I have always had an idealized preconception of what Christchurch, New Zealand would look like. I imagined a mid-sized, modern town built up around the Anglican cathedral it was named for, bustling but quaint, and surrounded by the spectacular landscapes seen in the travel pictures of New Zealand. Christchurch was settled by the British in 1848 and built up originally around farming and an agrarian lifestyle. It is now the biggest city in the South Island of New Zealand, and its economy has moved beyond just farming and into light manufacturing and technology. I pictured it full of parks and squares, some high-rise office buildings scattered about the city, with hints of its pastoral history reflected in its streetscapes.
I knew that the city had been hit by a couple of big earthquakes several years ago. The worst was in February 2011 and killed 185 people. I read that it lasted for 24 seconds (which is a lifetime to endure an earthquake), and brought down several structures. That was almost three years ago and I assumed that a prosperous, Western city of almost half a million people would be rebuilt and back to normal relatively quickly. That thought in mind, I had originally planned a three-night stay in Christchurch, with lots of daytime excursions to its beautiful countryside, and nighttime dining and exploring adventures in the city. As I started to plan our trip, I soon realized that New Zealand has so many interesting and unique places to visit, that staying anywhere for three nights was not going to happen. So I changed our plans to two days and one night in Christchurch.
Thank goodness I did. I don’t want to overstate the destruction there, but we all were stunned at the condition in which we found Christchurch. There are swaths of whole blocks with shuttered, taped up, or just plain missing structures. We wandered the near-empty streets for a couple of hours, occasionally having to divert our path in order to circumvent closed, ruined streets. Most buildings higher than four or five stories were boarded up from the inside, and when we made our way to the city center, we couldn’t find an open restaurant on a Friday night. (I was told that most had moved to the suburbs after the earthquake.) The Christchurch cathedral was one of the saddest sights. Its towering spire had crumbled to the ground during the 2011 earthquake, and much of the church’s facade had been wrenched off. It was an overcast afternoon and maybe that added to the sense of gloom, but there was a post-apocalyptical feel to the whole city.
That said, it was also clear to us that the people of Christchurch are resilient, creative and not content to just sit around while their city is slowly rebuilt. We came across many examples of art and culture that reflect the city residents desire to reclaim Christchurch from the ruin and move forward. We saw several really amazing art installations that were part of a program called Gap Filler, which tries to fill now empty space in the city with creative projects and structures (gapfiller.org.nz). One of the coolest projects we saw was the “Dance-O-Mat,” where an old, converted laundry mat washing machine, attached to big speakers, is used to play music while people dance on a large, outdoor dance floor. Just plug in any music device, insert a two dollar New Zealand coin in the washing machine, and let the party begin. That’s what Prince Charles and Camilla did when they visited Christchurch in 2012 and had an impromptu, royal dance party.
To get retail businesses up and running in the city again, Christchurch built an open air mall made entirely of large shipping containers. Each container is a store, some placed on top of one another, each fully enclosed with a front door and windows decorated with the logo or theme of the retailer. There were also several construction sites scattered throughout the city that eventually will be low-rise office and residential developments. Rebuilding Christchurch will be one of, if not the largest, urban reconstruction efforts after a natural disaster of all time, with costs estimated at 20 to 30 billion dollars (NZD). It’s a massive task, but after touring Christchurch and seeing the resolve of its citizens, I’m confident it can be done. It is just going to take a really long time.
Christchurch was an eye-opening start to our New Zealand trip and, after a good night’s sleep at the comfortable CentrePointe on Columbo Motel (centrepointoncolombo.co.nz), we jumped into our rental car and headed north, ready to shake off the gloom we felt. It’s always wild driving on the left hand side of the road, and it was made a little more exciting by the misting rain. It took us about two hours to reach the town of Kaikoura, which is right on the Pacific Ocean. Our next lodging stop was at Waves on the Esplanade (kaikouraapartments.co.nz) and we had a big, modern two-bedroom apartment there that was wildly comfortable and looked out over the ocean.
It stayed overcast for the couple of days we were in Kaikoura (something one should always be prepared for on the South Island of New Zealand), which caused the cancellation of our dolphin swim (dolphin.co.nz) and helicopter whale watching excursions (worldofwhales.co.nz). (Unfortunately, I cannot fully recommend either as we didn’t go, but I researched the heck out of both in Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, etc., and they seemed great and were very responsive to me.) The weather was disappointing, but still tired from our Australian madness, we just settled into our roomy apartment and spent a couple of days “living” in the very cute town of Kaikoura. We ate at some good restaurants, particularly the Green Dolphin (greendolphinkaikoura.com), where I had perfectly prepared local fish, excellent service, and, on a clear day, what would be a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. We also went to the movies at an adorable theater called The Mayfair, which is housed in a 1930’s Art Deco building (mayfairkaikoura.co.nz). I was a little concerned about what appeared to be a large sheet where a screen should have been, but when the 3D version of Frozen got started, it became clear why this quaint movie theater referred to its equipment as state-of-the-art digital. It was a cool place to watch a 3D animated movie, and the girls loved it.
