Christchurch, New Zealand
Our New Zealand journey continues north from Oamaru to Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island.
After Oamaru, we continued our journey north to Christchurch, the largest city in South Island. By now we were better adjusted to driving, but we looked forward to getting to Christchurch and going back to public transportation for a while.
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Riverstone Kitchen and the Castle
Riverstone turned out to be an amazing surprise. It’s a destination restaurant with a celebrity chef, Bevan Smith, with his own cookbook, plus a bunch of interesting shops with different kinds of crafts and home decor.
It was Sunday and we were lucky to be just on the early side of brunch, so they had a table for us. At first we were wondering why they were so hesitant to seat us, but soon we figured out that the entire place was booked, and it was highly unusual to be able to walk in without a reservation on the weekend. Within 30 minutes the restaurant was packed. The food was spectacular, elevated, flavorful brunch fare and we left happy.
Riverstone Kitchen is a stone’s throw away from Riverstone Castle, which looks medieval from a distance but is actually a relatively new project built by Dot and Neil Smith. Dot is Bevan’s mother, and she runs the shops over at the kitchen as well. At the time it was still under construction so we admired it from afar – it was finally completed in March 2019.
A few hours after Riverstone we arrived in Christchurch. We knew it was a major city in New Zealand and we remembered hearing about some earthquakes, but we didn’t know what to expect. There were two major earthquakes, one in September 2010 and another one six months later in February 2011 – we figured there might be some damage but six years later, surely it was all cleaned up?
We dropped off our car at the Hertz office and since we were the last customer of the day, the clerk drove us to our hotel. We were surprised to learn that most of the major streets in the downtown had only recently opened, and plenty were still blocked off or caved in. The combination of the two earthquakes was particularly deadly for the city – many buildings damaged in the first quake were destroyed in the second. The second quake was smaller but shallow, causing lots more shaking, and worse, extensive liquefaction all over the area. We gaped at open lots cordoned off and filled with debris and water.
The next day we set out to explore the town. We headed downtown from our hotel, and while we were waiting for the stoplight we struck up a conversation with a woman and her son. We wound up talking to Fleur during most of our walk, until we parted ways about 30 minutes later. Fleur was from Wellington and her son was in college in Christchurch so she was visiting for the weekend. We wound up exchanging phone numbers and emails and agreed to get in touch when we made it to Wellington eventually. So nice, and so typically New Zealand.
The earthquake permeates the entire city of Christchurch, but instead of sorrow, there is an incredible sense of community and renewal that you can feel everywhere you visit in the city. When we made it downtown we rented a couple of bikes so we could cover more territory. The first thing we noticed were lots of shops made from shipping containers. Right after the earthquake a lot of shops were either destroyed, condemned or both, so these shipping containers were supposed to be a temporary solution, but they proved so popular that they are still there. There is also a brand new regular mall with lots of shops and hundreds of people.
One of the first spots we found on our bikes was an art installation of 185 empty chairs, in a nondescript parking lot not too far from the main downtown. This represents the people who died during the second earthquake on February 22, 2011. After the first earthquake, the inspectors labeled buildings green, yellow and red to note whether or not they were structurally safe. This building had been labeled yellow and was still in use. Many of the people inside were taking English as a second language class so they were from many different places. This somber installation honors the people from this building and the others in Christchurch who died that day.
The original and cardboard cathedrals
The Christchurch Cathedral still stands in the center of town. When you approach it from the front, it almost looks like it’s intact, then you go to the side and quickly see that most of it is rubble. The town has been conflicted about what to do with it, some would like it rebuilt and others torn down, and the costs to restore it to its original glory and make it safe from future quakes are considerable.
In the meantime, not too far from the city, the Anglican church has set up a temporary cathedral, nicknamed the Cardboard cathedral. The roof is built from dozens of rolls of strong cardboard and the rest is corrugated metal, much like a garden shed. But they’ve made it pleasant and inviting inside, and when you come in, there are volunteers who come to greet you and share their experience of the earthquake and answer any questions you may have about Christchurch in general.
The spring weather was just perfect for exploring the expansive Christchurch Botanic Gardens along the Avon river. The gardens were founded in 1863 with the first English oak tree and now include ten different types of gardens including foreign and New Zealand native plants and flowers. The free park also incorporates different artworks and includes a modern visitor centre with the history of the area.
We had such a great time in Christchurch. It is the largest city in South Island but feels much like a small town, and the people were friendly with such a nice spirit. It was hard to leave.
TranzAlpine – a Great Journey of New Zealand
When we were planning our trip from home, we thought it would be great to take the train from Christchurch across the south island to the west coast. When we were there we realized that due to the earthquake, this was the only option as many of the roads heading that way from Christchurch were closed. Today, all the major highways heading north and west of Christchurch are now open.
Our train ride was a beautiful journey across the country and through New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Many of the folks on our train were stopping at Arthur’s Pass, which still had plenty of snow in the spring for skiing and snowboarding. We continued on to Greymouth on the west coast and rented a car to drive up to the Nelson area and Abel Tasman park.
We loved our visit to Christchurch. Everywhere we went we were welcomed warmly and you could feel the positive energy throughout. You can reach it easily by car or by the TranzAlpine train from the west coast of the island. If you have limited time for your trip, Christchurch has an international airport with many nonstop and connecting flights from within New Zealand or from Australia.