Why you should visit this incredibly cool Kiwi city now (and it’s not just to help boost the local economy)

When it comes to travel, it’s said that the people make the place. Nowhere can this be taken more literally than in Christchurch, where small businesses, private investors and innovative locals are reviving the city, bit by bit, post-earthquakes.

Christchurch street art by Dcypher. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Christchurch street art by Dcypher. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

If you need a reminder, Christchurch’s first contemporary earthquake hit on 4 September 2010, followed by a massive aftershock on 22 February 2011. There were more than 13,000 aftershocks, but it is probably the February quake, which killed 185 people and damaged or destroyed a third of the city’s buildings, that comes to mind when you think of “the Christchurch earthquake”.

The top of New Regent St. Photo credit: Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism
The top of New Regent St. Photo credit: Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism

I first visited Christchurch in September 2012, when a cordoned-off “red zone” still blocked much of the CBD. It was devastating to walk through the accessible parts of town – all those gorgeous Victorian buildings crumpled and broken, their interiors exposed – although locals had begun to create pockets of interest among the ruins.

Most prominent back then were Re:Start shipping-container mall, Gapfiller art project (with its bicycle-powered cinema and coin-operated Dance-o-mat street disco) and indie beautification scheme Greening the Rubble (a charitable trust that planted mini-parks in nooks and crannies around town). Though intended to be temporary, these projects are still attractions in the city.

Four-and-a-half years after the quakes, it’s impossible to visit the city and remain unaware of recent history, despite the local paper’s front-page headline stating that this is the “turning point” for Christchurch on the day I arrive in late May 2015. City blocks are still vacant, though many are now construction sites. Cranes are everywhere. Orange traffic cones line the streets, blocking lanes and creating diversions.

Witches’ hats are now so ubiquitous to have become icons for the city.

Local artist Cheryl Lucas has even immortalised them as small ceramic sculptures, or “Icones”, which are sold in the Quake City museum gift shop. This kind of dark playfulness is prevalent in the city. You have to admire the locals’ warped sense of humour, which also sees a mini-golf course between vacant buildings and walls emblazoned with letters ten-feet high stating “This wall can’t talk.”

Street art is everywhere in the city. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Street art is everywhere in the city. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

You also have to admire their empathy – on my first night, I walk through a park where a small crowd is holding a candlelit vigil for the thousands of victims of the earthquake that hit Nepal on 25 April. The fact that Christchurch is yet to fully recover shouldn’t put you off visiting – if anything, tourism is needed to reinvigorate the local economy (it has been estimated the rebuild will cost NZ$40 billion).

There is plenty you can do in Christchurch to support local business, and many experiences you won’t find anywhere else (such as The Auricle bar in New Regent St, which matches wine to sound). Many of Christchurch’s traditional tourist attractions are up and running again, too – punting is back on the Avon River, as are the ducks; historic tourist trams are back on their tracks; and a reopened, restored and rebuilt Isaac Theatre Royal is hosting live shows and musicals once again, such as the opera Madama Butterfly, opening next month.

The former Christchurch City Hall, plus the ubiquitous shipping containers and cranes. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
The former Christchurch City Hall, plus the ubiquitous shipping containers and cranes. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

It’s apparent that most postearthquake development to date has been privately funded, mostly because bigger, government-funded projects take time. As representatives from the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) have put it: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

I spoke to Don Miskell, deputy director of development, design and planning at CERA, who is excited by the private enterprise responsible for reawakening the city. “Most of the new development is by local investors,” he says. “I find that encouraging.

“For every dollar spent by the government, we expect six dollars will be spent by the private sector.”

“We’re extremely lucky to have landowners and local businesses investing in their city. People used to see Christchurch as a conservative place, but post-quake there have been a lot of innovative projects.

“We want to capture that spirit in the city planning. Out of the tragedy and loss, we have a great opportunity to rethink and reshape the central city.”