Our last day in Kaikoura dawned like a New Zealand tourism office postcard. Holy crap! So that’s what they mean when people rave on about the country’s natural beauty. From our balcony I was looking at a magnificent vista — the stunning blue ocean, and behind it, even bluer, towering mountains with snow-capped peaks. We were soon driving through those mountains on really steep, winding roads (some terrifyingly under construction) and I have to say that I preferred the view from the balcony to the one from the driver’s seat. We made it through the mountains and found ourselves in another picturesque New Zealand town called Picton, where we would catch the Interislander Ferry (interislander.co.nz) for the three hour trip across the Cook Strait to the North Island and Wellington.
Described as “one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world,” the Interislander did not disappoint. We had comfortable window seats on the huge boat, and Karen and I sipped New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as we sailed through the Marlborough Sound, marveling at the fjord-like scenery on either side of us. The ferry has a children’s section with a big playscape and a movie theater, and the girls spent much of the crossing watching Monster University with a bunch of other kids. If you are in New Zealand during their summer (winter for the rest of us above the Equator) and plan to travel between the North and South Islands as we did, get your ticket on-line and in advance, because the ferry fills up quickly.
The ferry dropped us off in Wellington and we took a pre-arranged taxi to the Bolton Hotel, which turned out to be another success for me in the “choosing the right accommodations” department. (Arranging all this travel is stressful. You almost never know whether you did it right until you arrive.) The Bolton was comfortable, nice and centrally located (boltonhotel.co.nz). Wellington is the capital of New Zealand and has a beautiful waterfront, as well as a busy downtown, though many people had cleared out for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. We had a wonderful New Year’s Eve dinner at a restaurant called Logan Brown, which is housed in a converted 1920’s bank building (loganbrown.co.nz). The service was great, as was the food and Champagne, and they had a trivia game for the kids where they had to find answers hidden throughout the building. The restaurant is located on Cuba Street, which is a fun and funky stretch of Wellington that has lots of bars and restaurants, street music, curio stores, and, of course, coffee and tattoo shops.
No rest for the Hamptons on this trip however. We jumped on a plane New Year’s Day and headed for Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, with more than one million residents. Speaking of hitting a home run in the hotel department, the Langham Hotel wasn’t just great, it goes into my top 10 hotels of all time (auckland.langhamhotels.co.nz). We had super comfortable, connecting rooms up high on the concierge floor (after 12 days of travel, we felt we deserved this treat), and the Langham staff and service was top-notch. Auckland is like a mini-Sydney, surprisingly diverse and culturally happening in every way, from Maori history to good restaurants and all varieties of music. (Lorde is from here.) And, like Sydney, it is located on a gorgeous harbor front.
One of the first things we did was take a helicopter ride over the city and its harbor, as well as several of the many volcanos that surround Auckland (inflitecharters.com/home). Auckland straddles a volcanic field and there are more than 55 dormant volcanos throughout the city and its environs, with the newest one just under 1000 years old. They were cool to see and, like most of New Zealand, the scenery around Auckland is dazzling. I really enjoyed the vibrancy of the city and we explored as much of it as possible. We went up to the top of the Sky Tower, the tallest building in the city, where we could see all of Auckland, as well as watch clearly crazy people bungy jumping off the top of it (skywalk.co.nz). We hiked through picturesque Viaduct Harbor and had a great waterside lunch at Soul Bistro, which was still abuzz about a recent Beyonce and Jay-Z visit (soulbar.co.nz). We also had the opportunity to take the girls through the Auckland Museum, a visually stunning building with fascinating exhibitions of Maori culture, New Zealand wildlife, and lots of cool activities for kids of all ages (aucklandmuseum.com).
We spent our last full day in New Zealand on Waiheke Island, a large body of land in the Hauraki Gulf, which is a short ferry ride from Auckland (waiheke.co.nz). It is a beautiful island with a sub-tropical climate where many Aucklanders while away their weekends, drinking wine at its many vineyards, or just chilling on one of a hundred pristine beaches. We rented a car when we got to the island and drove to the tiny town of Oneroa, where we had lunch at a fun restaurant called the Oyster Inn (theoysterinn.co.nz). I first read about this restaurant in Bon Appetit almost a year ago, and kept the clipping in my wallet in the hopes that one day I would get there. We had a great lunch looking out over the gulf and Karen and I spent some quality time with a tasty local Waiheke Island Sauvignon Blanc. (There really is no bad wine in New Zealand.) Then we split up, with Karen and Stephanie heading to the beach, and Cassidy and I going up a mountain just so we could come zip lining back down it, which was a hoot for the two of us speed freaks (ecozipadventures.co.nz).
After 16 days on the road, it was time to end our adventures “down under” and go home to Shanghai. As I said in my last post about Australia, Sydney was a revelation to me, and I hope one day to go back to that city, as well as visit other parts of the country. New Zealand was much more complicated for me. Like Ireland, it possesses a “terrible beauty” that is awe-inspiring, wonderful to behold, and at times, scary. The shape Christchurch was in rattled me. I couldn’t believe the devastation created by nature’s force. Then to wade further into New Zealand and be stunned by the intensity of its beauty was equally shocking. If I ever go back, and I hope I do, I will need at least the same amount of time to explore all that we missed on this trip. The country possesses so much natural wonder that it is impossible to see it all in one trip. Hopefully by then, Christchurch will be back and look like I once envisioned it, only without the high-rises.