Local Takes: Christchurch
Four notable locals show us how to do their town, their way.
Known as Ōtautahi in te reo Māori language, Christchurch is the South Island’s largest city, and yet it’s long been relegated to the proverbial kids’ table, regarded as a stopping point on the way to New Zealand’s world-famous scenery. For centuries, the region was home to Māori tribes who survived via an intricate knowledge of local wildlife and plants. In 1850, the English laid claim to the land, naming it after a college at Oxford and constructing buildings in their homeland’s Gothic Revival style, turning the town into “Little England.” Christchurch’s resilience was tested in 2011, when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck, leveling much of the city and driving thousands to flee. But nearly ten years later, Christchurch is in the midst of a resurgence, thriving with new shops and restaurants and a cultural richness gained from its intriguing ancestry. Here, four locals, from a foraging Māori chef to an arts festival director, show us the parts of the new Christchurch they love most.
George Parker at the O.G.B. bar
Dinner and Drinks Around Town
Christchurch Arts Festival Artistic Director
George Parker never meant to stay in Christchurch. After finishing high school nearly 30 years ago, he was accepted to the same Sydney drama school where Cate Blanchett and Mel Gibson honed their skills. “But then you discover things,” he tells me. One of those was the Free Theatre Christchurch—that’s free as in liberated, he clarifies. “I saw a production and it just blew my mind.” He also found that Christchurch, pre-earthquake, was still discovering itself, and that by joining the Free Theatre as an actor, and later a producer and manager, he could play a part in developing the town’s arts scene, and in turn, the town’s identity.
“It’s not that big, so you have the opportunity to really have some sort of effect,”
.he says. He never did attend school in Sydney and has been working with the Free Theatre for more than two decades.
It’s just past 7 on a Friday evening in Cathedral Square, in the center of town. Parker sips a milk stout at a speakeasy-style bar called O.G.B. while waitstaff in suspenders and cabbie hats buzz around. Parker explains that part of Christchurch’s coming of age has meant separating itself from “Mother England.” “When the European settlers came here, they wanted it to be a better England,” he says. “And for a long time, you’d find that in arts and literature, [they were] always trying to make these love letters to the old country.” The problem, though, was that the stories didn’t resonate with New Zealand audiences, he says, cringing at the thought. They needed to produce stories closer to home.
Antique car parked outside O.G.B.
Finishing our drinks, we head up the street to dine at Twenty Seven Steps, a chic, friendly bistro. “One of the exciting parts of Christchurch is around the hospitality and food scenes,” Parker says as we peruse the menu of local fish and meat. The surrounding Canterbury region is heralded for its agriculture. Parker orders a white onion, apple and cider soup and venison tenderloin served with celeriac and chestnut puree. I opt for the pan-seared calamari sautéed with chorizo and a summer risotto with legumes and Gorgonzola.
Between bites, Parker tells me that in his new role as the artistic director of the biennial Christchurch Arts Festival, which he ran for the first time last July and August, he’s had an opportunity to look at his hometown from a different angle. “We thought we’d try as much as possible to explore what it is to be from Ōtautahi [Christchurch], from this island,” he says. Before the English arrived in the area, it was home to Māori, principally Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe. Today, the city is predominantly white but diversifying, with growing populations of Māori, Pacific Islander and Asian people, and Parker believes that celebrating its diversity is important. Rather than go with a traditional program for his first festival last year, Parker opted to blur the lines between art forms, featuring events and performances that combined visual arts, theater, dance and music, and focus heavily on Māori and Pacific influences.
Christchurch tram outside The Arts Centre
After dinner, we take a 20-minute walk south of the restaurant along Huanui Lane, past buildings painted with the street art Christchurch is known for—on one wall, a chicken rides a bicycle, and on another, a face hides in the shadow of a hand. We peek in on a low-key beer and burger spot called Smash Palace run from a bus parked in a courtyard, then pass a food court called Little High Eatery, serving handmade Chinese dumplings, Venezuelan barbecue and build-it-yourself sundaes—we’re both too stuffed to sample.
