Christchurch, New Zealand, a city that was devastated by a major earthquake in February 2011, has a long way to go before it has fully recovered but still has much to offer those who choose to visit. 

Many visitors arrive in Christchurch at the newly opened bus terminal, where buses from the airport disgorge their passengers. It is just a short walk from Cathedral Square. After grabbing a bite of lunch in the terminal, this writer walked through a downtown area still under renovation, then past what remains of the Christchurch Cathedral before reaching the hotel when the realization struck: just as when visiting Poland , one must make a conscious effort to find and do things that are not related to the disaster.  

 Although damaged in the earthquake, the city’s art gallery has recently reopened and admission is free. Even before entering, visitors will see a sign that literally spells out the region’s determination: a message fashioned in colored light tubes on the side of the building says, “Everything is going to be alright.”  

The region’s Canterbury Museum is located directly across Rolleston Avenue from the art gallery and features many exhibits detailing the region’s history, design and its people. Given New Zealand’s south latitude, it is a logical launching point for exploration of the Antarctic, and one of the museum’s most interesting exhibits is the Antarctic Exhibition on Level 3. The full-sized snow cat on display draws little boys of all ages like moths to a flame! 

The Isaac Theatre Royal, literally a stone’s throw from the hard-hit cathedral, is featuring local productions as well as internationally known talent including the Ramsey Lewis Quartet and the Blue Man Group. 

New Regent Street, a pedestrian-only enclave of shops and stores, bars and restaurants, has not only survived but is thriving, thanks in part to Mother Nature’s unceremonious removal of a 10-story building on the north end of the street that blocked the sunlight for much of the day. Now, New Regent Street could fairly be described as “bright and airy.” 

Shops and stores around Cathedral Square, which is the emotional epicenter of the quake if not the geologic epicenter, are recovering with several doing so in robust fashion. Some stores are operating in brick-and-mortar locations while others are operating out of temporary facilities in an area called Re:START Mall. A short-term substitute for the downtown business core, stores from souvenir stores to coffee shops to high-end retailers are operating out of marine cargo containers that have been creatively converted to serve this special purpose. 

The Avon River that flows through town has retained its idyllic character and punting on the Avon remains a popular activity. A “punt” is a small, shallow boat with a flat bottom and square ends, usually used for short outings on rivers or lakes and propelled by pushing a pole to the bottom of the body of water being navigated. 

The foodie scene is alive and well in Christchurch; there are quite a number of very good restaurants that either survived, or opened since, the quake so the foodie scene is alive and well.  

Southeast of town, the Christchurch Gondola takes visitors to the top of the Mount Pleasant Scenic Reserve and provides views of Lyttleton Harbour, an area close to the quake’s geologic epicenter. Although the gondola’s departure point is served by public buses, a $10 shuttle bus picks up and drops off in front of the Christchurch Museum and goes directly to and from the gondola’s base. Particularly on sunny days, visitors get a great look down on the city, the ocean and the bay nearby. It is a great way to get a view you're not going to get anywhere else. 

Hikers might enjoy one of several trails leading from the top down the mountain for some distance, ranging from short to long. Each is rated so hikers can pick something to suit their skill and experience level. There is a restaurant and snack bar on top, a "time tunnel" ride that gives a bit of history about how New Zealand was formed, and the ride itself. 

Christchurch is also an excellent base for forays into New Zealand’s famous wine-growing regions. Trips include half-day excursions along the nearby Waipara Wine Valley, one of the South Island's burgeoning wine regions, and other adjacent wine-growing regions. Farther afield, visitors can opt for longer trips to visit the country's famous Marlborough region at the north end of the South Island.  

While there are many things to see and do in and around Christchurch, it is impossible to ignore the effects of the earthquake and the recovery that is underway. Nor should you. The city has many things for visitors to see and do, including learning about the major earthquake that devastated the city in February 2011 and the inspirational story of the region’s ongoing recovery.

The date was Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011. The time was 12:51 p.m. when central Christchurch was busy with shoppers and workers on their lunch breaks. For 24 seconds, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked the city. Many locals reported being flung violently and almost vertically into the air, and scientists reported the peak ground acceleration exceeded 1.8, almost twice the acceleration of gravity.

The hardest hit area of Christchurch was the city’s downtown area. Built on an infilled swamp, much of the soil liquefied when the earthquake struck. Deprived of their previously solid footings, some 1,800 buildings in the central business district collapsed or were so severely damaged they had to be demolished.  

The spire of the iconic Christchurch Anglican Cathedral in Cathedral Square was destroyed; the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament less than two kilometers away was also heavily damaged. Walls and verandahs had cascaded down on shopping strip malls, and two multi-story buildings had pancaked.  

A total of 185 people were killed, including 115 who died when the six-story Canterbury Television building collapsed. 

Immediately after the quake, most news photos and video of the damage showed a downtown area that looked like a parking lot filled with rubble. Today, it more closely resembles a parking lot swept clean. Many of the major buildings that either fell down or had to be taken down are gone, and work is underway to repair and restore many others that were less badly damaged.

While it might seem macabre in a sense, the story of the earthquake and the subsequent, ongoing recovery is something that should not be missed.