This reshaping involves rebuilding the CBD into a series of precincts, and framing the city with parkland, playgrounds and residential buildings to keep the action inside the CBD. There will be a Retail Precinct, Justice and Emergency Services precinct, Metro Sports Facility, Convention Centre, Health Precinct, Bus Interchange (which opens in June), Innovation Precinct (for tech companies and startups), Performing Arts Precinct and the Avon River Precinct.

Punting is back on the Avon River. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Punting is back on the Avon River. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

“We want to create an accessible city,” says Don. “So far, the Crown has invested a lot of money into cleaning up the Avon River and it has created a lovely parkland for people to enjoy. The first public structure to reach completion after the earthquake was Hagley Oval in September 2014, which was funded by Canterbury Cricket Trust and Christchurch City Council. “On Boxing Day, it hosted a test match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka – it was wonderful to see families walking through the Botanic Gardens on their way to the match.”

I also spoke to some of the most innovative Christchurch investors who have started (or rebuilt) fantastic businesses post-quake – “Not so much out of resilience,” says Sam Crofskey, owner of the café C1 Espresso.

“I am a little sick of hearing the word ‘resilience’,” he says

“We opened again because we had to. We worked hard as a distraction [from the earthquakes]. We opened C1 as quickly as we could [in November 2012 ], thinking that by the time we were finished everyone else would be operational again too. But they weren’t.”

When the quake struck, Sam didn’t just own the original C1 Espresso – he also owned the OK! Bottling Company, a juice company (I recommend the feijoa nectar). He opened that business after the September ’10 quake as an “insurance policy” should another quake take out his café. But when the February ’11 earthquake struck, it took out the juice company too.

C1 Espresso. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
C1 Espresso. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Despite losing everything, Sam is one of the most positive business owners in Christchurch. C1 is not just a café, it’s a fun place to be – the door to the toilets is hidden behind a book case (“With real books,” says Sam, “They had to be real Penguins.”), the water fountain is a reworked vintage sewing machine, and burgers are dispatched from the kitchen via perspex tubes, which run around the ceiling (search “world’s fastest burger” on YouTube).

The café is also about to publish a zine, and, later in the year, a pop-up book about the quakes. The café grows and makes its own tea, and is planning to open a boutique hotel upstairs. These projects allow Sam to employ more staff, which he finds incredibly rewarding: “Before the earthquake, I’d interview staff and ask why they wanted to work here and they’d say, ‘To save up money to leave Christchurch.’ Now, I ask the same question and they say they want to stay to help the city rebuild.”

Even in the desolate parts of town, street art surprises. Here, a Mini is suspended on a wall. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Even in the desolate parts of town, street art surprises. Here, a Mini is suspended on a wall. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Another inspiring business owner is Alasdair Cassels, who opened boutique shopping emporium The Tannery in Woolston in a historic leather-tanning factory in November 2013.

The site was already home to the Cassels & Sons Brewery, but Alasdair was inspired to open this mini-mall to give small fashion, art, jewellery and homewares shop owners a space to stimulate retail in his beloved city.

“Before the earthquakes, I loved the Victorian heritage buildings that defined the city,” he says. “Many of these have been saved and, as in the case of The Tannery, they’re much better now than before. The earthquake invigorated the city with new architecture and new opportunities. It’s great to be part of it.”

Alasdair based The Tannery’s internal architecture on Sydney’s Strand Arcade, and his own arcade has old-style tessellated tiled floors, wide shop windows and ornate fretwork. He is also inspired by the Camden Lock market area in London, and plans to similarly reinvigorate the Heathcote River near The Tannery with a new bridge in collaboration with artists and the local Maori population.

“The lower reaches of the Heathcote have been neglected for most of the last century,” he says. “There’s now an increasing awareness of the river in our community and the need to keep it clean. The bridge and wharf development is part of this movement.”

