“I get butterflies just thinking about it” a friend shares with me. Her eyes blink back the tears that threaten to escape, her face loses colour and she takes a deep breath to compose herself.
On the 4th September 2010, an earthquake with magnitude 7.1 struck New Zealand and was felt throughout the South Island and in the lower third of the North Island.
The epicentre was in Darfield, just 47km (29mi) from Christchurch, and caused widespread damage across the city. A state of emergency was declared and this, for the next few months at least, was referred to by locals as ‘the big one’.
Powerful aftershocks occurred repeatedly over the following years (the city continues to experience aftershocks now and has had 20,000 to date!), the most devastating of which hit on 22nd February 2011.
With its epicentre near Lyttelton, a suburb just 10km (6.2mi) to the southeast of the city centre, the 6.3 magnitude earthquake violently shook the ground beneath Christchurch. 185 people died, thousands more were injured, and a cloud of dust rose above the collapsed buildings of the Central Business District (CBD).
With the city centre reduced to a pile of rubble, Christchurch sadly found itself bumped from bucket lists – even locals admit they wanted to stay away – but 2018 is the time to visit!
The rebuild process is lengthy and is still very much underway. At first glance, Christchurch is still full of roadworks, shipping containers continue to be a prominent feature, and buildings in various states of demolition, repair or rebuild are numerous, but take a closer look and you will find somewhere very worthy of bucket list status.
The garden city
Nicknamed ‘the garden city’, Christchurch boasts over 740 parks and gardens, and is centred around Hagley Park. The park is a haven for runners, bikers and dog walkers, and is also home to Hagley Golf Club and used by sports clubs at the weekend.
On the east side of the park, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens is the perfect venue for a quiet stroll, a picnic and even a run around in the sprinklers if the kids need to let off steam (there’s also a playground and paddling pool). It’s free to enter and is popular at lunch hour during the week among those escaping the office for some fresh air.
The outdoors lifestyle in Christchurch isn’t limited to Hagley Park. Riccarton Bush is an opportunity to block out the city’s buzz and feel totally immersed in native bush including kahikatea trees of up to 600 years old. The smell of the forest and the sound of birdsong instantly transports you out of the city.
The Port Hills are worth exploring by foot or bike and offer impressive views over Pegasus Bay to the north and Lyttelton Harbour to the south. Mount Pleasant is the highest peak in the Port Hills at 499m (1,637ft).
On the other side of Lyttelton Harbour is Banks Peninsula, the most striking and prominent volcanic feature of the South Island. Mount Herbert is its highest point at 919m (3,015ft), but you don’t have to get to this altitude to experience the breathtaking landscape and views over Pegasus Bay and the Canterbury Bight.
The coast consists of coves, harbours and beaches, and the water is calm and waveless on the north side of the peninsular, making this a popular spot for kayaking, paddle boarding, kite surfing, sailing and jet skiing.
Hiking in this area reminds us of the Lake District in the U.K.; trodden paths meander through native bush, over pastures and along streams, with views over mountains, valleys and glistening blue water. The elevation is also similar; the highest point in the Lakes is Scarfell Pike at 978m (3,209ft).
Although not quite as impressive as the Southern Alps, the Port Hills and Banks Peninsula are excellent options if you have limited time to escape the city but still want to do some hiking or biking with photo-worthy views. Orton Bradley Park in Diamond Harbour is a great starting point for a number of beautiful hikes and bike trails. It’s a privately owned working farm so there is a small entrance fee and dogs aren’t allowed on the tracks (but they provide kennels). A small museum showcasing farm machinery through the ages, a playground and a lovely cafe make this a perfect family day out (I was really impressed that the cafe uses stainless steel straws so I didn’t need to request no straw!).
We recently did the hike up to Gully Falls, where we cooled off in the second of the two picturesque waterfalls. We went up on the Valley Track and joined the Waterfall Gully Track, and then looped round to descend on the Faulkner Memorial Track and the Magnificent Gully Track. This was a good half-day walk, which Theo managed easily.
We are lucky to live beside Bottle Lake Forest Park, with its winding biking trails and walking paths that lead you through the pine trees, and Waimairi Beach, with its decent surf and views out towards New Brighton Pier and the Port Hills.
If you fancy surfing, Taylor’s Mistake has the best surf in Christchurch, along with Magnet Bay and Te Oka Bay on the south side of Banks Peninsula. New Brighton and Sumner beaches are also popular for both swimming and surfing (there’s a highly regarded surf school at Sumner, perfect for beginners of all ages), and there are countless coves and small beaches all along the coast.
