Christchurch is a vibrant city with something new always on offer, says regular visitor Peta Stavelli.
There’s nothing like having some local knowledge when you’re planning a visit to any region, and the country’s second largest city, Ōtautahi, Christchurch, is no exception. If you haven’t been there for a while, you might be wondering what to expect since the 2011 earthquakes changed all that was old and familiar about the city.
I’m fortunate to have the irrepressible co-pilot as my local guide. Over the years, he’s helped shape my view of the city as it re-emerged from almost total devastation to an exciting destination. I particularly like to be in Christchurch during the spring and autumn seasons, when the city is at its spectacular best – and for this reason, one of the first things on our agenda is a city circuit, beginning near The Botanic Gardens, and taking in what’s new in the city centre.
Something old; something new
Few cities can truly boast that there’s always something new to see. However, Ōtautahi, which has been undergoing an almost complete rebuild since 2011, is an exception. We always begin at Hagley Park for the start of our brisk city circuit taking in all the exciting developments. Hagley Park is the living, breathing, heart of the city; and one of its greatest assets. The park was set aside by the provincial government in 1850. It comprises around 165 hectares, and is the third largest city park in the world behind Central Park, New York, and Hyde Park, London. At any time of the year, Hagley Park is a hub of activity; home to tennis courts, croquet clubs, cricket pavilions and a golf club, among others. But one of the quirkiest clubs to call the park home is the Model Yacht Club, the second oldest such club in the world. If you’re lucky to visit on one of their meeting days, you’ll find dozens of small yachts racing on Victoria Lake, as they have been since 1878.
There’s masses of parking around Hagley Park for all sizes of vehicles, although being a hot destination, even in the cooler months, it pays to get in early. We like to nudge in close to the footbridge and begin our walk crossing the first part of the Avon River/Ōtākaro to the Botanical Gardens. We’re usually on a mission, so we linger longer on the return journey as we meander through the gardens enjoying the seasonal changes. And while I’ve never used it, I was delighted to recently find the online existence of a seasonal guide: christchurch-botanic-gardens/attractions/seasonal-highlights. Check it out for any must-sees.
After a quick dash through the gardens we usually skirt the hospital boundary to walk past the historic Antigua Boat Sheds, which have been continuously in use since 1882, around the same time as my great-grandparents, a nurse and an Anglican minister, met on the Caribbean island of Antigua. From there we cross the river again and head towards The Riverside Markets, a vibrant city spot for food lovers and a destination in itself. We take in the city blocks and peek into magnificent new buildings like Te Pae – the convention centre – and stroll through Victoria Square, back past Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū towards the The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora. If you have children in tow, you won’t want to miss the marvellous Margaret Mahy Playground.
The Canterbury Museum, adjacent to the botanical gardens is currently closed for refurbishment. Don’t despair, though, you can still get a humdinger of a history fix with a short drive to The Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum, located at Wigram.
Them Thar Hills
The Port Hills, which form a natural barrier between the city and the port of Lyttleton, are another magnificent asset to the city of Christchurch. These beautiful hills offer an abundance of recreational activities – a particularly favourite pastime is hot air ballooning with the hills in the distance. From the ground, you’ll always pass cyclists, runners and walkers of all ages, as you drive up the steep and winding roads to the summit. Aptly named Summit Road is a great way for first timers to get a literal entry into the extensive options the region provides. We like to take in Victoria Park where there’s a playground, and many places along the numerous family friendly and often dog-friendly walking tracks, which offer stunning views over the city and surroundings. We also highly rate Godley Head, a coastal defence historic site 50 minutes from Cathedral Square, which has in recent years undertaken a brilliant refurbishment.
A popular walk is to Godley Head via a return track from the city’s favourite surf beach, Taylors Mistake. The walk is three hours, but if you’re looking for shorter and less strenuous options, check out the Port Hills Walking Tracks Map.
