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.
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.Read More
The 7.1 magnitude earthquake that hit Christchurch on September 4, 2010 marked the start of a series of tectonic events – including some 2500 aftershocks within a year – that would have a dramatic, deadly effect on the city, changing it irrevocably. The aftershock of February 22, 2011 killed 185 people and badly damaged or destroyed many buildings in the city centre, while one more person died in the June 14, 2011 aftershock. Still reeling from the devastation, the city was struck again on December 23, 2011, this time by 5.8 and 6 magnitude quakes.
At the time of writing, parts of the city centre within the Four Avenues – Moorhouse, Fitzgerald, Bealey and Deans – were still cordoned off. Some will remain inaccessible to the general public until structural safety has been ascertained and it’s known which buildings require demolition, and the timeframe during which this will happen. Christchurch’s iconic neo-Gothic buildings fared particularly badly, including its landmark cathedral, the geographic and, for many, spiritual heart of the city. In early 2012 it was announced that the cathedral could not be saved and will be demolished. Authorities are considering installing a temporary “cardboard cathedral” – check wchristchurchcathedral.co.nz for updates. The Port Hills were also roadblocked at the time of writing, and parts of the beachside suburb of Sumner were stacked with shipping containers to protect against further land slippage. For residents, it remains an uncertain time as they await news of insurance and authorities’ plans for rebuilding the city, while contending with ongoing seismic activity.
But there is good news: as plans for rebuilding unfold, some businesses remain or have since reopened, and others have relocated or are intending to do so, either temporarily or permanently, to unaffected suburbs. These suburbs have experienced a renaissance as people who once frequented the city centre are seeking out eating, drinking and entertainment venues further afield. And spirited locals are creating pop-up bars, shops, restaurants and cafés (many housed in shipping containers) as well as new long-term establishments, while working to repair and reopen businesses where possible.
One of the most popular day-trips from Christchurch is to ride the TranzAlpine train (4hr 30min each way; book well ahead for discounted prices; w tranzscenic.co.nz), a tourist-oriented trip across to Greymouth on the West Coast (an extension to Hokitika is under consideration). It’s a gorgeous 231km journey – with numerous viaducts and nineteen tunnels – all seen from the train’s large viewing windows and open-sided observation car. Christchurch’s industrial suburbs give way to the farmland of the Canterbury Plains before climbing through braided river valleys and open tussock country into the Southern Alps. There’s a pause at the beech-forest high point of Arthur’s Pass before descending through the 8.5km-long Otira Tunnel that burrows under the 920m pass itself to the West Coast.
The train leaves Christchurch train station at 8.15am every morning and nominally returns by 6.05pm, though years of under-funding mean that delays are fairly common. Levels of comfort and catering are also below par for what is essentially a tourist attraction, though standards are improving.
If you travel in December you will see red and white rata in bloom, but the trip is at its romantic, snow-cloaked best in the winter months (June–Aug). A good strategy for those with a vehicle is to catch the train at Darfield, 45km west of Christchurch, allowing a later start in return for missing Christchurch’s industrial suburbs and a few farms. It’s also worth considering alighting at Moana for a relaxed three-hour lakeside lunch before boarding for the return journey. It beats a hurried snack in Greymouth.
The trip can also form part of a high-country tour.