RedBus, a local company that provides transportation and tours, operates a Christchurch Rebuild Tour.

Convening outside the Canterbury Museum, which was damaged but has since reopened, visitors board a bus that wends its way through the area while a docent from the museum talks about the past, the present and the area’s future plans. 

The tour goes through Cathedral Square, past the ruins of the Christchurch Cathedral with weeds growing through the pavement and rust forming on the supporting I-beams. Directly across from the square stands the Canterbury Chief Post Office building, its doors and the clock in the clock tower boarded up and silent.  

Less than a mile away, the bus passes the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. So badly damaged was this building that engineers used a camera-equipped drone to assess the inside of the structure rather than risk the safety of one of their own. 

Returning to the central business district, the tour turns toward some of the more positive aspects of the recovery, including one of the more amazing things to come out of the disaster. At the corner of Hereford and Madras Streets is the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral or, as it is called by many locally, the Cardboard Cathedral, a name that many of the parishioners loathe. 

Designed pro bono by Japanese “disaster architect” Shigeru Ban, it uses prestressed cardboard tubes for the framework and corrugated plastic that is the same construction as cardboard for the sheathing.

A block south of the Cardboard Cathedral is an artist’s installation of 185 chairs that represent those killed in the quake.  As no two people are the same, the artist determined that no two chairs should be alike. 

Farther north, where Manchester Street meets the Avon River, sits one of the most recently completed projects: the Margaret Mahy Playground. Driving by on the sunny Mother’s Day Sunday I was in town, it had obviously become an instant hit. 

The Christchurch City Council Chambers are being rebuilt a couple of blocks away, work has started to turn the former Forsyth Barr building a block north of the Christchurch Cathedral into a new Crowne Plaza hotel, and the empty lot that sits kitty-corner is the site for the new convention center.

In the downtown core, just east of the World War II memorial the Bridge of Remembrance is the area’s temporary business center, the Re:START Mall. 

Understanding that, without a retail core, the downtown area would likely die out, merchants joined forces and pulled together a temporary mall of modified marine cargo containers to make a very interesting, if temporary, shopping center. On weekends, musicians play for the crowds as people shop, mingle, and generally get on with their lives.

Most encouraging are areas where more has already been done. A short walk west of Cathedral Square is a residential neighborhood that has been returned more or less to normal. Work on a few larger projects continues but, along with the Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Art Museum have been reopened and is welcoming visitors. Numerous businesses dot the streets, ranging from espresso stands set up in cargo containers to white table cloth, fine-dining restaurants. 

The story of the earthquake, including some amazing video of a building as it collapses during the quake, is told vividly at Quake City. An arm of the Canterbury Museum, Quake City occupies a storefront across from Re:START Mall and has a wide variety of static and interactive displays that provide a bit of the area’s history. It also includes a chronicling of the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and a cataloging of their effects. It is well worth the price of admission. 

Much accomplished, much yet to be done

Shortly after the quake, political and business leaders as well as ordinary citizens saw that the devastation had provided the area with a unique opportunity. 

“How many times do you get to re-invent your city?” more than one local said.  

But, as so often happens, the ideal came into conflict with reality.

Consensus, it turned out, was not easy to come by. While civic leaders and concerned citizens agreed that the city could be rebuilt better and stronger, that was where the agreement ended. The “how” became the bugaboo. 

In the five years since the quake, some consensus has emerged.  The city plans to widen Manchester Street, a main north-south thoroughfare, adding additional bus lanes and a protected bike bath. Building codes have been updated and new buildings will be limited to seven stories in height.

But much inertia has yet to be overcome.

In a very public display of procrastination, the Anglican Church still has yet to decide the fate of its damaged cathedral. As a result, many of the other damaged buildings in Cathedral Square remain in limbo. Without knowing the fate of the cathedral, which is the Square’s and the downtown area’s anchor, it is difficult to assess whether the cost of repair or rebuilding will be worthwhile. If the ruins remain or the cathedral is razed, the area might not have the appeal that would enable projects to be profitable. If the cathedral is rebuilt, it might have quite the opposite effect.

Around the area, empty lots are ubiquitous. Reasons range from owners who are banking on the future and holding their vacant land to those who refuse to accept that their land no longer has the value it once held to parcels that are tied up in probate because their owners have died, either during or since the quake.  

Finally, the recovery is slow by U.S. standards because New Zealand does not have a disaster relief infrastructure like the one that exists in the United States. There is no organization or government ministry analogous to FEMA to assist municipalities or the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to lend money to disaster victims at low interest rates to facility rebuilding. The recovery is being, and will continue to be, funded by insurance claims – not all of which are settled – and private funds.

As a result, some estimate the area’s full recovery could take a generation. And while that is unfortunate, the people with whom I spoke are generally making the best of things, happy to be getting on with their lives, and more than willing to talk with visitors about what they went through and how their lives were changes a little more than five years ago. 

It may not be the most serene or beautiful place one could visit, but one of the reasons we travel is to become acquainted with and understand other people and other cultures. The opportunities for that in Christchurch are abundant, and will be for some time to come. 

See more pictures of the area here