Christchurch is risen

Photography: john laurie

The 1999 film Gloomy Sunday is about an unlikely romance - a love triangle between a pianist, a waitress and a Jewish restaurant owner - set in Hungary during World War II. It takes its title from a heartsick tune composed by the pianist that sparks a wave of suicides across Europe and the United States.

The film opened at Christchurch's Arts Centre Cinemas on 4 April 2000 and, aside from a brief hiatus in December last year, it has played to enthusiastic audiences every day since. "We had a little Japanese student here a few years back and she went to see it 40 times," a cinema staffer says when I call to confirm the film's extraordinary run. "People just love it."

I'm not entirely sure what this piece of movie trivia says about Christchurch but, after a whirlwind visit in the wake of last year's earthquake, I suspect it hints at the hidden depths of New Zealand's second-largest city. For a place too often written off as a quaint outpost of empire, Christchurch proves a destination of surprisingly diverse interests. Its Englishness is evident in the gothic revival architecture, red telephone boxes and gentle punt rides on the river Avon, but scratch a little deeper and undertones of Burmese, Spanish, Samoan - even Hungarian - emerge to add depth to the city's character.

That said, within an hour of arriving I'm draped over tartan-blanketed cushions on a Cambridge-style punt being ferried down the Avon past million-dollar homes and a paddle of ducks. I take high tea at Mona Vale, an early 19th-century homestead fringed by five hectares of gardens including beds of extravagant roses that radiate clouds of heady perfume in the brilliant sunshine. This is the clichéd image of Christchurch but, from where I'm sitting, it is no less enjoyable for being that. (Others may disagree. Early last century a band of self-styled "cultural nationalists" rejected the staunchly Anglican ideals of the city's founding fathers. In Home Thoughts, the defiant Kiwi poet Denis Glover wrote: "I do not dream of Sussex downs, or quaint old England's quaint old towns…").

Mona Vale's Arcadian setting offers no hint of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that convulsed Christchurch in the early hours of 4 September last year. Dramatic images of collapsed façades - mainly on central Manchester Street - were televised around the world, giving the false impression that New Zealand's oldest city lies in ruins. It's true there is extensive damage - the Reserve Bank estimates the total repair bill at $5 billion - but buildings can be repaired more easily than reputations. Visitor arrivals have dropped markedly since the quake and the challenge now is to woo back tourists by reassuring them all has not been razed. In reality, there are a few new detours (no more annoying than the already enigmatic network of one-way streets) and more scaffolding than you'd reasonably expect to find in a place this size. Otherwise it's pretty much business as usual.

That evening the happy-sad sound of bagpipes (more echoes of empire) rises from somewhere along the riverbank as I stroll to dinner at a simple street-front restaurant called The Bodhi Tree. It is, not surprisingly, Christchurch's only Burmese restaurant, but there is nothing in the unassuming décor to indicate why a booking here is one of the hottest tickets in town. For the answer to that you must experience the elegantly spiced, fresh and unaffected cuisine of chef Khin Maung Oo - universally known by his adopted Kiwi name, Lee. He and his partner, Beverley Humpage, travelled through his native Myanmar (Burma) collecting family recipes before opening in 2003 to rave reviews. Their most popular plate is le pet thoke, a salad of pickled tea-leaves, dry-roasted nuts and seeds, shredded cabbage, chilli and deep-fried split peas. There is nothing avant-garde or particularly challenging about his cooking; the dishes - from sautéed blue peas to crumbly spiced fish - are simply so more-ish their ethnic origins cease to matter.

For more extreme dining there's Pescatore restaurant at the five-star George Hotel, where I gorge myself the next night. Diners enter through a padded white door into a stark, space-age anteroom where they are served a palate-cleanser - in my case, mango tea from a soda siphon - to "give people a sense of starting on a journey," explains maître d' Ted James. The repertoire of sous-vide, dehydrated, tricked-up tastes will be familiar to globetrotting gourmets, but in Christchurch it adds an appetising pitch to the city's culinary options. And the wizardry behind the modestly named "Steak, Egg + Chips" does not detract from the pleasures of eating it.
More surprising than finding foams and gels at The George was discovering a Madrileño making superb chorizo at a heritage-listed pile in the city's Botanic Gardens. When Javier Garcia first arrived in Christchurch (population 380,000) direct from Madrid (population three million-plus) in 1994, he got quite a shock. "I thought it was clo-zed," Garcia recalls in his heavily Hispanic accent. "Maybe it is a public holiday and everybody has gone out of the city? There were no cars, no people…"

A successful tax lawyer in Spain, the engaging Garcia came to the South Island to study English and ended up marrying his teacher. Then he planned to open a tapas bar but ended up running a successful restaurant in the Tudor-style Curator's House, where Botanic Gardens staff tend the vegetables, herbs and edible flowers that grace Garcia's menu. In his spare time he makes chorizo using local pork and the finest smoked paprika from Spain.

