The drive to Christchurch was once again very pretty, we drove south through farm land and started to see lots more sheep and some very large herds of cows. We didn’t stop for breakfast in Kaikoura, we decided to get on our way and keep a lookout for somewhere to stop en route, we were keen to get to Christchurch in time to have a look around. We passed through a couple of little towns but didn’t see anywhere interesting, then in what felt a bit like the middle of nowhere we saw a sign for the Mainline Station Café, we rounded the bend and there it was an historic wooden station building looking very welcoming. We stopped and went in to find a lovely, cosy old fashion station café still serving breakfast! The staff were friendly and the coffee and food excellent (as we are coming to expect in NZ) it was exactly what we were looking for and in just the right spot. We had a chance to look at a photo album showing how the station building had been moved from the railway line to its current location next to the main highway, it has been lovingly restored and a garden created alongside.
Feeling well fed and watered we continued towards Christchurch. The Sat Nav took us through the suburbs and right to the door of the Orari Bed and Breakfast right in the centre of the old city. We arrived early in the afternoon, checked in and left the car in the car park and walked to the tourist information office which was just around the corner. Having found out about the various tour options and attractions we decided to have a look around the botanical gardens which were right behind the office, it was a good time to visit, lots of the bulbs were still in flower and the trees are just in leaf. We walked through a garden of native NZ flora a very colourful rockery garden and a display of heritage roses just starting to flower. All along the paths were Azaleas in full flower, it was lovely. The path wound along the river Avon and led us to a display of vegetables and herbs (always my favourite) and a tea shop. Next to the gardens was the Christchurch museum which was also interesting. By the time we had done that it was time to head back to the Orari and decide where to go for dinner.
Jan and Shirley, our hosts at the B&B were both really friendly and keen to help us make the most of our time in Christchurch; at 18.30 they served complimentary wine in the guest lounge so we took the chance to get their recommendations for dinner. As it was Saturday evening most of the restaurants were fully booked but we decided to drop into the Astro Lounge, a quirky bar/restaurant in the courtyard of a very well respected bistro. It was a bit chilly in spite of the awnings and patio heaters but the food was good (venison and mushroom kebabs and fries followed by a hot cinnamon doughnut for me and a chocolate brownie for Mark) and there was a very talented guitar player playing in the bar. We didn’t stay very long but we did enjoy it. Back at the B&B we caught the first episode of Victoria on TV.
On Sunday morning we had a plan, we would drive out of town to the Gondola which goes up to the top of a hill overlooking the city; take the car back to the Hertz depot and drop it off; catch a bus back in to town and explore the city centre. The Gondola ride was fun and the views from the top across the Canterbury Plains, Christchurch city and Lyttelton Harbour were lovely – once again the weather gods smiled on us and provided bright blue skies. Back in town after returning the car we had our first good look at the city centre and started to realise the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake in 2011. Whole blocks of the city are empty and being used as temporary carparks; some buildings are fenced off and shored up with scaffolding and metal buttresses; all around buildings are being repaired or rebuilt; we suddenly realised that the uneven pavements and potholed road surfaces weren’t the result of neglect but were scars from the quake. The first place we visited was Re:start Mall, a vibrant boutique shopping area with lots of café’s and food stalls and craft shops, all of them housed in brightly coloured shipping containers. The place was buzzing and felt like a positive reaction to the damage sustained and a statement that Christchurch is open for business. Next stop was the Transition Cathedral, one of the first buildings to go up after the earthquake; the Cathedral is basically an A frame of cardboard tubes, like the tubes you find in a roll of carpet, with an opaque waterproof covering and rows of chairs made of ply wood. It is a bright welcoming place and has become so popular with some residents that there are calls for it to be adopted as a permanent cathedral. Unfortunately, the battery on the camera ran out when we got there so we have no photos to show you but we will be returning to Christchurch before we leave NZ and will take some then – bear with us!!
From there we walked back to the old Cathedral Square to see the very sad site of the collapsed Cathedral, most of the building is still there but the front has fallen away taking the bell tower with it and one of the side chapels is badly damaged, it is securely fenced off but not hidden, a reminder of what the city has lost. The walk back from Cathedral Square to the Orari was only about two blocks and made us realise how close to the centre of damage the B&B sits, the road bridge on Gloucester Road (the road the B&B is on) is still closed and several buildings in the area are badly damaged. Apparently the Orari was damaged too and was closed for three months but you wouldn’t know it, the historic wooden building has been beautifully repaired and restored.
Christchurch was the first city we have visited in New Zealand that feels historic in the way we think of it in England. Lots of the academic and municipal buildings and the churches are built of granite in a style that would have been familiar to the early settlers, sadly many of these are the buildings that suffered most in the earthquake. Christchurch is now trying to rebuild a better city centre to withstand future earthquakes but in the process, might lose the ‘old English’ feel it is so proud of. Whatever happens they are making the most of the opportunity to remodel the city centre improving transport and creating a more ‘liveable’ city.
We loved Christchurch and hope to come back one day to see what happens next.