Friday, November 12 marks Canterbury Anniversary Day and although the 2021 festivities are on hold, Ewan McDonald suggests there's no time like the present to plan the perfect Canterbury vacay.
The City of Sails celebrates its birthday with (spoiler alert) an afternoon of sailing, which kind of spoils the party for the 84 per cent of locals who don't own a boat. Down south, however, a day off isn't enough for Ōtautahi Christchurch and Waitaha Canterbury.
Every – well, almost every – November, they have a week of it, merging their anniversary day with horse racing and the big get-together, the A&P Show. The week-long party starts with New Zealand Cup Week, with gallops and harness racing as the main events, though it's a fair bet many are more interested in the fashion. Then country comes to town at the show, held since 1862.
Normally, Christchurch and Canterbury (excluding South Canterbury, but let's leave that to one side) would be celebrating Show Week. For reasons we're all over now, northerners can't fly south for the spring this year and Cantabrians have had to put their happy days on hold.
But it gives us a good reason to tip the topper or fascinator to our Mainland cousins. Aucklanders may be grumpy about the 13-weeks-and-counting lockdown, but perhaps they should consider Canterbury's decade and what's been built from rubble and tears.
On the brighter side, disaster brought the chance to build a new CBD where people could live, work, shop and play without too much interruption from cars. Christchurch's City Mall is a contemporary take on an old-style city where people walk into street-front stores, criss-crossed with lanes and cafe-lined squares.
Regrettably, it's mostly big-brand retail with few small-scale, unique or family enterprises, apart from "New Zealand's Most Beautiful Street", the 1932 New Regent St streetscape of pastel-bright Spanish Mission architecture (watch for trams), the Salt District just outside the CBD or the Tannery, Woolston.
Riverside Markets is our only European-style central-city market like London's Borough Market or Barcelona's La Boqueria. Some 30 independent food stores and 40 farmers' market stalls are open seven days. City workers, everyday shoppers and tourists use it as a daytime eatery or to buy fresh produce to cook at home.
The Strip, the once-notorious boulevard of bars and less salubrious entertainments, has been rebuilt and in a more elegant incarnation, The Terrace. Facing broad green riverbank walkways, the new tenants are a much nicer class of cafes, restaurants and chi-chi wine and cocktail bars.
You might have expected this province's first priority would be a rugby stadium but to the chagrin of those whose blood flows red and black, that's still on the drawing board. The winners have been arts and culture aficionados: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu is an artwork in itself, the glass facade evoking neighbouring Ōtākaro Avon. Tūranga reinterprets what a library used to be, while the sprawling Victorian-era Arts Centre has been restored, including its mesmerising war memorial window of 4000 pieces of glass saved during the earthquakes.
Canterbury Museum's gingerbread buildings display treasures and tools from the region's first people; the 19th-century city; the Antarctic; and Kiwiana's most sacred shrine, Fred & Myrtle's Pāua Shell House. The Air Force Museum, hangared at the RNZAF base at Wigram, is regarded as a world-class cultural institution.
For families, the Margaret Mahy Playground brings the stories of our most-loved children's and young adult author to life – 2ha of climbing, digging, squirting, bouncing, sliding in the Southern Hemisphere's biggest sandpit. Grown-ups can join in, because the gear is strong enough and big enough for them to be kids for a day, too.
The museum's Quake City exhibition is a must to understand the seismic events that shook the region in all too recent memory, memories from those who lived through the earthquakes and those who came to help. The International Antarctic Centre takes families through interactive experiences commemorating the city's longtime relationship with the icy continent.
Get out of town
There's way more to Canterbury than Christchurch. The region stretches from Kaikōura to Aoraki Mt Cook and the Mackenzie Country, so rent a car and head for the hills and the plains.
First port of call, Lyttelton, which has taken on a new, quirky character in the past decade. Cheap rents and live venues made international stars of local musicians like the Eastern, Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams; other creatives have given the town an arts, crafts, music, hangout and street-food feel.
Volcano-created Banks Peninsula is one of Aotearoa's most unique landforms; never-ending hills, bays and hidden bush, walking and biking trails and some spectacular gardens. At Fishermans Bay, rugged coastal farmland has been converted into a dramatic spectrum of colour, texture, and sculptures; Ohinetahi, at Governor's Bay, is a 155-year-old formal "garden of international significance"; whimsical Giant's House at Akaroa is filled with oversized mosaic sculptures.