Bars such as The Dirty Land and restaurants like Mexicanos are revitalising Victoria St. Photo credit: Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism
Bars such as The Dirty Land and restaurants like Mexicanos are revitalising Victoria St. Photo credit: Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism

Perhaps the most obvious signs of rebuilding in Christchurch can be seen on Victoria Street. When I visited in 2012, the street was desolate but for the Revival shipping-container bar and Smash Palace – a bar housed in an old bus. Now, you’ll find all sorts here, from speakeasy inspired bars Tequila Mockingbird and The Dirty Land, to slick restaurants Mexicanos and King of Snake.

When I met him on my last trip, Smash Palace owner Johnny Moore told me that as he was so shaken after the earthquakes he wanted to open his bar in a bus because “it’s easy to relocate if there is another earthquake”.

He says that the important thing after the earthquakes was to keep people in the city – to have activity on a site where there would have been none without temporary businesses popping up. When Victoria Street came to life again with new builds, Smash Palace headed off to a new location, opposite C1 on High Street.

“The new site is next door to where we had a bar that fell over in the earthquake so it feels like coming home,” he says.

A cool Porsche parked outside Smash Palace. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
A cool Porsche parked outside Smash Palace. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Smash Palace has been well supported by the community: “For some people, the bar has been an important part of their psychological recovery. I know of a few people who had horrific earthquake experiences and found it hard to get on with life. They’ve told me that the community that evolved around Smash Palace was something that kept them going when everything else was overwhelming.”

The bar built up a bit of a casual motorcycle club, with people riding in on café racers to enjoy a weekend catch-up. Apparently, the more well-heeled citizens of Victoria Street had an issue with this, but High Street is more at ease with the relaxed vibe. When you next visit Christchurch, do support the locals. It’s people like Johnny, Sam and Alasdair who’ve made the city a fantastic tourism destination.

Learn more

• Quake City earthquake museum is coordinated by the Canterbury Museum and exists to educate tourists and locals about the earthquakes. Exhibits include remnants of the quakes, such as the fallen cathedral spire, and photographs and video testimony of the earthquakes. 99 Cashel St, Christchurch. Open seven days, 10am–5pm; canterburymuseum.com/quakecity

• Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch (NZD$45, Freerange Press) is a fascinating book as it includes local perspectives on the recovery plan in Christchurch as well as essays on post-disaster urban recovery worldwide.

• Future Christchurch is a website was designed for locals to keep locals abreast of what’s happening, and what will happen, in their city. It is a wealth of info for interested out-of-towners, too; futurechristchurch.co.nz

Re:START container mall. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Re:START container mall. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Do it yourself

• C1 Espresso: Great burgers, tasty juices, fab coffee and fresh, real tea that comes in matchboxes. Great art, good music and an all-round cool vibe. Cnr High and Tuam Sts, Christchurch. Open seven days, 7am-10pm; c1espresso.co.nz

• Gap Filler: Various art installations and street art around town. To see what’s on, visit gapfiller.org.nz

• Smash Palace: Bar snacks, outdoor seating. Super-relaxed. Great place to chat with locals. 172 High St, Christchurch. Open seven days: Mon–Fri 4pm to late, Sat 12pm to late, Sun 12pm-9pm; thesmashpalace.co.nz

• The Auricle: This sonic arts gallery and wine bar sees the wine list curated to match the exhibition and the music playing in the space. 35 New Regent St, Christchurch. Open Tue–Wed and Sun noon-8pm, Thurs–Sat 12pm–12am, (bar closed Mon and Tue); auricle.org.nz

• The Tannery: A boutique shopping emporium on the banks of the Heathcote River, which is also the site of the excellent Cassels & Sons Brewery for craft beer and a pub lunch (or breakfast). 3 Garlands Rd, Woolston, Christchurch. Open seven days, 10am–5pm; thetannery.co.nz

• Travel to Chirstchurch: For information on the city and surrounding region, visit Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism at christchurchnz.com

Note: This article originally appeared in Jetstar Australia’s inflight magazine