Christchurch – A Fine Affair

Published in Accor Traveller, issue 31.

It’s renowned as the city of gardens but Christchurch, on New Zealand’s south island, could equally claim to be the city of romance.

For what could be more romantic than floating down the Avon River, with a dapper boatman doing all the work, while you sit back and watch daffodils and weeping willows gently drifting by?

The river winds its way right past the Botanic Gardens, which are world class with exotic and indigenous plants providing spectacular displays year-round. There are woodland areas, herbaceous borders, a conservatory and feature gardens including rock, water, rose and herb gardens.

Our boatman obligingly offered to drop us off at the Curator’s House, now a restaurant with a flourishing kitchen garden. Thanks to the restaurant’s Spanish owner, the menu showcases the finest New Zealand food and wine, with a hint of Spain.

Built in 1920 as a residence for the curator of the gardens, the Tudor-style cottage has loads of historic charm. Romantics head straight for the honeymoon balcony upstairs, which is just big enough to take a small table with two chairs overlooking the gardens.

Christchurch’s numerous parks and gardens owe much to the foresight of its founding fathers, whose legacy also includes beautiful Hagley Park, four leafy inner-city avenues and Victoria Square, with its statues of Queen Victoria, explorer James Cook and an impressive carved wooden post commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Perhaps the most English city outside of England, Christchurch is ideal for walking as it is flat and compact, with many attractions located within the city centre. But you might find more romance on the beautifully restored heritage trams that follow a 2.5 kilometre loop around the city.

The trams stop at major attractions such as The Arts Centre, Botanic Gardens, Canterbury Museum, Victoria Square and Cathedral Square. At night, a restaurant tram does the loop and despite being wary of restaurants where the focus is on the experience rather than the food, we’re pleasantly surprised. The food is good, especially the lamb. Well, what else do you order in a country where there are more sheep than people?

Alighting at Cathedral Square, our attention turns to Chalice, a striking sculpture by the internationally renowned Neil Dawson. The cathedral offers a great view from the balconies on the spire, and there is a market in the square every Wednesday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm, selling handcrafts such as jewellery, paua shell, possum fashions, sheepskins and wood craft.

I could spend hours poking my head into all the designer shops and restaurants dotted throughout the lanes around here. The city has much to offer food and wine buffs. As well as a food and wine festival every May, it has the acclaimed New Zealand School of Food & Wine, run by Celia Hay, who offers one-off classes as well as accredited courses.

Hay runs a restaurant in conjunction with the school, where she serves lamb from a property that has been in her family since 1843. She says the fact that the property is near the sea gives the meat a special flavour. Although the chef cooks fish beautifully, once again we find it hard to go past the lamb, and 90 per cent of other diners apparently think so too.

Christchurch’s appeal is in its blend of old world charm and contemporary spirit. Take a walk from Cathedral Square down Worcester Boulevard where you will find many attractions that make up the city’s Cultural Precinct.

The former University of Canterbury site houses an impressive Arts Centre, with artists and crafts people on hand to demonstrate and sell their work.  The centre has a restaurant, Annie’s; a weekend market selling only locally produced goods; and great little shops such as The Fudge Cottage, where 16 flavours of fudge are made and sold. (Bailey’s Irish Cream is the most popular, closely followed by Kahlua.)

A short walk away, the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu is highly regarded for its New Zealand and international art, while the  Canterbury Museum, housed in an impressive historic building, has important Maori, Asian, European and natural collections, as well as Antarctica memorabilia and a replica of a 19th century Christchurch streetscape.

Another popular Christchurch attraction is the gondola ride up Mt Cavendish, which provides 360-degree panoramic views of the city, the Canterbury Plains, Lyttelton Harbour and the Southern Alps. It offers a little romance too.

© Christine Salins

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