Posts in the “Christchurch” category...

New Zealand’s Most English City: Christchurch

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Wherever I’ve travelled in the World, or at least whenever I’ve done so with at least one other person, I’ve become distracted by the propensity of travelling companions to remark on the similarities between the far-flung place just arrived in, and some part of the sceptred British Isles.

This belief/need to believe that we are actually in familiar surroundings has obviously been prevalent for quite come time; witness the British-born place names which now litter previously perfectly-well named corners of the Globe.

Now, I will reveal to you why I am so distracted by these comparisons between Wigan and West Virginia, Falkirk and Fukuoka: it is because not one of these places ever looks even vaguely like the location that the desperate-to-feel-at-home traveller convinces themselves that it does.

Nowhere, it is my avowed contention, looks more like anywhere but itself. Indeed, were the World a litany of exact facsimiles of natural landscape or built environment, then the very act of travelling would be rendered a good deal less interesting than it actually is.

So, get this: Christchurch is not an English city. Nor is it New Zealand’s most English city. It is a fairly large town (if you insist on making domestic comparisons) miles from almost anywhere, on the other side of the World, in New Zealand, that does not look like it is anything other than just that. And, if I may absolutely and irrefutably prove my point by reverse argument, it is by saying that in all my travels around England, visiting almost every city and a good many towns, not once have I heard so much as a single, solitary soul say ‘ooh, this is just like Christchurch on South Island in New Zealand.’

That being dealt with, I’m happy to report that Christchurch is also quite a nice place. True, the entire place closes down at 5.30pm each evening. Almost no-one lives in the city centre and there’s clearly a lack of money to keep businesses going or vacant plots developed. A particularly derelict shack is advertised by an enthusiastic (if not delirious) estate agent as ‘benefitting from years of deferred maintenance.’

Perhaps Christchurch is the spiritual home of the ultimate understatements. It was from here that Captain Robert Falcon Scott set off on his ill-fated quest to be the first to reach the South Pole, with his expeditionary companion Lawrence Oates uttering the immortal words ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’ before heading into an Antarctic blizzard and the most honourable of suicides.

The best, though rather kitsch, way to get around ‘Chch’ (as the locals write it, but never say it) is by one of the restored trams which loop the city centre and afford the rider unlimited hop-on and hop-off travel for the price of a daily ticket.

There’s a handy commentary and warning of approaching stops and sights, but it’s no municipally-subsidised public service. It’s priced, instead, for the visitor market – so enjoy it as a tour rather than calculating the dollars per kilometre equivalent cost.

The recurring theme of Christchurch is undoubtedly parks. There are green spaces at almost every turn – some simple expanses of lawn and regimented trees; some, like the Botanic Gardens, World-class examples of their type. It’s a hard heart that fails to acknowledge just how pleasant the surroundings are, though some of the architecture runs the horticultural excellence a close race.

Regent Street is a fabulous example of the Spanish Mission style and, at the other end of the scale, the Christchurch Art Gallery is a modern palace of soaring glass and steel, encasing sinuous balconies and international-standard exhibition space.

Cathedral Square is the centre of daytime activity in the city, with market stalls and pavement cafes occupying the space between the Anglican Cathedral, some of Christchurch’s most historic buildings, a little modern sculpture and some pretty unremarkable, stumpy tower blocks. The tram and almost all bus routes converge here.


Those of a sweet-toothed disposition could do very much worse than seek out the Copenhagen Bakery on Armagh Street. Indeed, those of a savoury-toothed disposition won’t be disappointed either, at this award-winning café, patisserie and bakery with its cascading displays of freshly-crafted goodies. It’s also a particularly good choice for breakfast.

Beyond the hotel iterations, the dusk-induced closure of almost everything in central Christchurch tends to restrict the choice of restaurants for dinner. Two that stand out, however, are Cook ‘N’ With Gas on Gloucester Street (specialising in New Zealand lamb and beef) and the quirky wine bar cum Italian restaurant The Bicycle Thief on Latimer Square.

Named after a 1948 Italian film – ‘Ladri di Biciclette’ – it’s a small but popular after-work drinking spot, which merges into an atmospheric restaurant serving excellent pizza, pasta and other Italian specialities. The barman, in particular, is worthy of note as the mixer of mean cocktails and an encyclopaedic knowledge of his spirits, wines and beers.

Despite Christchurch’s exceptionally friendly daytime disposition, the lack of organised or commercial activity after dark does leave the city centre somewhat at the mercy of less salubrious residents and blow-throughs. For this reason, it’s wise to make use of one of the plentiful cabs for the ride home, which of course the restaurant will be happy to call.

Since this article was first published, the City of Christchurch has suffered two devastating earthquakes. For the latest information on what to see and do as the city is rebuilt, visit http://www.christchurch.org.nz/ or contact Continental Club.

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Holiday Inn Christchurch on Avon

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Since this article was first published, the City of Christchurch has suffered two devastating earthquakes. The Holiday Inn on Avon is indefinitely closed. For the latest information on what to see and do as the city is rebuilt, visit http://www.christchurch.org.nz/ or contact Continental Club.

There’s always a danger, when planning a trip, of automatically assuming that the most highly-rated, best-reviewed or sumptuously-specified accommodations will necessarily best suit your needs. On a trip like this one, choosing a suburban Holiday Inn so soon after a St Regis may appear akin to following the sublime with the ridiculous but, somehow, it seemed to promise delivery of everything that we would need from a Christchurch base – especially since we were furnished with a hire car and the city centre was not reportedly a particularly attractive place after dark.