The old city
The iconic Heritage Tram is one of Christchurch’s most famous attractions and a symbol of the city. The Tramway first opened in 1880 but was closed in 1954 following the expansion of the bus network (which, by the way, is extensive and reliable!). The city circuit was reopened to offer tourists guided tours in 1995 and has since grown to also offer restaurant trams. Following the earthquake, the tram was closed for repair but has long since been reopened and expanded into a longer network.
Riccarton House and Bush is a 12 hectare heritage site containing two historic buildings, parkland, attractive gardens and native bush. Deans Cottage, built in 1843 for pioneering Scottish brothers, William and John Deans, is the oldest building on the Canterbury Plains. Jane Deans, wife of then deceased John Deans, and her son moved into Riccarton House in 1856 following the first stage of completion. Additions were made in 1874 and 1900. The beautiful Victorian/Edwardian building has been fully restored and furnished in appropriate period decor. The gardens, Cottage and Bush are free to explore at your leisure but Riccarton House can only be viewed either by enjoying a meal in the restaurant or on a guided tour of the whole property.
The Canterbury Museum, situated next to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, is the best preserved example of Christchurch’s pre-earthquake architecture, and is certainly worth visiting. Thankfully, the neo-gothic 1880s building sustained only minor damage in the earthquake and an estimated 95% of its collections were unharmed.
With 16 rooms dedicated to permanent exhibitions featuring everything from early settlers and their hunting of the now extinct giant Moa birds to dinosaurs, birds, decorative arts and costume, the Antarctic, and Victorian era furniture, there really is something for everyone.
Temporary exhibitions are located in three rooms. I recently went to see the ‘50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic’ exhibition, which is on display until 25th February 2018. An inspirational collection of work (particularly for an aspiring NatGeo photographer like myself!) and a fascinating opportunity to learn about each photograph from the words of the photojournalist who captured it. Included are both iconic and never-seen-before works by celebrated photographers such as Steve McCurry, Nick Nichols, Paul Nicklen and Gerd Ludwig.
Also on display until 1st April 2018 is the Bristlecone Project exhibition: a collection of black and white portraits and stories of 24 male survivors of sexual abuse. As a Clinical Psychologist, particularly since I work predominantly with trauma, this was of obvious interest to me.
The stories may ignite feelings of shock, sadness, and rage in visitors, but they are so important. The personal anecdotes are bravely shared honestly and openly so that others suffering similar trauma may know that they are not alone, that their voice can be heard and that they deserve to escape the hold of their suffering. They offer a message of hope and celebrate the resilience of these men and many others who have suffered similarly.
There is also a large children’s room suitable for all ages. Learn through play, discovery and sensory exploration in this fun-filled educational room.
All exhibits are free to enter, with a suggested total donation of $5. There is a $2 charge for the children’s discovery room.
The Christchurch Cathedral, built between 1864 and 1904, survived the 2010 earthquake but was not so fortunate in 2011. Prior to the earthquake, the impressive building was the heart of the CBD and the focal point of Cathedral Square. After much deliberation over whether to rebuild, demolish entirely or preserve the remains as they are, it has recently been decided that the cathedral will be rebuilt.
The fate of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, also known as the Christchurch Basilica, is as yet undecided. The two bell towers collapsed during the 2011 earthquake, also bringing down much of the front façade, and the dome was badly dislodged and cracked. Sadly, the entire rear of the building had to be demolished. Great efforts were made during the clean-up to recover all significant artefacts and put them into storage. Both the dome and bells were safely removed and stored prior to demolition.
Along with the Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Arts Centre is a beautiful example of neo-gothic architecture. The listed buildings were badly damaged in the earthquake but you wouldn’t guess it to look at them now. Repaired and reopened in 2016, the Arts Centre is once again home to a weekend market, shops, businesses and many of the city’s festivals and special occasions.
The modern city
The Arts Centre should not be confused with the Christchurch Art Gallery. This modern building, opened in 2003, has a large sculpture in the forecourt and houses both a permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, showcasing a wide range of both international and Kiwi artists. The sculpture, ‘Reason for Voyaging’, is the result of a collaboration between sculptor, Graham Bennett, and architect, David Cole. It’s an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon and the bookshop is also worth exploring, particularly for their children’s section.
Quake City is Christchurch’s newest museum. Dedicated to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, the exhibits bring them to life for anyone who wasn’t here at the time.
I must admit, the CCTV footage filmed in the CBD as the 2011 earthquake struck, along with video interviews with some local residents each telling their story of that day made me quite teary. I gave Theo several big hugs as we walked around!
