Christchurch offers relaxing attractions for visitors to New Zealand

Michael Temchine had one rule for his New Zealand honeymoon: No photos of people. The Capitol Hill photographer, who normally focuses on faces, turned his lens on the country's otherworldly nature during his 2,500-mile, three-week trip in a camper van.
By Cliff Terry
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Obviously, it was a very touristy thing to do. But we were ready for a relaxed punting sojourn on the lovely Avon River, with a young man doing all the work as he moved us along with the aid of a long pole.

The punt, of course, is a traditional English flat-bottom boat most famously associated with Oxford and Cambridge, and the 30-minute trip through the beautiful Botanic Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand, was a nifty throwback to a more elegant era. It didn't hurt that the weather was nearly perfect, a chamber-of-commerce-like fall day (early April, temperatures in the upper 70s). As Kenneth Grahame wrote in "The Wind in the Willows": "There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so worth doing as messing about in boats."

"I've actually been punt-hijacked," cracked our pole person. "Some macho tourists are eager to take the boat themselves, and so they jump up, grab the pole, and do it."

No such inclinations on our part. After two weeks of tramping (i.e., hiking) the mountains of New Zealand's spectacular South Island and sea kayaking its lagoons with a group paced by hyper-competitive 30- and 40-year-olds ("It's not a race," they kept insisting as they charged up mountains and frenetically pedaled down highways), my wife, Pat, and I were ready to unwind.

Our base for the next four days would be Christchurch, the largest town (population about 360,000) on the South Island and the only one with an international airport.

When most people think of New Zealand, they envision the rugged scenery. But its cities are also worth exploring, especially Christchurch, known as the Garden City. At first inspection, it seems to be a town of limited charms, its many historical buildings and homes surrounded by hideous examples of sterilely modern or outright awful architecture. But after a few days, the place grows on one, mainly due to its centerpiece: the appealing Avon, which meanders through the neighborhoods, popping up at times in unexpected places.

Like Australia's Melbourne, Christchurch -- often dubbed the most English of New Zealand cities -- is a great place for walking. A good start is the always bustling Christchurch & Canterbury Visitor Centre in Cathedral Square, the heart of the city. A key piece of literature is "Christchurch City Centre Walks," offering three compact routes that take you to most of the essential sights.

A good spot to start exploring is the Arts Centre of Christchurch, a 10-minute walk from Cathedral Square, the bustling heart of the city. The center is a handsome compound of buildings once occupied by Canterbury College (later the University of Canterbury), which was founded in 1873 and modeled after England's Oxford University, with one major difference: It admitted women from the start. In 1975, the growing university moved, leaving the Gothic Revival structures to be occupied by various shops and craftspeople. In the old chemistry building, visitors may watch artisans at work, turning out high-caliber products such as tapestries, quilts, pottery and wood sculptures.

Other Arts Centre spaces include Rutherford's Den, a multimedia presentation honoring Canterbury scientist Ernest Rutherford, a Nobel Prize winner who did pioneering work on the atom (and who once remarked, "Ions are such jolly little beggars; you can almost see them"). There's also the Te Toi Mana art gallery, selling Maori crafts, and the impressive Cave Rock Gallery, with its propensity for signs such as: "All unattended children will be captured and sold as slaves."

Also in the Centre are eateries (try the Dux de Lux), theater and dance companies, art-house cinemas, a bookstore and offices housing such organizations as the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society. On weekends there's an open-air market filled with vendors staffing stalls selling everything from goat's-milk soap to silver spoons bent into imaginative candle holders, along with eclectic buskers -- including, one Sunday afternoon, a passable Sinatra impersonator. Free guided tours of the Centre operate daily.

The centerpiece of Cathedral Square, not surprisingly, is the Anglican ChristChurch Cathedral, an impressive Gothic structure where services are conducted in English and Maori. Missing our mountain hiking, we paid a fee to climb 133 narrow, winding steps in the cathedral's tower; upon reaching the top, we were greeted by a congratulatory sign proclaiming that only 16,167 more steps would have taken us to the summit of Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak.

For those who want a break from walking, board the free yellow shuttle buses, which take you to all the major sights, or, for a modest fee, the vintage green-and-cream-colored trams. But footing it is best, leading to all kinds of serendipitous discoveries, including such delights as the wonderfully cluttered Smith's Bookshop, crammed with more than 80,000 secondhand books on three floors, including a section on New Zealand authors.

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