Elsewhere in the city, Richard and Lisa Middleton's The Bicycle Thief - named after the Italian film - is a cool pizzeria in a converted carpark whose highlights include San Daniele prosciutto and barman Greg Robertson's muddled apple and rhubarb Mojitos.

Since its inception in 1850, when four ships were dispatched from England loaded with the so-called Canterbury Pilgrims to establish a model settlement at the end of the earth, the region has been defined by agriculture. Those traditions continue in the farmers' markets that pop up regularly throughout the district. On a hot Saturday morning at Riccarton House just outside the CBD, shoppers throng tree-shaded stalls that peddle wares from beautiful clematis creepers and artisan breads to organic vegetables and Colombian empanadas.

We drive south along the Tunnel Road through the Port Hills to the bohemian outpost of Lyttelton, dramatically draped down the slopes of an extinct volcano whose sunken caldera cradles Christchurch's harbour. Lyttelton Farmers' Market is held in the grounds of the main school, ringed by steep hills that tumble down to a cobalt sea. Alongside the free-range eggs and organic veg there are warehou and sea perch glistening on ice, and fresh asparagus rolls drizzled with saffron, dill and mustard mayo for a very reasonable $1.20 each.

On the next level up, the school's playing field has been transformed into an "art market" - more of a trash-and-treasure - where the DJ spins reggae as bargain-hunters mooch around stalls selling secondhand roller skates, crystal glassware and a biography of Mussolini.

Behind a Spanish Mission façade on London Street, Lyttelton Coffee Company has cornered the brunch and lunch market with its winning combination of warehouse chic (one wall is hung with vintage typewriters), freshly roasted beans and craft beers. Up the road the rather grandly named Ground Culinary Centre offers an eclectic deli selection of Pohutukawa honey, Mexican refried beans with chipotle, and house-made harissa and chermoula. Come evening, music lovers gather at Monster Bar or Wunderbar for intimate band nights and beers overlooking the waterfront.

Lyttelton is lovely - I could stay here for days - but the spectacular coast road beckons so we head south, past cliff-hugging homes and tiny coves where kayakers breach the chilly South Island waters, to arrive at Governors Bay Hotel. Licensed since 1870, it remains a fine perch to survey the harbour and Quail Island while sampling a Hop Rocker lager from Mac's Brewery.

And then north-east, to Sumner, the breezy seaside suburb where the health-conscious tone up with Zumba and the bay heaves with surfies riding the long, peeling break at the south-east end of Scarborough Beach.

Savvy diners head to The Cornershop Bistro where chef Rodrick Cross plies palates with the likesof pork and pistachio terrine with apple chutney and> beef burgers with caramelised onion and Roquefort butter. Cross and his wife Kathryn are part of a new breed breathing life into this well-heeled beachside community. Emma Smith and Billy Wilson's just-opened boutique Flock stocks innovative New Zealand wares including Zekiah Heath's slip-cast ceramics in pastel lolly tones and Emma Redfern's wall clocks fashioned from retro cake tins. Nearby, Alicia Cummins took over the Village Junk Shop on Wakefield Avenue last year and offers a meticulously curated trove of collectibles - everything from a portrait of Jesus to Bakelite picnic sets in kaleidoscope colours.

The common refrain from Cantabrians, when asked what most attracts them to Christchurch, is that there is always something happening. Why, just a week before my visit the city hosted a series of ukulele concerts and a performance by Jack Johnson. It welcomes the World Buskers' Festival each summer and the International Jazz and Blues Festival in late April. The biennial SCAPE festival of art in public spaces returns this year. The city punches well above its weight in the arts, with the Christchurch Art Gallery and the Centre of Contemporary Art, professional opera and theatre companies and a symphony orchestra. The Arts Centre, housed in the former University of Canterbury, is a warren of workshops, galleries and cinemas, including the intimate theatrette where Gloomy Sunday continues its phenomenal run.

In October, Christchurch will host five pools games and two quarter-finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The city is already so excited at the prospect that a digital clock in the central Cathedral Square counts down the months, weeks, days, hours and minutes to the World Cup kick off.