The fact that the hotel rates offered stunning value for money sealed the deal.

 

The Holiday Inn Christchurch on Avon is some way from the city centre, though easily walkable in around 20 minutes, initially along the tree-lined banks of the Avon River. Car parking is plentiful and free of charge and the whole hotel lives up to those curiously reliable characteristics of Holiday Inns the World over – about 20 years out of date, spacious and spotlessly clean.

 

The hotel was, really, very difficult to fault. The rooms were large, the beds comfortable and the bathrooms fully-featured.

Service was, without exception, friendly and helpful – from Reception through Housekeeping and to the Restaurant.

 

Indeed, the restaurant proved to be something of a particular surprise, especially as the head waiter was very concerned that the presence of a coach party dining at the same time might delay our meal. Somehow any delay, if there was one, seemed to go unnoticed as we enjoyed a spacious table and the opportunity to chat and just enjoy not being in a hurry. That the food was also huge in portion and excellent in quality was a further delight and we spent an immensely enjoyable evening there – with the concerned head waiter going out of his way to quietly thank me ‘for bringing your family to eat with us tonight.’ Just great, I thought; really lovely.

 

The super-sized dinner might have prompted an early morning visit to the hotel’s gym and indoor swimming pool facility, although a post check-in exploration had revealed that these were not the property’s flagship amenities. Indeed, had the combined fitness features been much more compact, then it is likely that the exercise bike would have had to have been submerged in the shallow end of the pool. Aquavelo – I can see it now. Best then not to worry about that and remember the comfy bed, super service and incredible rates.

 

Final Verdict for the Holiday Inn Christchurch on Avon: 7.0/10. No one would ever suggest that this was cutting-edge hospitality with every possible service catered for, but the Holiday Inn was a friendly, welcoming and comfortable hotel that delivered everything that was required from it with confidence and reliability. I’d return without hesitation and, when next it benefits from the cyclical renovations that come the way of all chain properties, then I’m sure that it could add at least a point to this score.

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From Sea to Sky: Christchurch to Tekapo

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Amongst the elevated company of the Hubble, the Leviathan of Parsonstown, the Great Canary and the Magdalena Ridge, it’s perhaps no great surprise that little old New Zealand’s best effort at astronomy is a telescope called John. Or, more accurately, the Mount John Observatory, but somehow John – not even Little John or Big John – seems to suit New Zealand and its twin-drawered dishwasher contribution to modern life.


John then, as we’ll call it, may be no titan of the astronomical aristocracy, but John’s surroundings are pretty impressive. The journey from Christchurch is initially largely unremarkable. The passage along the Canterbury Plain, parallel to the Pacific coast, is notable really only for the pristine and handsome cattle that seem to pepper the verdant pastures. There are a series of small towns with those ubiquitous names from the old country – Huntingdon and Hampstead to mention but two.

At Geraldine, the road turns West and, ahead, the foothills of the Southern Alps gently hove into view. This is MacKenzie Country, an area of farmed lowland and increasingly desolate higher ground which, sparsely populated though it may be, possesses a definite beauty against an approaching backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

The road peaks at Burke’s Pass, before slowly losing altitude again towards Lake Tekapo, a sensible day’s drive with comfort breaks from the city. Where the road meets the lake is a village of the same name, but really it’s the expanse of water that’s the star attraction.

For those familiar with the infinitely more-visited Lakes Louise and Maligne in the Canadian Rockies, the iridescent blue-green of the waters which results from the suspended glacial rock-flour contained therein will be instantly recognisable. It’s more obvious from viewpoints with slight elevation over deeper waters, but it’s stunning nonetheless.

On the lakeshore stands the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd, notable not only for its diminutive size, but also for the fact that the altar window, in recognition of the beauty of the landscape outside, is a wide, clear expanse of glass rather than a traditional stained-glass barrier to the view.

Nearby, the shepherding theme is continued with a stone-plinthed bronze of a border collie sheepdog, looking out across the lake.

It’s John that remains the star attraction in Tekapo however, in every sense of the word. Passing through the village and its small collection of tateramas, petrol station and cafes, a road branches right and skirts the lower slopes of Mount John, before turning again to climb the least formidable spur of the mountain and, eventually, gaining the summit at a carpark and café which abuts the observatories.

Guided tours of the complex are available for those who can book in advance but, for the casual visitor, the views across the lake and village, across MacKenzie Country to the East and towards the Southern Alps in the West are, not to put too fine a point on it, quite breathtaking. That you can also grab a cappuccino and look through a telescope is even better and, apart from the café provender, it’s free to enjoy.

To give John his official title, he’s the Mount John University Observatory, run by the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. The location here, high up and away from any major centres of industry and population and therefore air and light pollution, makes Tekapo one of the very best places to view the night sky without the hindrance of man-made interference.



It doesn’t take a radio-telescope to note the difference between the quality of the location and the ‘norm’ to which we might be accustomed. Simply looking skyward after dark in Tekapo reveals that the starscape above is far from backed with inky blackness, but is instead a swirling mist of whites and creams and greys, punctuated with the brightest studs of planetary reflection. It’s a glimpse of the many Worlds which may lie out there, from one of the remotest parts our own.

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