CHRISTCHURCH - A VISITOR'S IMPRESSION
Mark Brownlow - February 6, 2007
In a sense, Christchurch is not the best place to start a tour of New Zealand, since it gives rise to a false impression of the country. The Victorian neo-Gothic architecture and languid riverside atmosphere are no preparation for the more robust and rugged landscapes to the North, South and West.
Indeed, the casual visitor might be forgiven for thinking he's landed in southern England rather than the southern hemisphere. But those flying in from Japan have little choice of starting destination if they want to tour the South Island, and we reached Christchurch International after an eleven hour flight with Air New Zealand from Tokyo's Narita airport.
Thanks to the airline's new inflight entertainment system, the trip passed faster than expected. As well as the usual array of feature films and television programs, the system has a custom music channel and travel documentaries.
The former lets you build your own playlist from dozens of albums in various genres. And the latter includes a set of on-demand video features which take you to various New Zealand destinations. So you can feel less guilty about all that background travel reading you never got round to.
Only a few international flights use Christchurch airport, so the main action (and most shops and services) are down the domestic end of the terminal. But we did stock up on brochures and travel info at the tourist information desk, which opens briefly after each international arrival.
A visitor with time should then take the short walk to the International Antarctic Centre, but we were running late and headed straight into town with a hire car.
Thanks to the grid system, navigating your way into and around Christchurch isn't hard. Assuming you master the one-way system. After righting a couple of wrong turns, we slipped into our accommodation at Living Space on Lichfield Street around midday, just 20 or so minutes after leaving the airport.
The hotel doesn't fit into any convenient category. It's more of a hybrid between a "proper" hotel and a hostel, combining the benefits of both.
So we had access to movie theatres, kitchens, games rooms, indoor/outdoor seating and a library. But the room itself was decked out much like a standard hotel room. The in-room Internet facility was fast and notably cheap at NZ$4 a night...we paid nearly ten times that for the same facility elsewhere in the country.
The only drawback to the whole Living Space experience was the parking. The hotel's underground garage was fairly cramped and another guest decided he needed far more room than we did, leaving us with some tricky manoeuvring on our departure. On a brighter note, though, the garage walls did feature some great graffiti art.
A big advantage to Living Space was its central location. And with most of Christchurch's sites within walking distance, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon following the walk suggested by the local City Council and detailed on a small "Central City Walks" folder we grabbed at the airport.
The initial impression of the city centre is of an English colonial enclave. The open spaces, tree-lined streets, leftover Victorian architecture and meandering river conjure up images of parts of Oxford. That's no surprise when you learn that the city's 19th century founders used Oxford's Christ Church as a role model for town planning (hence the name).
The centre doesn't have an urban feel, so I was surprised -- even shocked -- to learn that Christchurch is actually the second largest city in New Zealand. It's just very spread out.
It is, however, definitely geared up for visitors, with numerous souvenir shops around the central Cathedral Square area, which is where we also found the i-Site information centre. Many shops carried signs and notices in Japanese which -- together with an unusual wealth of Asian-style restaurants -- suggests a large visiting population from Japan.
The official walk took us out of Cathedral Square past various Victorian buildings, such as the Canterbury Club and Library of Chambers, and alongside the Avon river and parks. It's easily managed in around two hours, but we took time to enjoy the sun and a late lunch at one of the series of restaurants found at the river end of the City Mall.
The Ferment Restaurant and Bar proved a nice place to recover from the rigors of air travel and I indulged myself with the first fish and chips of the trip. The service was friendly, if a touch slow, but that suited our demeanour as we soaked up the warmth of the New Zealand summer. (A two-course meal for two with one side salad and four drinks cost NZ$85.)
After completing the walk, we made a quick detour along the tram tracks to see Christchurch's latest and slightly contentious attraction. The historic tram doubles as a guided tour, circling the centre after leaving from Cathedral Square. It also -- unlike the suggested walk we followed -- passes by the new Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu.
There's been some debate about the architectural style of the gallery, where the facade can be considered anything other than Victorian. It was closed by the time we arrived, but provides a home for over 5,500 items as the South Island's largest art institution. The enormous glass frontage is certainly worth a photo or three.
After the gallery we returned to the hotel for a short break prior to dinner, where we made a brief foray into the centre again. But with most shops closing by early evening, the busy Cathedral Square had taken on a more deserted look by the time we arrived.
Indeed, the only other folk underway were a couple of unsavoury looking characters. After witnessing one "tired and emotional" woman haranguing a police car, we decided to retreat to nearer the hotel, enjoying dinner at the Honeypot Cafe on Lichfield Street.
There we encountered genuine good service, with the waitress almost suggesting we eat elsewhere as the menu was restricted due to Waitangi Day (a public holiday not observed by all shops and businesses). We stayed though, and were rewarded with a decent enough meal and a warm ambience.