Christchurch, gateway to the South Island

If you’re flying to the South Island of New Zealand, chances are that you’ll land in Christchurch. With its almost 400,000 inhabitants it’s the 3rd biggest town of New Zealand, behind Auckland and the capital Wellington on the North Island. The city itself doesn’t have so much touristic interest: it’s slowly recovering from the violent and deadly (185 victims) earthquake of 2011 and the center is still a vast building site, 7 years later. But in every direction, North, South, East and West, many wonderful places are just waiting to be explored. The only question is: where to go first? Follow me to find some ideas and get ready to start an unforgettable journey around New Zealand!

Christchurch

On the 22nd of February 2011, at 12.51pm, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch. It was extremely devastating: many buildings got destroyed and 185 people lost their lives. 7 years later, the city hasn’t completely come back to normal and the scars of this tragic day are still visible. The cathedral hasn’t been restored since and is still missing a complete wall on one side. A bit further, a memorial consisting of 185 white-painted chairs pays tribute to the victims, with all their names, ages and origins written on a board. Most poignant vision: a tiny cradle on the front row and the name of a 5 week old baby… A museum called Quake City opened its door in 2013 and is a very interesting and emotional visit if you want to learn more about this tragedy.

But apart from the countless construction sites, Christchurch also has a few things worth seeing if you have enough time to stay there for a day or two. New Regent Street first: it’s probably the prettiest street of the city, with its similar buildings in a Spanish Mission architectural style. Get a drink on one of the terraces, wait for the tram to pass and you’ll have one of the best images of Christchurch.

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A good activity for a rainy day is the visit of the free Canterbury Museum, where you’ll find many different sections presenting among others objects from the Maori culture, the history of Antarctica exploration or (my personal favourite) the reconstitution of a street of Christchurch from the pioneer days.

The Canterbury Museum is set right next to Hagley Park, the perfect place for a run or a lazy afternoon on the grass, and close to the Botanic Gardens. They make a lovely visit especially on a sunny day to enjoy the colours of the flowers at their best.

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Finally, if you have more time to spend in Christchurch, try to walk randomly around town: you might bump into some pretty cool murals like the one below.

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East

The city center of Christchurch is quite far away from the ocean, but there are a few beaches easily accessible like Brighton or Sumner Beach, the most popular ones.

Further on the South-East of Christchurch is the beautiful Banks Peninsula, formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago. It takes less than 2 hours to drive from the city center to Akaroa, the main town on the peninsula. This place used to be a settlement for French whale hunters back in the first half of the 19th century and it still feels like visiting a French village when you get there nowadays, with its many shops or restaurants and the street names written in French.

Akaroa is also a good starting point for many different walks, along the coast or climbing up the surrounding hills to admire the Peninsula from above.

Not in the mood for a hike? On your way to/from Akaroa, leave the main road to take the winding Summit Road (not recommended for long or heavy vehicles). The views from several lookouts along the way are truly fantastic.

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North

If you’re leaving Christchurch to the North, your first stop will be Kaikoura, about two and a half hours drive away on the coastal road, a bit longer via the scenic inland road. This place also got struck by an earthquake in 2016 and the coastal highway was destroyed on many points, on this section and further between Kaikoura and Picton. New Zealand can be dangerous sometimes…

Kaikoura is famous for whale and dolphin watching, in any season. Jump into a plane to spot these marine mammals from the air or book a cruise to see them from even closer. I haven’t done any of these tours myself (unfortunately you can’t do everything…) so let me know in the comments if you enjoyed it. Instead of that I did a 3 hour walk around the peninsula, with nice views over the surrounding coast and a seal colony spot at the extremity.

Just South of Kaikoura, don’t miss also this beautiful black beach made of thousands of little rocks. They’re so smooth that walking on them almost feels like a foot massage!

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If you’re interested in driving further North to Picton and Nelson, don’t miss my article about how to see the best of the top of South Island in only 5 days.

West

DSC_3138 (2)There are only three ways to cross the South Island from East to West: Lewis Pass on the North, Cromwell on the South to get to Queenstown or Wanaka, and Arthur’s Pass, connecting Christchurch to the West Coast. But Arthur’s Pass isn’t only a way, it’s a destination: there are many beautiful hikes to do there on a day or weekend trip from Christchurch. Here are the two I did myself.

The first one was the Bealey Hut track. It’s an easy walk with a gentle gradient that will lead you to Bealey Hut through the forest, with some lookouts on the way. Once at the hut, make the extra effort to climb to the top of the hill above you: it’s another half hour on a steeper section but the view from there is worth it.

Much more spectacular but also more difficult is Avalanche Peak, recommended to people in a reasonably fit condition. There are two possible accesses: you can choose to make a round trip by climbing via Avalanche Peak Track and going down via Scotts Track, or a return trip on Scotts Track only. It will be a little bit shorter by Avalanche Peak Track but also extremely steep, at a point where it’s too dangerous to walk down this path. Whatever option you take, your legs will be burning during the climb but trust me, the 360° view from the summit is one of the best you can get on the South Island.

South

Heading South from Christchurch, you’ll have two possibilities: follow the coast towards Dunedin and the Catlins, or drive in direction of the mountains and the gorgeous Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki. Read about these 2 destinations in specific articles, links below:

Meet the friendly New Zealand wildlife, from Dunedin to the Catlins

Starlight Highway: from turquoise lakes to the top of New Zealand

In conclusion, if your time in New Zealand is limited don’t spend too long in Christchurch but this city is as an excellent starting point for many extraordinary visits and the gateway to the treasures of the South Island!

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