A century ago, when the distinguished architect Joseph Clarkson Maddison was designing the Government Building in Christchurch, it was unlikely he envisaged it would withstand a close brush with demolition, various incarnations as apartments and offices and, most surprisingly, a devastating earthquake.
But against all odds, this stunning and architecturally salient building still stands at the gateway to Cathedral Square. Except, these days, it houses the elegant Heritage Hotel and is every bit as impressive inside as its facade would suggest on first glance.
The sturdy Italianate Palazzo-style design, with high ceilings, stained-glass windows, the coat of arms, original radiators and a sweeping staircase, has been beautifully preserved, taking visitors on a journey back in time. Recently named "Top Historical Hotel" in Australasia and Oceania at the World Luxury Hotel Awards, it is a journey that has clearly resonated with guests.
But aside from its obvious aesthetic charm, the building has also stood up extremely well to both time and quakes, manager Astrid Hay tells me.
"We came away with a few cracks but it has all been checked, strengthened, and the building is extremely safe." And it certainly feels that way.
Coming in off the city streets, the hotel is a quiet haven that belies its central location. The basement, once home to the rifle club, is now a pool and gym area, and upstairs, the elegant Maddisons restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. For a nightcap, you can't go past Nick and his well-bearded team at the speakeasy-style OGB Bar; settle into this cosy space just off reception for a cocktail, beer or a wine from their extensive drinks list.
My large double-storey Heritage suite with mezzanine bedroom makes for a very stylish crash pad during my weekend stay in Christchurch, though the "Tranquil Bed Experience" and luxurious Manuka Spa products could also see you staying in for a few days of relaxation and some seriously quality snoozing. A fully equipped kitchen and laundry also means you have everything you need for an extended stay.
Stu Waddel, from The Vintage Peddler Bike Co, knows Christchurch city like the back of his hand. "Isn't it awesome?" he says.
It's a beautiful sunny day, and we jump on vintage bikes and pedal past some recently restored buildings and onwards to the hugely popular farmers' markets in the Riccarton House grounds. It is no easy feat resisting the cheese stalls, chocolate creations, coffee, and the especially cruel and intoxicating smell from the dedicated bacon stall. But there is more to see — and so little room for treats on my bike.
We pass a bright and colourful street mural on Peterborough St and cycle through The Commons, which boasts sculptures and the town hall, currently under repair.
Impressive art installations in vacant lots around the city have given a welcome injection of personality. New builds and further restorations are still under way, but there is a distinctly positive buzz among the locals, and events are aplenty, including a food-and-wine festival being set up as we pass through the expansive Hagley Park. We skirt the side of the picturesque Avon River on our bikes, as tourists relax in boats on the river with Edwardian punters guiding them through willow trees, and under little bridges.
The cute and colourful New Regent St is a must-visit, and is home to cafes, bars, and lovely Spanish-style buildings. Twenty-Seven Steps is a popular haunt for locals, serving fine European fare, and is the perfect spot for people-watching from its first-floor windows. Round the corner, the restored Isaac Theatre hosts concerts and events. From outside, I can just spy the familiar features of the Heritage Hotel across the block.
After a trying few years, Christchurch is reaping the benefits of its hard work and new features are popping up all over the place. An amazing Margaret Mahy playground is chock-full of kids enjoying the facilities in the sun.
"You really have to pick your times for that one," says Stu. "It's a 5-year-old's nirvana."
The tram is another excellent way to see the city, and makes itself known with the quaint bell that sounds at each stop. If you're after a little less exertion, jump on the tram, hop off at The Christchurch Arts Centre and grab a coffee at the popular Bunsen, styled after a chemistry lab. Extensive restoration has already been completed on some of the arts centre buildings, including a beautiful job on the Great Hall; pop your head in to experience this breathtaking architectural gem for yourself.
Christchurch's cathedral is still cordoned off, stone precariously balanced upon stone, its glorious facade almost completely destroyed. Its fate is still under contention. In Cathedral Square more art installations have been set up, along with murals and a cathedral viewing platform. Just beyond, The Heritage stands guard: Maddison's masterpiece, a majestic souvenir of this city's rich heritage, and a nod to an even richer future.
Getting there: Air NZ flies direct between Christchurch and Auckland with up to 15 return flights daily.
Accomodation: Rooms at the Heritage Hotel start from $275 per night.
Further information: The Vintage Bike Peddler Co run personalised and group city tours.