I was nervous about my trip to Christchurch, New Zealand. The more people I talked to, the more I regretted having booked a 10-day house sit there. “There’s not much to do…” “It’s still being rebuilt from the earthquake…” “You can see the city in an afternoon…”
The earthquake they’re referring to was a series of earthquakes over a 2-year period (11,800 earthquakes to be exact). The first 7.1 earthquake on September 4, 2010 unsettled buildings and their foundations, creating a lot of hidden damage. When one of the many aftershocks hit 5 months later on February 22, 2011 with a 6.3 rating on the Richtor scale, 185 people were killed and 80% of the downtown was destroyed. It was a horrible tragedy that the city is still reeling from. It’s taken years to decide how to rebuild the city and what to do about historical landmark buildings like the Christchurch Cathedral (they decided this month to tear it down and rebuild), among other buildings.
But despite this horrendous set of circumstances 7 years ago and the slow progression to rebuild, Christchurch is a lovely city that I was happy to spend 10 days in (and would have stayed longer if I could have).
Here are some photos (scroll right) from my neighborhood and of my poodle companion, Lily.
Fall weather encircled the city with bright blue sky days, red and gold colors, and freshly mowed lawns. Hiking paths casually grace the foothills set along the edge of the city. The trails continue up and over the hills to smaller towns with harbors and ports. All museums and wildlife parks are free and it was the least expensive city I’ve visited in all of New Zealand.
Aside from being a great city (which you can’t see all of in an afternoon- I’ve tried), it’s a central hub for most of the South Island of New Zealand. Being the largest city on the South Island, the island’s largest airport is located here. Plenty of tours like whale watching in Kaikoura, swimming with dolphins in Akaroa, or coastal treks to nearby towns start from here. The more serious mountain climbing, skiing and paragliding is just a days’ drive away in Queenstown.
Here’s a quick guide with photos of the places that stood out for me the most in Christchurch:
The Christchurch Botanic Gardens is the gem of Christchurch. Flanked by Hagley Park on one end and Christ’s College/Canterbury Museum on another, it sits on 21 hectares (52 acres). It’s free to walk through, and includes 10 gardens (vegetable, herb, rose, etc), great lawns, ponds, and green houses with two-story rainforests next to those with ferns, alpine plants, and desert plants (including the strangest cacti I’ve ever seen). I loved walking through one section of the greenhouse with carnivorous plants, including the Nepenthes Pitcher Plant with its giant jug to catch insects. With all the shocking colors, especially in fall, this large park is not to be missed.
Akaroa is a former French-run town wedged between the sea and the mountains on the Akaroa Peninsula 1 1/2 hours east of Christchurch. Once a sleepy vacation town for locals, it’s become crazed with day-trippers dropped off by cruise ships. Still, the town’s size is limited by its geography and made up of just a few restaurants, cafes and ice cream shops a block from the water. The town buzzes with water activities, including swimming with dolphins, and day tours to nearby vineyards and country farm towns.
“CBD” or the Central Business District of Christchurch: Since 80% of Christchurch’s CBD was destroyed after the 2011 earthquake, it’s difficult for a lot of the residents to return even today. After 7 years of ho-humming about what to rebuild and how, it’s finally making headway in becoming the city it once was. Installations like ‘185 Chairs’ (185 different types of seats painted white are set up in rows in an empty field in memory of those lost), temporary churches like the ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ (a temporary church literally built using cardboard beams by a Japanese architect), whole blocks made up of shipping containers (or often just their frames) for shops and restaurants, and many outdoor community spaces with funky designs and modern touches to encourage people back to the downtown.
Another thing I noticed about downtown was how many coffee shops there are. A business with low barriers to entry, it’s easy to erect a stand just about anywhere. And they are everywhere: in trucks, available from windows of restaurants, counters in RV campers and mini sheds… even the library has a great cafe inside. Christchurch is known for their ‘Flat White’ (similar to a latte, but with less milk) and it’s worth getting one.
Quake City is a division of the Canterbury Museum that relives the devastating earthquakes through live video from the day of, interviews with survivors, incredible photography and relics, and definitions of things like liquefaction where the earth (sometimes as deep as 30′ below) is liquified and erupts to the surface, burying much of the city at the same time as sinking it.
With the rebuild in the downtown area, colors flash with Street Art on nearly every exposed wall. Older buildings have reopened, river walkways have been completed, and new art galleries and memorials have been unveiled.
Christchurch still has a long way to go to rebuild itself, but it will always have its central location, creative population, and natural beauty to pull it through.