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Lucky me. One of my best girlfriends from my time living in New York City is a Kiwi (the other is an Aussie – next stop). I couldn’t imagine traveling all this way without seeing them and their families. Thankfully, they agreed, and welcomed us with open arms. And so, our time here was about connecting with people we love. We were here primarily to visit dear friends, not jump off bridges, climb mountains, trek the rainforest, photograph fjords or sail the seas. Although those are all options in New Zealand.
If you took all the beauty of the earth and packed it into one country you’d have New Zealand. In my opinion it is the most gorgeous land in all the world. It’s geographic diversity is stunning. I have to admit that I would have been more tempted to take the kids to see more if I hadn’t already been to New Zealand. It’s no less beautiful than I remember and no less friendly. It is however, more expensive. Budget some money for attractions.
If you like sports be they water, winter, extreme, summer or spectator you will love New Zealand. If you like nature, being in nature, experiencing nature, observing nature you will love New Zealand. Even if all you want to do is sit and watch mind-blowing scenery go by from a window, you will love it here. It should be no wonder that there are no harmful animals here, no venomous snakes or killer spiders. No, they all live in Australia!
We landed without incident and to my delight my friend was waiting for us at the Christchurch airport to whisk us away into her daily routine for a week.
I was really shocked to see the devastation from the earthquake of 2011. Five years later I hadn’t expected to see so many crumbling and abandoned buildings. Nearly 80% of the downtown business district was demolished in the quake. Coming back from this major natural disaster has been a slow process and the development continues. Scaffolding, cranes, bright orange cones, no trespassing signs, the sounds of heavy machinery are sprinkled throughout the city.
Our first stop on our visit to the city was the Christchurch Gondola Ride. It’s definitely worth the price to ride to the top of the Port Hills and enjoy the 360 degree views. To the west you’ll see Christchurch, the Canterbury Plains all the way to the Southern Alps. To the south and east is Banks Peninsula and the Lyttelton Harbor. To the north, the Pacific Ocean. It’s stunning. You won’t be able to put down your camera!
While you are up there don’t miss the short automated Time Tunnel ride; you’ll learn about the history of the area in an entertaining way. There is, of course, a gift shop and a café. As long as the winds aren’t too strong, you’ll have no trouble hopping on the gondola for the ride down. If they are blowing a gale, you’ll have to wait, or walk (good luck with that!).
In the wake of the earthquake, local business owners felt they needed to something immediate to encourage people to return to the business district. Using containers, a bit of a risky idea, meant that retailers could establish a viable business years before traditional buildings would be ready. In short, it’s a cool place to come to get your grub and your shop on! There are loads of options for eating, drinking and shopping here, and we really enjoyed immersing ourselves in the sense of optimism this place breeds.
The Cardboard Cathedral
The original Christchurch Cathedral in the Square is one of the buildings badly damaged in the earthquake. It’s still standing, but sadly, still in a state of rebuilding. The Transitional, or Cardboard Cathedral, as it’s popularly known, is the world’s only cathedral made from cardboard. The space is not only a place of worship, but also stands as monument to lost, a museum that captures the recent history and serves as a community resource for events and education. It’s both contemplative and inspiring and worth a visit.
Margaret Mahy Playground
If you’ve got young kids along for the ride and get through the visit to the Cathedral they probably deserve a visit to the playground. Built on the banks of the Avon River, the Margaret Mahy Playground, named for beloved New Zealand author of children’s books, fits the bill. This place is a wonder! A $20 million dollar wonder, but who’s counting? Whoever designed it really envisioned it from a child’s perspective. Running around like a crazy loon is highly encouraged, no matter your age.
If you happen to be flying in or out of Christchurch, as we were, just around the corner from the airport is the International Antarctic Centre is seriously cool. Okay, so parts of it are actually freezing cold! Plan a few hours to spend at this unique place, learning about the only land mass on earth with no permanent population, citizenship nor government and therefore no flag. It is not claimed by any country but rather used for scientific purposed by several countries and protected by the Antarctic Treaty.
New Zealand has been a jumping off point for Antarctic exploration for decades, so it’s no surprise that the Centre is located here. The Centre is informative and interactive. You’ll learn about the history, geology, and animal life there. We especially liked the 4D movies, the Little Blue Penguins, Hagglund ride, the Antarctic Storm, where you’ll rug up and then head into a room that simulates a subzero wind chill.
I hope it’s not the closest I’ll ever get to Antarctica. I want to see it for myself!
Christchurch Graffiti Art
As a homeschool mom I wanted as best as I could to expose my kids to the native cultures in all the countries we are visiting, New Zealand no exception. Today about 14% of the population is native Maori, the original inhabitants.
This part of the world is big on rugby and New Zealand’s All Blacks, arguably the most famous, are the most successful. You may not have realized that if you’ve seen the team warming up before the game you’ve most likely seen an ancient Maori ritual. The haka, a Maori war dance, is meant to intimidate opponents.
Willowbank Wildlife Reserve is a place where you can see and learn about the wildlife of New Zealand, but you can also reserve tickets to experience the Maori culture and food. I decided to pay the hefty price for the cultural experience and the dinner, knowing that we may not have a better chance to learn about Maori life. I recommend you come early and go into the park. We nearly had the place to ourselves and the kids especially loved feeding the eels, the ducks and birds and the wallabies. You can purchase food at the entrance for a few dollars.
When it was time for our tour, we assembled and our guide took us to the exhibits to see the kias and the kiwis as well as other wildlife. It’s difficult to see a kiwi in the wild especially because they are nocturnal. We quietly entered their sanctuary, where it was dark, hoping to catch a glimpse or two of these curious little creatures that are synonymous with New Zealand. I’m happy to report they are alive and well!
We moved on to the cultural experience the Ko Tane. The chief greeted us with the powhiri, the formal Maori welcome. We were then invited in as guests and watched the kapahaka, the dance and storytelling performance. The women and the men were invited up separately to participate and learn the dances. After the dancing we went to the dining room to eat the traditional hangi, a four course meal food cooked in the ground for at least three hours. I’m not sure they actually cook it that way, and the food wasn’t the most memorable part of our evening, but I am still glad we did it.
If you have the chance to drive a couple of hours from Christchurch northwest into the gorgeous countryside, consider paying a visit to the town of Hanmer Springs and the local thermal hot pools. Winter, spring, summer or fall, you can enjoy these healing, mineral rich waters. The air temp was a cool 50 degrees (although not cool to most Kiwis) but the pools, including the swimming pool are all naturally heated. Kids and adults relaxed in the pools and enjoyed a stroll into town for lunch and shopping.