Sunday 30 October 2011

Christchurch: A City on the Mend

I've spent the past week in New Zealand, and my first stop was Christchurch as part of a group of journalists invited by Tourism New Zealand.

It's been a mere eight months since the major earthquake which devastated its historic city centre, so I was interested to see what the situation was like now, especially for travellers who might like to visit. 

There was little visible evidence of quake damage on the way from the airport through the Christchurch suburbs, but as we reached the centre we started to notice buildings which had bracing applied to their exteriors to stabilise them, awaiting repair.

Here's an example, a building in the Arts Centre which was once part of a university campus (you can see one of its spires sitting on the ground on the right):

Further on, we reached the edge of the 'Red Zone' to which entry is not possible, dotted with buildings awaiting demolition. Here the vista was more startling, with half-collapsed shops in the foreground and the ominous leaning tower of the former Hotel Grand Chancellor at the rear:

However, among the wreckage there are already green buds of hope and renewal. Just after we left Christchurch, a section of shopping mall was reopened in an ingenious set of shipping containers re-engineered as temporary shops. And over the coming months the Red Zone will steadily shrink, to be replaced by a proposed new city centre with a pedestrian-friendly layout and better integration of the Avon River.

Speaking of which, just a short walk from the Red Zone, the famous punting on the river continues to be a popular attraction. We joined a boat, and passed the happy punters you can see below:

Our next stop was the Banks Peninsula, an oval-shaped promontory which juts into the Pacific from the eastern coast of the South Island. On the way we stopped at She Chocolat, a chocolate-making business with a restaurant in a beautiful setting overlooking Governors Bay. Its timber premises had stood up remarkably well to the force of the quake. Here's a (tasty) selection of their output:

The Banks Peninsula is a collection of ancient volcanic craters, smoothed by the passage of time and with some very attractive scenery. Here I am at a popular lookout point:

In the centre of the peninsula, on a long harbour which stretches in from the Pacific, is the town of Akaroa. A beautiful holiday village, it was founded by French settlers in 1840, at almost the same moment that New Zealand was claimed by the British. They stayed on under British rule, and you can still see some French elements about the town:

The next day we headed into the harbour on a dolphin-spotting cruise. As we located them outside the harbour mouth in rougher seas, it was a somewhat queasy experience for me. But hey, the diminutive and rare Hector's Dolphins were cool:

Finally, we climed the hills behind the town to visit the 19th century Giant's House, originally a grand residence for the first bank manager in Akaroa. Over the past few decades its gardens have been transformed by a local artist into a riot of colourful statues with a mosaic finish. It's an amazing place, popular for weekend visits and B&B stays:

Overall it was an interesting few days in and around the quake-rocked city. As the aftershocks have subsided, the city is tackling the damage with great heart; and with less affected places such as Akaroa within reach, Christchurch does seem like a place that travellers can now visit and thus contribute to its return to normality.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Tourism New Zealand.

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