Saturday, February 26, 2011


Post-script: I had written a draft version of this post shortly after our visit on January 15 - 18 to make sure I didn't forget our experiences in Christchurch. Despite the tragedy on February 22, I've left my words mostly unedited as I'd like you the reader to view Christchurch as the magnificent modern city that we saw through our eyes and that I have no doubt will be one day restored to the beautiful place that we experienced.

After spending the day farther north along the pacific coast seeing sperm whales and dolphins and seals, we drove to Christchurch with the intention of putting our heels up for a few days. Trish and the kids were psyched to do some souvenir shopping and I was excited to explore New Zealand's second largest city.

Christchurch's Cathedral Square with "The Millennium Chalice" on the left

Typically, we wouldn't pre-book any of our hotels. We would get on the highway and Trish would pull out the free AA accommodations book and start calling. Two of the great things about New Zealand hotels are
  1. There is an appointed "duty hotel" in each town, so if you've called a few hotels without any luck, you can ask for the phone number of the duty hotel. This hotel keeps track of room availability in all of the hotels in the area. So if we were having trouble finding accommodation for 5, the duty hotel would tell us to try this and this hotel who has an apartment that would suit us. It worked great.
  2. While accommodations for 5 are very difficult to find in Europe and North America, nearly every hotel in New Zealand has 2 and 3 bedroom units that include a common room and a kitchen.
As we were approaching Christchurch, Trish found a hotel that was rated 4 stars and was close to the city center. We called the Southern Comfort Motel and hit gold on the first try - they had a suite for us at a reasonable price.

Awesome ... until we got there. This place was disgusting! From the outside, it looked old and worn. We should have fled then and there, but decided to at least see the room. The rooms were worse: musty, dated, worn, dirty. We were contemplating leaving, but it was after 6:00pm and we figured that we'd get charged one night for cancellation. Besides Harrison had leapt at the chance to christen the bathroom when we heard a "Mom! Dad! Come see this!"

There were hundreds of dead bugs in the bathtub.  It was clear that they had fallen from the skylight, but it was also obvious that the place had neither been occupied or cleaned for some time. We found someone to clean it up while the owner made some excuse about the wind, but if Trish had had her sleeping bag, she would have slept in it on top of the covers.

So we sucked it up and decided to stay the night, but the very first thing I did was download the Trip Advisor app for the iPhone (highly recommended). Now with trusted, reliable information, we researched a much better hotel that was spotless and within walking distance of Cathedral Square. We drove over to check it out and laid down the plastic to reserve an apartment for the rest of our stay in Christchurch. I wasted no time in telling the owner of the Southern Comfort that we were outta there first thing in the morning. (The link above takes you to my scathing review on Trip Advisor.)

Once we had solved the accommodation problem, we set out to explore Cathedral Square and find a place to eat. Everyone settled on Japanese at Mom's 24 Sushi. After dinner, Mom & Dad grabbed a Starbucks and the kids took up an impromptu game of tag around the historical landmarks in and around Cathedral Square to burn off some energy.

Christchurch was remarkably well preserved given the two previous earthquakes. There was scaffolding around a few old buildings and we saw one old art boutique that had been evacuated until the building could pass a safety test. But there is probably more construction in Montreal at any given time than we saw in Christchurch.

Although there are pockets of activity in different parts of the city, Cathedral Square is where all the action was. Lots of the touristy things were arranged around the square and most of the shopping was in the streets leading off Cathedral Square.

Take your time Trish - I'll be here.
The next morning, we grabbed breakfast at the Cathedral cafe to fuel our imminent raid on the stores along Columbo St. We all picked up some souvenirs and then relaxed in Victoria Park for a few minutes before lunch. We grabbed lunch on the run and headed to a Haka show in Cathedral Junction.

Harrison with Maori warrior at the Haka

The girls with Maori woman at the Haka

After the Haka show, we went to the small aquarium, Southern Encounter. It was OK, but the best part was seeing a mating pair of Kiwis in a night room squabble over food. They came right up to the glass and seemed oblivious to their human observers 2 cm away. Then we took in some street performers around Cathedral Square and rode the tram through its loop around central Christchurch.

All aboard the tram
Mom & Dad had earned a drink, so we stopped into Bailies Irish Pub for a snack and a pint before heading back through Latimer Square to our hotel. 

None of the restaurants around Cathedral Square looked all that great, so we drove around looking for something better. It was Sunday night and the streets were pretty quiet when we happened to drive down Oxford Terrace that was packed with open air restaurants and people enjoying the warm weather. What a great scene! Nowhere in any tourist book or brochure is there a description of this little strip. The only explanation I could surmise is that Christchurch locals want to keep this jewel for themselves. The vibe reminded me of Crescent St except that the strip was lined with hip restaurants overlooking the Avon River.

We grabbed a cool table at Suede with a fire burning through the hole in the middle. Mackenzie, our 4 year old, declared her heterosexuality when she gave our 19 year old waiter, Oska, a 15 second head to toe ogle. Every time he would come to the table, she would act coy and start tossing her hair around. In the middle of the dinner, she uttered "Jeeesus Christ!" to express her discontent at Oska attending to the two blonds at the table next to us! I was kicking myself as I chose that night to forget my camera. It sure felt like vacation as our kids felt right at home staying out to 11:00 pm dining in chic neighborhood eateries.

Unfortunately, the weather rained on our parade the next day and it was impossible to do any outdoor activity. We camped out at a mall. Harrison and I played video games while the girls picked up jeaggins (tights that look like skinny jeans). Late in the afternoon, we went to check out Christchurch's art gallery. Two of the three kids killed it in under 10 minutes, but one paused to contemplate the artist's message. Guess who?

Christchurch Art Gallery
That evening we 'dined' at the Octagon Live!, a restaurant now occupying the restored Trinity Church. It is an excellent restaurant in its own right, but the real attraction is that the entire staff are musicians and entertainers. The hostess got changed into a ball gown and sang Gershwin; our waitress played Rachmaninoff. Between sets from other artists, Christchurch jazz legend Doug Caldwell filled the room with classical jazz piano.

Cassandra enjoying Havelock greenlip mussels

It was a fantastic experience. Yet again, we were surprised to notice that we were still eating dinner with the kids until after 11:00pm.

The clouds had disappeared, the stars were shining and the rain was receding from the streets. Drowsy from the food and the wine, we meandered through the cool night back to our hotel utterly satisfied with our visit to Christchurch. The city was filling up with Special Olympians and the World Busking Festival was on deck for the next weekend. There were certainly many more opportunities to explore in Christchurch and Canterbury, but I thought to myself that it would be equally cool to come back to Christchurch just to hang out.

The next day, we would start on the road back up to the North Island, but pause before boarding the ferry to put our bags down in Nelson, the area with New Zealand's nicest weather.

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