) Kiwis are genuine people. Everyone we met, whether strolling through the Botanic Gardens or working at an eatery, were eager to help and impart advice. The people helped make the city what it is, and what it's becoming.