Despite a population decline following the devastating 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, CHRISTCHURCH is the largest city on the South Island, with around 350,000 people, and capital of the Canterbury region. Founded as an outpost of Anglicanism by its first settlers, the city was named after an Oxford college. To some extent it pursues an archetype – the boys at Christ’s College still wear striped blazers, and punts glide along the winding River Avon – but in recent years the city’s traditional conservatism developed a youthful and more multicultural edge, balanced by laidback beach life at the Pacific Ocean suburb of Sumner.

Until the quakes, Cathedral Square was the heart of the city, and a new green space is planned here once the future of the ruined early 1900s cathedral is clear. Historic buildings to have survived the quakes include the Italianate 1879 Old Post Office and the adjacent 1901 Palladian-style former Government Building. Other surviving buildings include the neat rows of pastel-painted 1930s Spanish Mission-style buildings along New Regent Street and, along Victoria Street, the Victorian clock tower, which houses a clock originally imported from England in 1860 to adorn the government buildings.

Sprawling Hagley Park contains the spectacular Botanic Gardens, a golf course and playing fields, and at weekends it seems like the entire population of Christchurch is here, strolling around or playing some form of sport.

Even while rebuilding takes place, Christchurch still works as a base for exploring further afield, with a plethora of companies offering activities such as rafting, ballooning and high country tours in the surrounding countryside, and is also within a two-hour drive of several good ski-fields to the west.

Brief history

Maori occupied scattered settlements around the region before the first Europeans arrived, establishing Lyttelton as a whaling port in the 1830s. By 1843, the Scottish Deans brothers were farming inland, but the real foundations of Christchurch were laid by the Canterbury Association, formed in 1849 by members of Oxford’s Christ Church College, and with the Archbishop of Canterbury at its head. The association had the utopian aim of creating a middle-class, Anglican community in which the moralizing culture of Victorian England could prosper.

It was at Lyttelton that four ships containing nearly eight hundred settlers arrived in 1850, bound for the new city of Christchurch. The earliest settlers weren’t all Anglicans by any means, and the millenarian aspirations upon which the city was founded soon faded as people got on with the exhausting business of carving out a new life in unfamiliar terrain. Nevertheless, the association’s ideals had a profound effect on the cultural identity of the city, and descent from those who came on the “four ships” still carries social cachet among members of the Christchurch elite.

Earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 severely affected the city, destroying many of its renowned buildings, but local and national authorities and residents are committed to planning and rebuilding a new, revitalized city.