The exhibition is an informative and interactive experience showcasing recovered artefacts, including the cathedral’s spire and the basilica’s bell, and information is displayed in photographs, videos, and touch-screen learning points as well as witten details that appeal to both adults and children.
Learn about how and why earthquakes happen, the impact on Christchurch both under- and over-ground, and the individuals involved in the rescue and rebuild operations. The exhibition even features a lego station so that children (and adults!) can have a go at rebuilding the city.
The CBD, to the east of Hagley Park, has changed and flourished even in the short time we have been here.
New offices, bars, cafes, and shops are popping up all over the city, and gradually the gaps where buildings collapsed or have been demolished are being filled.
The Re:START Container Mall, set up following the earthquake to house shops and restaurants, and to restore life to the city centre, has just closed last week as businesses have moved to permanent residences.
The new lanes around Cashel Street are now full of designer chains and independent shops, whereas high street brands and department stores are mostly found on the main roads. The shops here are, as you would expect in a city centre, generally quite expensive. Papanui Road is also good for independent retailers but equally pricey!
Large malls can be found everywhere! Why a small city with a relatively tiny population needs so many malls is beyond me, but since Amazon doesn’t exist here and online shopping isn’t as popular as it is in the U.K. and the U.S., people do still shop in store and the malls continue to be hubs for each district. They house not just a full range of retailers, but also supermarkets, large food courts, indoor playgrounds, cinemas and salons.
Christchurch has a number of markets, both farmers’ markets and artisan markets. The largest is Riccarton Market, held at the Riccarton Park Racecource every Sunday. This has a car boot/garage sale feel to it but there are some stalls selling high quality, locally made goods, and if you’re willing to search through the tat, there are certainly bargains to be had. Get everything from fresh produce, to clothes, jewellery, homeware, books and more. I recently bought some locally made and totally eco-friendly shampoo bars that I’m really pleased with. Live music entertainment and a bouncy castle make this a fun family morning.
The Christchurch Farmers’ Market is held every Saturday at Riccarton House and Bush. Buy fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and baked goods, and locally made jams, chutneys and juices. The selection and quality is far superior to that found in supermarkets, not to mention cheaper, and it’s a pleasure to support local farmers!
Christchurch has a great food scene and new restaurants, bars and cafes are continually opening, and those that have been making do using containers or other temporary residences are moving into new buildings. For a country so isolated from the rest of the world, we have been really pleased to discover that the range of cuisine on offer is diverse and authentic.
The city feels full of life and there is an air of excitement among the locals as their city is gradually restored to its former glory.
What’s on for kids?
There are 289 City Council owned playgrounds in Christchurch, and this of course doesn’t include those in shopping centres, schools (unlike in the U.K., school playgrounds are accessible for anyone out of school hours), cafes and other private land accessible to the public, so one is never far away! The most impressive of these is the Margaret Mahy Family Playground in the CBD (corner of Manchester and Armagh Streets), which opened in 2015 and is the largest playground in the Southern Hemisphere.
Although I’m not a fan of zoos, I gave the staff at Orana Wildlife Park a pretty good grilling on where their animals have come from. They assured me that they they do not accept animals from the wild (although the chain if you keep following it back isn’t always traceable), and that animals here have typically been born in captivity, either here or at other zoos, and therefore cannot be released. They do a lot of work on conservation and I was pleased to see that the animals all live in large enclosures (this obviously doesn’t compare to the wild but, if an animal has to live in captivity to ensure its survival, it seems like Orana Wildlife Park would be a nice place to live).
Theo was able to feed the giraffes himself, which he loved, and watch the lions and rhinos being fed.
Willowbank Wildlife Reserve is more like a petting zoo, and you can purchase both animal and bird feed at reception. Farm animals and wallabies are eager to be fed and extremely tolerant of being petted, and visitors can see a number of native birds, including Kiwis, in the large bird section.
Fruit picking is a fun day out for the whole family. We enjoy Tram Road Fruit Farm, a family run orchard where you can pick (depending on the season) raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, cherries, plums, greengages and nectarines. The fruit is absolutely delicious (the best cherries I’ve ever had!) and much cheaper than the supermarket.
Enjoy a relaxing tour of the city and Botanic Gardens along the Avon. Punters dressed in Edwardian attire skillfully glide tourists past leafy banks in handcrafted boats. This is a family sightseeing trip that the kids won’t want to end!
I also recommend keeping an eye out for events that are on during the time of your visit. We’ve discovered amateur theatre productions, pantomimes, parades and music festivals all geared at children. It seems that there’s always something fun going on!
