CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND — On our rafting trip, a young backpacker from Munich had dismissed Christchurch as “a construction zone.” And it is, but if you look hard enough, you’ll see a still-lively town underneath the cranes.
We went out to see the town after breakfast, where Karen made Beth a lovely two-shot coffee with her Nespresso machine. She’d also left out a book about the Feb. 22, 2011, earthquake that killed 185 people and destroyed many landmarks, including the cathedral and town hall. We picked it up and were gripped by the photos of rescue and despair, heroism and loss.
First we walked to the neighborhood library to work. It was a welcoming place, with long benches close to outlets where backpackers crowded together like birds on a power line, looking at videos on their phones. Did you know Nga Rorohiko means “Free Internet” in Maori? There were books in Maori, German, Dutch, Chinese — you name it.
When we were finished, we walked toward the city center through nondescript streets full of low-rise construction sites. We didn’t find a “center,” but we were relieved to find the cafe district Karen and Rob had told us about: New Regent Street, a Spanish Mission-style pedestrian street that was built in the 1930s and damaged in the 2011 quake but reopened within two years.
Its pastel facades were cheerful, with wrought-iron second-floor balconies and sidewalk tables under colorful umbrellas. Tram tracks ran down the middle of the street, and red sightseeing trams brought a new load of tourists through every 15 minutes or so.
We scoped out all of the shops, especially Beadz, where Torsten spotted greenstone, or pounamu, in the window. Like Minnesota’s pipestone, it’s a stone that’s invested with spiritual power, mana in Maori, and the spiral koru design in particular signifies new beginnings and personal growth.
Torsten didn’t find one that spoke to him, so we went to lunch at Casa Publica, taking a table next to the sidewalk that gave us a prime spot for people-watching and put the trams practically in our laps.
We were in a celebratory mood, so we started with a prawn ceviche appetizer and had mains of calamari salad and a beef brisket sandwich. Beth thought the best part was the Mac’s Green Beret IPA, a treat for the middle of the day, and that included the gelato we had afterward from Rollickin Dessert Cafe across the street.
We decided not to take the tram but to follow the tracks, instead. That took us to another in-progress street that seemed nondescript until we looked up and saw Phil Price’s 2006 sculpture “Nucleus,” a giant vermilion lozenge that was split in four parts, each swinging languidly in the breeze. We gazed at it, mesmerized, waiting for the four parts to swing into a whole — which they almost did, but not quite.
We walked by the colorful Re:Start container village, put up after the quake and now a lively little mall of food and gift shops, and passed the Avon River, where you can rent punting boats. Cathedral Square is nearby, now a memorial to the 19th-century landmark whose spire toppled during the quake. It’s been replaced, for now, with a “cardboard cathedral” that has a corrugated A-frame roof and faux stained-glass windows.
Near New Regent Street, we spotted the pristine Isaac Theatre Royal, with its 1908 stone facade seemingly intact. Turns out it just reopened. Near Karen and Rob’s house, we passed the spectacular new Margaret Mahy Family Playground, which we probably would have climbed around on if it hadn’t already been full of kids.
Christchurch is coming back slowly, perhaps this time as its most authentic self. Six years after the quake, the debate continues: Should the city ape its old character or develop a new one?
The Oscars had come and gone, and we hadn’t seen any of the movies. So after a brief stop at the house, we left for Sumner, a beachside neighborhood and home of the old-fashioned Hollywood Theatre. Sumner isn’t on the tourist radar, but we loved its long beach and Cave Rock, a massive pile of craggy rock with a natural tunnel that connects one end of the beach to another. That had just reopened, too.
We killed an hour by wandering past little cafes and funky shops and writing postcards on a picnic table. Then it was time for the 8:15 showing of “Hidden Figures,” about the black, female mathematicians who turned out to be crucial to the development of NASA’s space program in the early 1960s. The movie made a nice respite from sightseeing, and now we’re at least a little caught up with 2016.