Welcome back! Christchurch is open for fun again

By Megan Singleton

Two years after Christchurch was devastated by its first earthquake, the green shoots of the city’s revival are appearing through the rubble. Industrious locals say one of the best ways to help them now is to revisit the city simply to have fun. Megan Singleton checks out the new attractions.

Clare Laredo mixes drinks at Revival Bar. Photo / Martin Hunter
Clare Laredo mixes drinks at Revival Bar. Photo / Martin Hunter

The soundtrack of Christchurch is diggers, electric saws and the beeping of heavy vehicles punctuated by the percussion of a thud as a skip lands on a truck. It's the sound of a busy city. Busy demolishing the many unsafe buildings still standing in the city centre, level by level.

I'm sitting in the rooftop cafe of a shipping container in Re:Start, the pop up mall. From here I can count seven cranes stretching into the blue sky surrounded by rubble designated into piles - concrete that is pulverised on site (and sometimes reused back into the ground from whence it came) and metal and iron twisted in another enormous skip, ready to be removed. There is a big landfill out there somewhere.

But this story is not about the deconstruction and the closed-off streets that still remain in the heart of Christchurch. It's about the new life that is springing up in the midst of the damage.

In four days I met the most remarkable people doing incredible things, people with huge passion and drive to succeed and to see Christchurch return to her former, nay better, glory.

On the whole people are excited about the Blue Print for the city. Some still have their concerns about what will happen to their buildings in the path of a new stadium or conference centre, but generally they're thrilled.

I've met business owners who are opening their doors after lengthy delays due to red tape and aftershocks, others rolling out multi-million dollar investments in new restaurants, bars and boutique shopping, and some who are ridiculously creative and have turned their imagination into art installations on empty building sites.

Re:Start

The brainchild of Paul Lonsdale, manager of the Central City Business Association, Re:Start is the pop up shopping precinct on Cashel St built out of shipping containers. It is a dollop of happiness in the midst of the fenced-off ruins.

Ballantynes anchors the area in its newly repaired building. But step out of its sparkling make-up department on to the street and you'll walk into this new shopping mall. Containers painted lime green, tomato red, sky blue and rusty brown are the temporary home of 27 retailers, many of whom were in the CBD and have moved their wares here. It's funky and busy with shoppers, buskers and those eating woodfired pizza or souvlaki from the food caravans.

The lease runs out on March 31, 2013, but it's hoped that the many landlords whose buildings have now gone will agree to allow it to stay a bit longer.

Gap Filler

Where once high rise offices, shops and apartments stood, now there is more carparking space than there are cars. Some 1300 commercial lots are vacant, often still fenced off, and frankly, a sight of sadness.

But that's where the bubbly and clearly energetic Coralie Winn comes in. She worked at the Arts Centre until the September 2010 quake, when she started randomly making some of these desolate gaps into places of whimsy. She is just foolish enough to think that not only would she be given permission to create fun and quirky art spaces, but that she could also mobilise a bunch of volunteers.

Among her projects to date were a Dance-o-mat outdoor dance floor with music pumped from an old washing machine pimped into an amplifier, into which dancers could plug their iPods (the Christchurch ballet used the space to rehearse.) She also ran an outdoor cinema powered by 10 bicycles, and, my favourite, a library in an old restaurant fridge where people bring a book to donate and take one to read.

Cardboard Cathedral

While the beautiful stone cathedral sits unceremoniously dumped by the forces of nature in a heap in Cathedral Square, a new cardboard phoenix is slowly emerging to provide at least a temporary home for worshippers.

The Rev Craig Dixon is the instigator behind what will surely be a world-class building. He read a magazine article about renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and invited him over. Shigeru is well known for his creative architecture in emergency areas. He has overseen paper log houses in Kobe and Turkey, schools in China and temporary shelter in Haiti.

But he is also highly sought after for commercial builds. For every one commercial project he can donate his time and plans to three emergency/disaster relief builds. And that is what he's done for Christchurch. This building will have wooden beams wrapped in recycled cardboard and be built 100 per cent to code. It has a life span of 50 years, and while they have a 10 year agreement to occupy on the site, I have a sneaky feeling it'll be there for a few more years than that.

The Tannery

The Cassel family are well known in Christchurch and they are rolling out a huge new development in Woolston on the Heathcote River. The Brewery is already a popular bar and restaurant where beer is brewed in front of diners and the pizza is apparently the best in town.