As you drive out of the city, the Canterbury Plains eventually give way to the imposing and rugged Southern Alps. Canterbury is stunning and offers unrivalled opportunities for hiking, biking, skiing and climbing, all within an easy drive from the city. Christchurch is one of the world’s only locations where it is possible to ski and surf in the same day!
To explore north west Canterbury, Hanmer Springs is a good base. There are lots of options for accommodation and food, and loads to do whether it’s rain or shine. We really enjoyed camping at Hanmer Springs Forest Camp (there are rooms and RV sites as well as tent sites). They have a large playground, loads of space for kids to ride bikes, and several walking and biking trails that go directly from the campsite and are of good lengths for families.
If you’re game for something a bit lengthier, hiking up to the impressive 41m Dog Stream Waterfall is local and well signed, but gets you off the busier trails. Take Waterfall Track up through the twisted beech forest, where no tree grows in a straight line. Lichen gives the forest an erie silvery appearance, like a dusty attic.
With an ascent of roughly 300m, there are a few steep sections, but Theo bounded up the track and delighted in scrambling over rocks on the approach to the waterfall. Descend via Spur Track for views over the valley and a slightly longer walk. The final descent can be taken through a commercial forestry ground and is steep in places, so watch your footing!
From Hanmer Springs, you can also explore Lewis Pass. Although others disagree, I think Lewis Pass rivals Arthur’s Pass in terms of a scenic drive!
The Lewis Tops is a great 8-10km (5-6.2mi) walk, depending on how many of the tops you want to do! The track initially follows the curve of the road but after about 15 minutes the hum of passing cars is replaced by intermittent bird song and the welcome silence of wilderness. Theo enjoyed hopping over streams and running up the steep sections. At 400m above the road, the path suddenly emerges from the bush and the rolling ridge of the tops becomes visible. Follow the path marked with poles to see the valley from all angles. It’s a further 280m climb to the summit and if you’re feeling adventurous and have come prepared, you can camp on the tarns but this will at least double the length of your walk from the car park to bushline.
Central Canterbury is all about Arthur’s Pass. The mountains here are more rugged than Lewis Pass and the bush doesn’t start at the roadside, but, with the exception of winter when white fills the landscape, the colours are incredible. It’s all four seasons painted on to one canvas. Pick any one of the walks along the route and you’ll be in for a treat.
The Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall track is one of the most popular walks along Arthur’s Pass, with good reason. The Otira Valley track is particularly beautiful in Spring and Summer when alpine flowers are in bloom but the surrounding peaks remain dusted in snow. Both these tracks are easily accessible from Christchurch and ideal for families.
En route to Arthur’s Pass from Christchurch, you will pass Castle Hill, a collection of limestone formations, reminiscent of Henry Moore’s semi-abstract sculptures. The area is rich in Maori history and is popular with climbers. If free climbing isn’t your thing, fear not, there’s a path that will take you round the impressive rocks.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is the highlight of south east Canterbury for many, along with the clear blue waters of Lake Tekapo. With 19 peaks over 3000m in the National Park alone, including the continent’s highest mountain, hikers and skiers are spoiled for choice. Glaciers, including New Zealand’s largest glacier, Tasman Glacier, cover 40% of the park and ensure a thrilling skiing experience.
Also in this region is Mount Sunday, perhaps better known as Edoras to any Lord of the Rings fans. This a wonderful short hike through tussock grassland with views over the expansive countryside from the summit. It can get windy (but if you’ve been in Christchurch, you’ll likely be used to this by now!)
The still blue water of Lake Tekapo, reflecting the mountains that frame it as clearly as a mirror, is a photographer’s paradise, but for the road less travelled (and photographed), head to Lake Alexandrina or Lake Pukaki.
With little to no light pollution, the skies over this area, known as the Mackenzie region, are recognised as one of the world’s best stargazing spots and has been named the International Dark Sky Reserve.
Before our arrival here, we were told a number of times that Christchurch was ‘the most British’ of New Zealand’s cities. For any Brits reading, clearly these people had never been to the U.K.! It’s not at all British! The culture is probably most comparable to Canadian (in our opinion – I’m sure Canadians would probably disagree!). Whether this is something that’s changed post-earthquake, I’m not sure.
The lives of Christchurch’s residents may have changed; loved ones have been lost, kitchen cupboards are now permanently stocked with emergency supplies just in case, valuable possessions are secured to their surface, and it’s not advised to sleep naked in case you find yourself unexpectedly out in the open, but the city has come together to ensure it remains the vibrant hub of the South Island and the door to all that Canterbury has to offer.
So, put Christchurch on your bucket list for 2018 (and come say hi!) before everyone else catches on!