While weaving around springtime New Zealand this month, I dropped into Christchurch – along with photographer Dominic Schaefer – to tackle this and related inquiries I'd received through the Travel Concierge mailbox.
Although I've visited the South Island city before, the devastating 2010 and 2011 earthquakes left a discombobulating absence of familiar landmarks. But while hundreds of buildings were destroyed or damaged, the multibillion-dollar rebuild is well under way.
It's expected to take several years, but a shiny new Christchurch will eventually emerge. In the meantime, it's a fascinating fusion of demolition sites, gravel lots where structures once stood and cool pop-ups that point to the future.
It's one of the world's most unusual destinations – where else can you see a city rebuilding itself among the ghostly echoes of disaster? – and curious tourists were busy exploring on my visit. Surrounded by the winery-striped Canterbury region, the country's second-largest city should be on every NZ itinerary.
Are any attractions open?
Most have reopened, including Canterbury Museum, the International Antarctic Centre and the tree-studded Botanic Gardens, which – along with the punting-famed Avon River – was barely damaged. The glass-fronted Christchurch Art Gallery remains closed.
While the city's heritage trams were about to return to the rails on my visit (operations have since restarted), I also checked out Christchurch Gondola (gondola.co.nz), reopened in March after a two-year closing.
The ski-lift-style attraction elevates visitors 500 metres above sea level via a sheep-strewn hillside, providing panoramic views of the dramatic ocean-and-volcano landscape. Following the quakes, its summit café is now half-a-metre higher: an ideal base for a flat white coffee and some light hiking.
Are there any earthquake-themed exhibitions?
Visitors can't help photographing the reminders – especially the abandoned, part-ruined
Christchurch Cathedral, a beloved postcard landmark. Collapsed buildings, twisted phone booths and pithy post-quake street art also line surrounding streets. Two bus operators – see redbus.co.nz and hasslefreetours.co.nz – offer narrated trundles recalling the quakes and explaining the rebuild.
But the exhibition Quake City (canterburymuseum.com/quakecity) is the best way to understand what happened here. Despite the theme park name, it is an evocative, sombre and moving reminder.
From toppled statues to shattered stained-glass artifacts, its TV screens have riveting recollections from locals. Don't miss the frightening 2011 video of a building peeling apart like a wet cake as shaken Cantabrians rush for cover.
What's the Cardboard Cathedral like?
Officially the Transitional Cathedral (christchurchcathedral.co.nz), this striking A-frame structure is Christchurch's newest landmark. Designed as a temporary replacement for its 1881-built predecessor, it's now expected to become a permanent church once the old cathedral is restored or replaced.
Step onto the polished concrete floor in the bright, airy interior and your eyes veer to the 98 giant cardboard tubes flanking each side. Facing the tube crucifix and cardboard-accented choir stalls, there's also a kaleidoscopic triangular window, its patterns echoing the old cathedral's destroyed Rose Window.
Are shops and businesses open?
The city centre was a no-go area of skeletal hulks until shipping-container coffee shacks began appearing – precursor to an even bigger pop-up that's been wildly successful.
Re:Start (restart.org.nz) is a Lego-look outdoor shopping complex of bright-painted freight containers. Its 40 retailers – from Scorpio Books to Hummingbird Cafe – have created a cool, oasis-like gathering point.
But as permanent businesses return in areas such as New Regent Street, you should also check out the cool Pallet Pavilion (palletpavilion.com). Encircled by stacks of blue-painted wooden pallets, this umbrella-tabled temporary courtyard includes an al fresco bar and live stage.
Where do the locals hang out?
New or reopened restaurants and bars line Victoria Street. Mexicano's was the latest addition on my visit, joining Asian-fusion King of Snake and Harlequin Public House, with its lively outdoor seating.
But the best local table is at the Brewery (casselsbrewery.co.nz), an animated Woolston-area hangout. Tuck into wood-fired pizzas (pear, bacon and blue cheese recommended) plus hearty homemade beers from stout to best bitter. Then weave around the adjoining Tannery, one of Christchurch's most popular post-quake shopping arcades.
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