Akaroa, an hour or so's drive from Christchurch, is Nouvelle-Zelande's only French settlement. Unfortunately for the French, they turned up just a few weeks after the tangata whenua and les Rosbifs signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The settlers decided to stay and the village's street names and colonial cottages remain, so you can walk Rue Lavaud munching on a baguette or dine in a bistro. Hinewai Reserve, 1270ha of regenerating native forest, is our largest private conservation estate; harbour cruises take you to see bird and marine life – Hector's dolphins, if you're lucky.
Hanmer and the north
Less than two hours' drive from Christchurch, the recuperative properties of Hanmer Springs have been known for centuries – Māori used to bathe in them as they crossed Te Waipounamu.
Surrounded by the village's many cafes, bars and restaurants, the modern complex features 22 outdoor thermal, sulphur and freshwater pools, waterslides and a spa surrounded by stunning mountains and forests. You might even find yourself sitting in hot water as it begins to snow.
More action? Boot up for a quiet amble along forest paths or a hardcore hike up Mt Isobel. There are all-weather bike tracks in and around the forest, as well as back-country tracks on gravel roads.
On the road north you'll pass through the best-kept secret among New Zealand's wine regions, the North Canterbury Wine Trail. With a cool, dry climate, high sunshine hours and a long growing season, it has an excellent reputation for pinot noir, chardonnay and aromatics.
Locals say the secret is that the land was formed when an asteroid hit Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. Giant marine creatures and moa thrived here; an adult moa's bones contain 12kg of phosphorus so they are still fertilising the soil and vines.
It doesn't hurt that most businesses remain in family hands. There's a staunch pride in keeping it Canterbury and in keeping it sustainable, organic and biodynamic. Award-winning Greystone Wines even takes organic viticulture to a new level: the grapes do not leave the vineyard until they are in the bottle on the way to market.
The heaviest hitter in the region is the Donaldson family's Pegasus Bay estate. Ivan Donaldson, a neurologist and wine judge, pioneered the local industry in the early 1970s; eight members of the extended family hold roles in a family company that exports to more than 25 countries.
When alert levels permit, winery restaurants are a thing here. Black Estate, where husband-and-wife Nicholas Brown (he's the winemaker) and Pen Naish has been named New Zealand's best winery restaurant.
Surrounding the vineyards are dozens of artisan food producers – fruit, olives, honey, truffles and more. Take them home from several farmers' markets.
South Canterbury is the only area in Aotearoa to celebrate Dominion Day in September not Show Week so perhaps we should give it a swerve but … we'd be missing Aotearoa's spectacular peaks and places.
Three hours' drive south of Christchurch, step back 150 years at Ōamaru. Its Victorian Precinct, mostly built in the local stone, is considered the Southern Hemisphere's most complete 19th-century streetscape.
So it's not surprising that the town is best known for its Steampunk HQ museum to the wit and whimsy of the way the world might have been if only those pesky fossil fuels hadn't come along. Kids, there's a steampunk-inspired playground at harbourside Friendly Bay.
For the present, and a present to bring home, the town has a bellyful of food and drink delights: Scotts Brewery, the NZ Whisky Collection cellar door, artisan cheeses at Whitestone and others, award-winning restaurants such as Riverstone Kitchen.
This is penguin country – see the world's smallest at the Ōamaru Blue Penguin Colony - and the rarest - the yellow-eyed coming ashore at Bushy Beach.
Heading inland, check out Geraldine's arts and crafts boutiques and artisan foods on the way to the Mackenzie District, land of Lake Tekapo and Aoraki Mt Cook, turquoise lakes, alps, glaciers and very dark night skies.
Take a hike: multi-day tramps, the Hooker Valley Track (three hours return) or a half-hour in the mountains. Ski. Skydive. Scenic flight, maybe. Fish for salmon or trout. Bike the Alps to Ocean Trail. Or just chill and enjoy the views until night falls, time to hit the telescopes at the Dark Sky Project's Ōtehīwai Mt John Observatory.
So, Canterbury, sorry we won't be making it down your way this week. But I've got my flights booked for New Year. Here's hoping …
Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz