Known worldwide as the garden city, though possibly more famous for the fact it was very nearly razed to the ground in 2011, Christchurch is a city under construction. From the flat roads lined with perfect hedges that lead from the airport to the CBD; the epicentre of the country’s second deadliest earthquake in known history, to the vacant lots and twisted steel foundations of buildings that once stood tall, to the aquamarine bays set against striking backdrops of snow-capped mountains, there is a lot more to this city than the witches hats and hi-vis workvests that signify a rebuild that’s still very much in progress.
The first thing we’re told by our driver is how proud Christchurch residents are of their gardens – this shows. In the leafy streets he’s chosen to drive us through to get to our hotel, well-kept houses are a-plenty, with pristine rose gardens adorning the lawns of just about every block of land. We’re informed that this particular stretch of housing suffered minimal damage as it sits along what was once a riverbed some 10,000 years prior, which gave the foundations to protect the suburbs from a great deal of the shocks that hit the city during a February lunchtime in 2011. A few blocks on though, and the damage is very visible.
Staying at The Novotel, conveniently located in the heart of the city overlooking Christchurch Cathedral, the view is a lot to take in. In the foreground is a thoroughly urban blend of construction, traffic and people going about their business, but with a noticeably large amount of street art and public installations. The background looks like something out of Lord of The Rings (though no surprises there). Look far enough and you’ll see snow on the mountaintops.
It’s getting behind the wheel and heading a short way out of Christchurch, however, that the sheer beauty of this place becomes evident. A drive out to Sumner and you’re on the beach, surrounded by caves, rocks covered with mussels and lapping waves. A short drive up the hill from that and you’re at Godley Head Park, a lookout with perfect views that stretch from the South Pacific back to the shipping port town of Lyttleton. Back on Sumner road and you’re snaking your way through the small towns and villages that sit along the many bays that make up the fractured coastline south of Christchurch proper.
It’s at this point it should be noted just how ideal these roads are for driving. If you plan on visiting, spring for something more fun than a compact (or if it’s in the warmer months, get a motorcycle), and spend a good day enjoying the tight corners and long stretches of fresh tarmac that these roads boast (this is, afterall, the birth country of Bruce McLaren). Just watch out for the sheep – they outnumber people fifteen to one and have far less regard for oncoming traffic.
Another drive worth doing is down further south to the out-of-place anachronism that is Akaroa. A ship of 63 French immigrants in the early 19th century staked their claim here, and left their mark in no small way. While it feels a little like a retirement village, there’s a pleasant quaintness to the overt French-ness of the place, something a past resident might insist; a je ne sais quoi to the town. It’s also a cracking spot if you’re looking to swim with dolphins, and the patisserie does a mean everything.
Back in the city, Christchurch is always willing to remind you of how beautiful its gardens are, and it’s a hard point to debate. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens are massive, with an undeniably English feel; the Avon River winds through the grounds while tourists enjoy a ride on punts pushed by young blokes in natty jackets and boater hats gripping bargepoles. It’s no gimmick – this is easily the most English city outside of England. The old buildings that survived the earthquake could be out of a Victorian gothic film. Some still stand half-erect, while builders delicately rebuild around what’s left, and just about every place name is about as Anglo-Saxon as it comes.
This is a city that wears the scars of a natural disaster – there’s no escaping that fact. But it’s also one that can boast some of the most stunning visuals you’ll likely find anywhere, and some of the best roads you’ll ever likely drive. It’s the quintessential place to relax and unwind, before heading out on an adventure. Don’t worry about a map – wherever you end up, you’ll find something that’ll make you wish you could stay longer.
Man of Many visited Christchurch as a guest of Emirates and Accor Hotels.