They have big plans to open The Emporium of high end shops in the old tannery buildings behind the brewery. It will look like Sydney's Strand Arcade with Victorian architecture, a glass topped roof and 25-30 boutiques. There will also be artist studios and a new restaurant, Gastronomy. This will feature a fully open kitchen and a piano bar wine bar where the latest trend of wine served straight from the barrel will be employed (cutting down wastage with no bottles to recycle.) Celebrity chef Richard Till is designing the menus.

The first part of this ambitious project will be open by Christmas.

Nightlife

King of Snake had its opening night when I was there. Christchurch stalwarts will remember Indochine and Chinwag Eathai. Well, this is Tony Astle's new baby. It's hidden up a driveway on Victoria St and is a restaurant and cosy bar serving Asian fusion plates of deliciousness.

Revival Bar has re-opened on Victoria St and its decor is all about recycled materials. Shipping containers feature as walls, and suitcases and trunks have been upholstered into chairs. It's very funky with pieces of wall and painted doors as artwork.

Black Betty on Madras St is a cafe by day and a bar/restaurant by night. It roasts its own coffee on site and draws its crowd largely from the students across the road at CPIT and the Broadcasting School.

Monday Room is a stone's throw from Black Betty on Moorhouse. It too is a cafe by day and wine bar with a tapas menu by night. It has a covered outdoor area out the back. Unfortunately they allow smoking out there so the whole place was filled with whiffs of cigarette when I squeezed in.

Eating

Saggio di Vino re-opened after 647 days without trading. It's been a long labour, but the restaurant is now one third bigger than the former site next door. Known for its exceptional wine list, Saggio di Vino's food is matched to the wine, rather than vice versa.

Smash Palace is a bus on the former Saggio di Vino site next door and is surrounded by a tall, white plastic-wrapped fence. It is outdoor dining and a great place for a burger and a beer. They provide blankets and hot water bottles until the evenings warm up.

Strawberry Fare is now around the corner from Victoria St in a renovated motel on Bealey Ave. It was originally famous for its desserts but has added delicious main meals too. It was packed the night I went - and that was just for dessert.

The IceFest

Hagley Park has been turned into a giant ice station and on Friday New Zealand's first IceFest was opened. Celebrating our country's relationship with Antarctica and Christchurch's 100-year history as a gateway to the continent, the month-long festival features more than 100 speakers and 65 mostly free events. A highlight is Still Life, a sensory experience based on the book of the same name about the Antarctic huts of Scott and Shackleton. Step inside a 10-metre white cube and be immersed in the projected images of Jane Ussher's evocative photographs of the first Antarctic explorers' expedition bases.

The buzz in Christchurch is not just the buzz of a gazillion skill saws, but the renewed energy of its people. Sure, some are jaded - the bureaucratic fight to leap red tape hurdles has been more like pole vaulting than high jumping for some and it's taken its toll on the hair colour of many an entrepreneur. But once the signage is up, the lights go on and the doors are thrust open, the pain is forgotten.

As one restaurant owner told me, it's like giving birth. Once the labour is over and you have your new baby, it's fantastic. And what I saw were new babies being born all over town.

TRAVELLER'S TIPS

Where to stay:

* Classic Villa: This historic home is opposite the Arts Centre on Worcester Blvd. It first opened in 1897 as the chaplain's house for Christchurch Boy's High School. In 2005 Peter Morrison bought it, added a new wing out the back and opened 12 rooms as a boutique B&B.

While the Arts Centre is undergoing extensive repairs, the villa was closed for only two weeks mainly because power and water was off. Incidentally Peter found an old artesian well in the back garden from a tap he thought was a remnant of another era. They had fresh drinking water right from the start.

* The George: This 5-star hotel is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. It is opposite Hagley Park and within easy walking distance to restaurants and bars along Victoria Street. Immediately following the February 2011 earthquake, the George was the accommodation base for police. My suite had a gas fire, two flat screen TVs and a view over the park.

Their own restaurant Pescatore offers fine dining or you can choose 50 Bistro for a more casual affair.

* Ibis: This hotel next to the Cathedral has just re-opened and, while still surrounded by desolate and broken streets, is welcomed back by locals who need its 155 rooms to accommodated the tourists who are starting to return.

Megan flew to Christchurch with assistance from Air New Zealand

- Herald on Sunday

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