The former rag-trade district south of Lichfield Street has been reborn as SOL Square, a hive of bars and clubs with a high quirk quotient and a deafening battle of the sound systems as rival bars compete for custom.

For slightly more restrained carousing, the riverside bars and restaurants of Oxford Terrace start sedately with afternoon drinks in the sun before cranking up into various states of arousal as the evening progresses. At The Bangalore Polo Club, flamboyant Kiwi designer Tom Skyring has recreated a Raj-style sportsmen's club complete with jewel-coloured fabrics and taxidermed deer heads. The house brew is a tasty ale with the unfortunate name of Badger's Piss.

On a far-from-gloomy Sunday I visit another gentrifying pocket of the city at High Street, where designer stores have replaced drab shopfronts. Chief among them are a new outpost of the Kiwi avant-garde fashion brand World; The National, a bijou boutique stocking baubles by Australasian jewellers; and Dusk, Lenore Farrelly's gallery of covetable art and crafts, including Tania Tupu's wonderful Wedgwood-inspired cameos of Kiwiana.

High Street's heartbeat is C1 Espresso, the café that led the renewal of this now-funky end of town. When Sam Crofskey and his partner Fleur Bathurst opened 14 years ago they installed an espresso machine and a barista - revolutionary innovations at the time - and had just 12 tables. Since then, the business has grown to a thriving 230-seat concern that produces its own fruit juices and soft drinks. But in the most surprising twist, C1 now supports 30 subsistence-farming families in Samoa to grow Arabica beans for a café 3620km away.

Crofskey reaped his first harvest last year, flying home with two pillowcases stuffed with 30kgs of beans. This year he expects the haul to be closer to half a tonne. He has also begun importing Samoan cocoa and honey as part of his goal to give local families a livelihood.

It's an extraordinary success story, especially in light of the resistance Crofskey met when he first set out to challenge a few Christchurch stereotypes.

"People said we should do this in Wellington," he recalls. "Years ago people were really down on Christchurch because it was white, it was middle class, and the most English of New Zealand cities. There was a feeling we were not as good.

"But we are doing it here because we are saying this is Christchurch, and it's cool. And it's getting better every year. Exponentially."


Air New Zealand flies to Christchurch daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

The Bangalore Polo Club
136 Oxford Tce, Christchurch, +64 3 377 9968

The Bicycle Thief
21 Latimer Sq, Christchurch, +64 3 379 2264

The Bodhi Tree
808 Colombo St, Christchurch, +64 3 377 6808

C1 Espresso
150 High St, Christchurch, +64 21 380 386

The Cornershop Bistro
32 Nayland St, Sumner, +64 3 326 6720

The Curator's House
Botanic Gardens, 7 Rolleston Ave, Christchurch, +64 3 379 2252

Governors Bay Hotel
52 Main Rd, Governors Bay, +64 3 329 9433

Ground Culinary Centre
44 London St, Lyttelton, +64 3 328 7275

Lyttelton Coffee Company
29 London St, Lyttelton, +64 3 328 8096

Mona Vale homestead
63 Fendalton Rd, +64 3 348 9660

Monster Bar
29 London St, Lyttelton, +64 3 328 9166

Pescatore George Hotel
50 Park Tce, Christchurch, +64 3 371 0257

19 London St, Lyttelton, +64 3 328 818

Arts Centre Cinemas
25 Hereford St, Christchurch, +64 3 366 0142

Christchurch Art Gallery
Cnr Worcester Blvd & Montreal St, Christchurch, +64 3 941 7300

Christchurch Farmers' Market
Saturdays 9am-noon. 16 Kahu Rd, Riccarton, +64 3 348 6190

Dusk Gallery and Store
167 High St, Christchurch, +64 3 365 4044

Flock Shop 2
43 Nayland St, Sumner, +64 3 326 6841

Lyttelton Farmers' Market
Saturdays 10am-1pm. Main School, Oxford St, Lyttelton, +64 3 328 9243

The National
158 High St, Christchurch, +64 3 366 3893

Village Junk Shop
11a Wakefield Ave, Sumner, +64 3 326 5334

188 High St, Christchurch, +64 3 365 7937

The George
Australasia's leading boutique hotel in the 2010 World Travel Awards has 53 rooms and a prime location opposite Hagley Park. Discounted internet rates from $323. 50 Park Tce, Christchurch, +64 3 379 4560

FURTHER INFORMATION and ninemsn Travel's feature on 24hrs in Christchurch.

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