Skirting The Red Zone
Forget what you have read about Christchurch being a city with nothing to do
In the aftermath of the February 2011 earthquake, Christchurch’s central business district was a black hole in the middle of a city rocked by a major disaster. Military personnel staffed cordons, roads were blocked, power and water was out, major tourist attractions were destroyed and many feared the city would never return to life.
The city in which I had lived, worked, and played for the previous five years changed in an instant. Living in Christchurch for the following year was shaky and challenging but as the months passed, the character of the city changed and things became more positive.
Slowly, the red zone as it became known has shrunk and on its fringes, life is most definitely returning. Forget what you have read about Christchurch being a city with nothing to do, a skirt around the edges of the cordon offers plenty to write home about.
North of the red zone, Victoria Street is great place to start your day. Begin with a visit to one of the area’s cafes such as Vic’s Café, which serves a breakfast menu from 7.00am weekdays or 7.30am at weekends including eggs done several different ways and sweet pancakes. Or, for a quick caffeine blast head across the road to Blax Espresso Bar. Stop off at Gordon Smith and Sons at 88 Victoria Street to pick up some fresh fruit snacks to keep you going during the day.
Once you have fuelled up in Victoria Street head out towards Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens, the green heart of the city. Here you can feed the ducks, or let the children burn off some energy at the playground. The playground is a popular meeting spot with local mums and it can get busy particularly on sunny mornings, so be prepared to share the slide with others.
The gardens were founded in 1863 with the planting of an English oak tree and now cover 21 hectares. If you want to learn more, then take a ride on a guided Caterpillar tour with one of the knowledgeable gardeners who will teach you not only about the history of the gardens but also about the origins and care of its many plants.
A slow walk through the Botanic Gardens will bring you out by Canterbury Museum, one of the city's relatively undamaged heritage buildings. The museum is open every day from 9.00am to 5.00pm in winter and 9.00am to 5.30pm in summer. Entry is free although donations are requested.
It is easy to spend a couple of hours wandering around the museum. Here you can learn about how the early Maoris lived, and the stories of settlers who came from England to settle in New Zealand. The museum also houses a collection of memorabilia from Antarctic expeditions and a Victorian street with shops from the era.
From the museum, a walk along Worcester Street brings some of the city's sadder vistas. The beautiful gothic buildings that made up the Arts Centre retain much of their splendour despite the steel bracing and wooden covers which now adorn them. It is no longer possible to walk into and around the Arts Centre but you can still admire what is still a beautiful building from the outside. Look out for the turret that was removed as a precaution after the September 2010 earthquake and now sits alongside the Centre in Rolleston Avenue.
The Art Gallery is also closed, but its innovative Outer Spaces programme is bringing art to the city in new ways. The gallery has filled its own forecourt with contemporary artwork and has also taken over several spots on the edge of the red zone. Look out too, as you wander around, for the Gap Filler projects that are brightening up the city. The Gap Filler Project does exactly what its name suggests - it takes a gap usually created by the demolition of a building and fills it with something interesting. Projects change all the time and have included a disused drinks fridge recycled as a book exchange, painted pianos, a giant Monopoly square and an outdoor chess game in Colombo Street to replace the once popular giant game in Cathedral Square.
A walk along Worcester Street also brings a view of the city’s former jewel the Christchurch Cathedral whose spire toppled during the February quake. Visitors cannot get close to the cathedral now, but the view from afar shows just how powerful Mother Nature was that day.
While the cathedral is no longer accessible, another of Christchurch’s iconic tourist attractions is back up and running in the area, with the re-launch of Punting on the Avon. From the Worcester Street Bridge, you can take a trip along the Avon in a traditional punt and get a unique view of the city’s red zone. For a leafier vista, take a punt through the Botanic Gardens. Open from 10.00am until 4.00pm, the 30-minute rides cost $25 for adults.
The cathedral is a symbol of what the city lost, but just around the corner is another example of how it is looking to the future. The Re:Start Mall employs shipping containers to create a fresh and funky shopping area. A host of central city businesses forced out of their old premises have found new homes here in the brightly decorated open-air mall.
Here you can pick up some new clothes, souvenirs, a fresh cup of coffee or a slice of nostalgia from Johnson’s Grocers, an old-fashioned shop stacked to the rafters with goodies. English visitors feeling a little homesick will particularly love the stock of English sweets, chocolates, and crisps.
For dinner, head back to Worcester Street and find a table at Cook’n With Gas, another Christchurch institution that has defied the odds and reopened its doors. Housed in an 1860s villa with an extensive wine list and a varied menu, this is a favourite with locals and can get busy so it pays to either get in early or book a table in advance.
If you are still on your feet at the end of the day, make a trip back to Victoria Street in the evening and check out some of the area’s pop-up bars. Pop-up is a buzzword in Christchurch these days and the Revival Bar at 94 Victoria Street is a great example of what a shipping container can be with a little imagination, providing live music and DJs, tap beer and cocktails every night of the week. A little further up the road Smash Palace is housed in a converted bus and offers burgers and bar snacks with your beer, and if you are feeling lucky, the Christchurch Casino is open until 3am.
It is impossible to avoid the damage that the earthquake caused as you wander around the edge of the red zone, but Christchurch is now a city that is rebuilding. Almost every day, a road reopens, a view changes and a business begins. Plan your day but be prepared to change things to make sure you do not miss anything. Keep an open mind and open eyes and you will find plenty to inspire and enthral.