Last year, when the days started getting shorter and rainier, we developed a strategy for preventing the winter blues: when Air New Zealand announces domestic sales, snap up cheap seats to a NZ city we haven’t visited yet. It’s great to have an easy weekend trip to look forward to.
So this year… our pick was Christchurch.
Christchurch isn’t known for its inner city scene. But it’s a base for exploring other spots, like hot springs and hikes. We weren’t sure what the weather would allow us to do, but we decided to try for two day trips – to Hanmer Springs, a natural hot springs, and Akaroa, a historic French-inspired town.
But what we found was that we actually enjoyed exploring Downtown Christchurch way more than expected. Maybe it was the time of year – it was in the middle of School Holidays (so Hanmer Springs was super crowded), and apparently much of Akaroa closes during the winter. Warning – this is probably my least awe-inspiring blog to date. I guess all our adventures can’t be amazing! A little dose of reality never hurts.
Christchurch was hit by a devastating 6.3 earthquake in 2011, and is still rebuilding. It killed nearly 200 people and injured thousands more. Buildings collapsed or were badly damaged, especially old historic churches. Seven years later, the area is still recovering and rebuilding. We heard Christchurch wasn’t worth a visit, except to see the memorials and makeshift structures that have popped after the quake. But I thought seeing that recovery would be really interesting. Plus, their economy could use some help!
We visited the Cardboard Cathedral, the 185 Empty Chairs memorial to remember those who lost their lives, and generally saw a lot of construction. But we were actually impressed to see that there were vibrant areas of the city – modern shopping, fun restaurants and a really cool laid-back bar scene. There seems to have been lots of progress. For example, I had heard about the Re:Start Shipping Container Mall when I first arrived in NZ – but the temporary structures have already served their purpose and are now closed.
We especially liked New Regent Street (which we happened upon because our hotel was there) – with top picks being Casa Publica for tacos and ceviche, and quirky sister beer bars, The Institution and The Last Word.
But the coolest place was C1 Espresso. It’s in the old High Street Post Office building – and on top of making awesome Chemex coffee and breakfast, they deliver a bunch of their menu items directly to your table in pneumatic tubes.
Hanmer Springs is marketed as a relaxing retreat in beautiful surrounds. Unfortunately, to us, it felt more like a waterpark. We actually almost didn’t go in because there was a long line – and a ton of children (again, our bad for visiting during School Holidays). However, it’s a couple hours’ drive from Christchurch, and Brett had an injury that prevented us from doing a hike, and there’s really nothing else to do in the area.
So we went in. We booked a private hot tub thinking it would be like ONSEN in Queenstown (which we LOVE!) but it didn’t hit the mark. The public area was actually fine, and didn’t feel as crowded as the queues would suggest. Our tip – go midweek during the low season if you can! And the drive is beautiful, so pull off to enjoy the views!
Akaroa is a small French-inspired settlement on the Banks Peninsula a couple hours from Christchurch. It’s super cute and quaint, and the drive in is breathtaking. It actually reminded me a bit of Devonport!
In 1838, a French captain purchased the town from the Maori chiefs, and then advertised it as a settlement back in France. But before colonists arrived, the British signed the Treaty of Waitangi and New Zealand became a British colony (another controversial piece of history for another time).
Anyway, the town has retained its French influence and is highly touristy, so all I wanted was a decent French pastry. But the reality is that it’s still “middle-of-nowhere” New Zealand, and the bakeries are instead stocked with very Kiwi savoury pies. Bummer. We’ll have to come back in the summer when the French bistros are open! We still enjoyed our walk around the harbour, but it’s probably not worth the drive in the winter.
Even though our adventures weren’t what we expected, I’m glad we went. Otherwise, we’d still be wondering what they were like – and can now prioritise other experiences for the upcoming summer. Bring it on!