Wandering amongst the sketch-pad quality skeletons of buildings and roped-off rubble of downtown Christchurch five years after the 2010/2011 earthquakes (and nine years after my first visit here) devastation is the first impression to filter through my mind.
It's actually unusual that I would introduce a travel piece from such a personal note, but I found it impossible to write with breezy detachment about a transformation that at times brought tears to my eyes. In particular the empty, graffiti-ed shell of vibrant independent book store Scorpio Books on Hereford Street struck me with a poignant note of culture lost.
But then I walked some more. I looked between the cracks in the glass and the altered foundations and damaged roads forced upwards by liquefaction and began to to discover signs of hope, and art, and growth, and yes, culture re-emerging.
Signs annotating "Rebuild Zones" were side by side with repeated "No Vacancy" signs lined up fronting classy hotels. Vines twisted up the enclosures of inviting "Oasis Pods" clustered around the downtown area. Soft-colored light filtered through the geometrical features of the Transitional "Cardboard" Cathedral designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban on the corner of Hereford and Madras. And as I turned the corner from Cashel Street into the Re:Start Mall, an optimism-inspiring gathering of retail shops and cafes housed in shipping containers in all colors of the rainbow, there it was. A bustling Scorpio Books in a shipping container painted with an intricate skull mural, filled with page-rifling consumers and hip tattooed staff.
On my former visit (on a long backpacking trip in my early-20s) I remember having a "Pleasantville" impression of Christchurch—bright flowers spilling from window boxes, English colonial-style houses impeccably tended, streets and even urban buildings striking in their cleanliness and uniform near-perfection. Today's Christchurch is striking not for its uniformity but for its resilience. Like a bruised and battered prizefighter it shakes off its injured core, rises shakily to its feet, and stretches its limbs for the next round.
Check into the thoughtfully appointed "Spa Suite" at Arthur's Court on Sherborne Street, the first hotel in New Zealand to receive the dual accolades of five stars and an Enviro Gold rating from Qualmark.
Owners Leon and Vivien have taken every care to ensure their impact on the environment is as minimal as possible and that their business gives back to the community, from the extensive solar hot water system to the labeled compost bins in guest units.
All lighting in the property is low-energy and there are flow restrictors in the showers and dual flush toilets to reduce wasted resources. No chemical sprays are used in the garden or landscaping, the partially-used soaps are recycled for biofuel, and environmentally-friendly supermarket bags are even supplied in the rooms to reduce plastics.
The business also makes monthly donations to the Women's Refuge, the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Canterbury, and the New Zealand Conservation Trust. Leon and Vivien's commitment to protecting their beloved Canterbury is made clear in their mission statement—"We believe in protecting the beautiful natural environment of Canterbury that we live in and enjoy, and want to ensure that both our children and your children and grandchildren can visit and enjoy it too."
For dinner try Curators House on the banks of the River Avon. About as fresh and sustainable as a restaurant can be, it's located within the city's Botanic Gardens and takes full advantage of the freshest possible produce grown onsite in their own demonstration kitchen garden. Wander the garden before dinner to see where the lemons, herbs and bell peppers in your paella began.
Half Kiwi, half Spanish couple Javier and Jackie Garcia take joy in creating fresh, flavorful Spanish-style cuisine from the colorful bounty of Canterbury's rich soils and seas. On a warm summer evening there is no better place in Christchurch to sip a glass of spicy Waipara Valley pinot noir than from the sunny courtyard of Curators House with flowers blooming as far as the eye can see.
When the sun finally goes down (around 9 pm in the summer months) check out Dux Live on Lincoln Road. They host some talented local bands and shake up some tasty cocktails as well. Their mushroom arancini stuffed with feta will satisfy a late-night hunger pang with panache.
A nice option for exploring Christchurch on two wheels is to pick up a vintage rental from Vintage Peddler Bike Hire on Bealey Ave. The city also has a useful bike share program for short rides, but the cool vintage bikes are just a real pleasure to coast around town.