Drop down from the Port Hills via Dyer’s Pass Road and you’ll end up on Governor’s Bay Road. If you turn right at this junction you can meander along the delightfully scenic coastal road to Diamond Harbour. There’s also a ferry from Lyttelton to Diamond Harbour, and this is another pleasant way to go. Either way, Diamond Harbour is a charming destination.
If you veer right instead of left when you reach Teddington, this road will take you through to SH75, which offers even more delights. This is the main route to Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula through Little River. Do take the short diversion to Birdlings Flat and fossick for semi-precious stones on the boulder beach. Just take care to keep well away from the water’s edge as this is a notorious place for drownings. Birdlings Flat and Akaroa are a pleasant day trip from the city, but if you do go on from here, I highly recommend a stay over at Okains Bay, which has the most outstanding museum. The calibre of the collection of Māori artefacts is so extraordinary that some items are on permanent loan to Te Papa. However, the iterations of waka, hooks, nets and other taonga are so extensive that you will leave astounded.
Okains Bay village is tiny and feels as if time has stood still, but there’s a wonderful campground abutting the estuary and ocean beach so you can stay and take it all in. Okains Bay is one of my all-time favourite destinations in this region.
If you’ve opted for a left hand turn at the bottom of Dyers Pass Road, you’ll end up in lovely Lyttelton. I say lovely, although the co-pilot disagrees. He does, however, approve of the recent makeover the neglected port had so it could play host to the Sail Grand Prix during March, 2023.
Coming from Hobart, Tasmania, Lyttelton, with its working port, steep slopes and wonderful array of higgledy-piggledy historic buildings, reminds me of home. I love the wee village here which is full of interesting shops and cafés. But my favourite things in this area are the Lyttelton Timeball and a hillside car park. More on the car park later…
The Timeball is a delightful nod to the port’s history when ships relied on their chronometers to establish longitude. If the chronometer was out by mere seconds it could translate to an error of many nautical miles, so all ships needed a way to ensure there timepiece scrupulously displayed the correct Greenwich Time. The Lyttelton Timeball – a large, zinc-coated sphere – falls at 1pm daily. Of course it’s all over in seconds, but I love it anyway.
Now about that car park: a little further up the hill from the timeball is a layby, and from here there is a remarkable viewing point that takes in a bird’s eye view over the port. You’ll feel like Gulliver as you watch all the activity far below this eyrie. It’s fabulous, and it’s free. You can leave Lyttelton by the recently reopened route to the lovely seaside village of Sumner, definitely worth a visit.
If you’re looking for a destination shopping experience, head to The Tannery at Woolston. The Tannery will make you feel you have been suddenly teleported to Melbourne. It’s a fabulous boutique shopping destination with a cinema and brewery thrown into the retail mix to ensure this really is a one-stop shop for all your needs. High-quality, ethical traders, fashion retailers, florists and haberdashery outlets are all here. Artists and artisans abut high-end shoe and clothing stores, there’s a fabulous book shop, and an old-fashioned pharmacopoeia. Eat at artisan bakeries, cute coffee shops, or pop in for a brew. Plan to spend a few hours here if time allows.
On the road again
Personally, I can’t wait to leave Christchurch…but only because we’re off on a roadie to some other fabulous destination. I love this southern city that has so much to offer. And if leaving for my home in the north is bittersweet, it’s always made better by knowing I’ll return again soon – perhaps in springtime when the city is blooming marvellous.
EAT: Riverside Markets, Fush (Wigram and Prebbleton) for seafood with a side of te reo, fushshorebro.co.nz and Joes in Wigram.
PLAY: Walk, cycle, sightsee, fossick for gemstones at Birdlings Flat.
MUSEUMS: The Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum airforcemuseum.co.nz, Okains Bay Museum, Banks Peninsula.
SHOP: The Tannery, Woolston thetannery.co.nz, Riccarton Rotary Market (plenty of parking), Riccarton Farmers’ Market, Spitfire Square, (near the airport) 544 Memorial Ave.
PLEASE NOTE: Kiwi Holiday Park is closed on March 30, 2023.