Stop by C1 Espresso at 185 High Street for a lovingly crafted caffeine fix. The beans are organic and free trade, and the cafe is filled with creatively repurposed materials—it re-opened after the earthquakes in a former post office.
The Saturday Farmers’ Market on Kahu Road in Riccarton is a good second stop; it runs from 9-noon and is chock full of Manuka honey, Flaxbourne extra virgin olive oil, and organic Canterbury lemons, avocados, and kiwifruit. A cashew coconut curry pie from Hope River Pies is a good choice for a breakfast on the go.
Described in poignant terms by a lifelong Christchurch resident as "one of the few places left for me of the Christchurch of my childhood," the Christchurch Botanic Gardens on Rolleston Avenue are still a lovely place to spend a few hours in a community with an economy that has always relied on plants—pastoral farming, arable cropping and forestry.
The gardens were one of the few attractions in Christchurch to remain open through the earthquakes, and optimistic Kiwis saw the earthquakes as an opportunity to expand the green spaces in their beloved "City in a Garden."
In what could be viewed as an artistic interpretation of this optimism, a hanging mobile of 5,000 monarch butterflies created by children across Christchurch for the Madame Butterfly opera in July 2014 hangs in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens Visitor Center. ilex cafe, with its pretty Victorian glasshouse architecture and healthy, tasty vegetarian options like the quinoa falafel wrap, makes a pleasant stop for lunch.
Even if retail isn't normally part of your sightseeing "must dos," be sure to check out the aforementioned Re:Start Mall on Cashel Street. If the highly efficient and sustainable "tiny house" movement interests you, you'll be fascinated by this busy, working example of businesses flourishing in tiny shipping containers. If mega-malls and rampant consumerism are at one end of the spectrum and austere, off-the-grid asceticism is at the other end, this colorful collection of shipping container shops represents an admirable happy medium for sustainability.
For an exceptionally sustainable and delicious dining experience Saturday night, try Shop Eight Food and Wine Bar on New Regent Street. Chef Michael Smith sources 95% of his ingredients locally and the menu changes regularly to highlight fresh, seasonal produce. The restaurant's wine bar was created entirely from salvaged materials post-earthquakes by nonprofit social group Rekindle.
Roll out of bed at your Sunday leisure and head to the eclectic courtyard of all-veg cafe Shroom Room for inspired healthy deliciousness. Its retro, shabby chic decor is cozily inviting and the house-made cashew and pumpkin seed sausages with grilled tomatoes, mushrooms (of course) and poached eggs on whole-grain toast will keep you happily satisfied for hours.
After breakfast walk down to the bank of the Avon River and rent a canoe or kayak from the Antigua Boatsheds, in operation since 1882. The company also offers cheerfully cheesy "Punting on the Avon" boat rides, complete with a guide in full Edwardian regalia, but if it feels a bit cringe-worthy the freedom hire is a great option to paddle the river at your own pace.
If you have the time and energy, head to the Godley Head/Taylor's Mistake Walkway accessible from the Godley Head car park in the suburb of Sumner. The walk is 2-3 hours round-trip and allows for some stunning views over the city including the Avon estuary and, on a cloudless day, out to the dramatic Southern Alps.
Reward yourself for all that calorie expenditure and finish the weekend on a high note with a late lunch at The Lotus-Heart on St Asaph Street, independently owned and operated by meditation students. The masala dosa is one of many flavorful vegan options or for lacto-ovo decadence try the house-made sunflower seed patty with melted cheddar and chutney.
The Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu on Worcester Boulevard makes a perfect final stop. The neon letters on its facade spell out Christchurch's attitude toward the city's future—"Everything's Going To Be All Right."
Ins and Outs
The Christchurch South Island Wine and Food Festival and World Buskers Festival are two good reasons to visit in the warm summer months of December and January. The city is the major international transport hub on the South Island, a 4.5 hour drive from the ferry in Picton if arriving from the North Island. It's well serviced by bus, train, and bike share. Find:Chch and the Rove NZ travel app are both valuable resources for travelers.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.