Saint Asaph Street gets quieter as we walk east toward Darkroom, a music venue in an industrial area that’s become a destination for entertainment. “I don’t like using the words ‘alternative,’ or ‘underground,’” Parker says, “But it does have that kind of feel to it.” The crowd on the steps outside is young and on the grungy side of hipster. Once we’re inside it’s clear this is a go-to spot for a wider demographic. The walls are hung with thrift-store paintings and antlers, and a local indie band called Kool Aid is playing a set.
After catching a few songs, we cross the road to check out Space Academy, a bar that’s a cross between a café and a friend’s house party. It’s midnight, and as Parker finishes his IPA, he leaves me with one more thought about his city—that it’s only getting better.
“Christchurch maybe was thought of as a bit boring, but it’s actually finding its own distinct voice,” he says. “It’s an incredibly exciting thing to be around, something that’s constantly evolving and growing.”
Jade Tempara at the Gallipoli Wharf in Rapiki
Finding Food and Heritage on the Banks Peninsula
Chef, gardener and forager
If New Zealand cuisine brings to mind lamb shanks and flat whites, Jade Temepara is here to change that. She’s perched on a faded couch at Super Restaurant, a Japanese-inspired spot in the small, hillside port town of Lyttelton, just over the bluffs south of Christchurch, on the Banks Peninsula. As a chef and educator focused on food native to New Zealand, she’s just reworked Super’s menu to include more flavors based on traditional Māori cuisine. “If we think about pre-colonized food in Aotearoa [New Zealand], it’s birds, fish and shellfish,” she explains. “There’s no pork, beef, sheep, anything like that, which obviously means there’s no milk product.” She knows the cuisine well, having kept a strict indigenous-only diet in the past.
Inside the eatery, a lunch crowd that skews bohemian sips coffee and peruses menus of ramen, local fish and bao. “It’s quite eclectic and quirky over here,” she says. “There are lots of really creative artists.” With her combat boots, floral jacket, hair wrapped in a scarf and a feather dangling from one ear, Temepara fits right in.
Over a generous serving of green tea, manuka-smoked mushrooms and an off-menu arancini, Temepara explains that it was the birth of her first of five children that sparked her interest in seasonal, local and foraged food. She wanted to make sure she was giving her daughter the most nutritious food possible. But decades before that, her two grandfathers laid the foundations by teaching her to garden, fish and hunt for her own food in Invercargill, the small city on the tip of the South Island where Temepara grew up. “They sort of raised me just like they’d raise one of their sons,” she says. “A lot of my formative years were spent on boats, and hunting, shooting ducks and rabbits.”
Corsair Bay off Lyttelton
We scrape the plates clean and take a 10-minute drive west around Lyttelton Harbour past Corsair Bay. As we make a hairpin turn down to Rapaki, a tiny bayside settlement, Temepara tells me about her new moko kauae, or
traditional Māori women’s chin tattoo, a practice that’s seen a resurgence in the past few decades.
“There were so many times that our people had their culture taken away from them. One way was by losing our indigenous form of tattooing,” she says, referring to the fact that tā moko all but disappeared following the arrival of the English in New Zealand. “In my whānau [family], we haven’t had kauae worn since my great-great-grandmother.”
Down on the beach it’s high tide, and Temepara, still in combat boots, plays chicken with the waves, trying to scoop out pieces of bladder kelp. She often forages for her own food, and estimates there are 50 to 60 edible species of kelp and seafood in the area. She loses this round, but we find some of the brown-green seaweed farther up the beach. “I usually fry them,” she says, pointing to the egg-shaped sac. “Season it, and then you eat it. It pops in your mouth.” At low tide, she tells me, beachgoers can dig out hot-water swimming holes, thanks to geothermal activity.
Save for a few families playing quietly on the hill, the only sound is the lapping of the water. “This place kind of reminds me of when I was a kid—being able to just have that serenity and peace and quiet.”
Lunch spread at Super Restaurant
Before we leave Rapaki, we walk up the hill to see the local marae, a spot where Māori gather for meetings, funerals and celebrations. Each one is associated with a specific group within a tribe, and visitors must be invited. Temepara doesn’t have ties to this marae, but from the road we take in the intricate wooden carvings on the facade of the wharenui, or main meeting house.
On our way back to the city, Temepara directs me to take a sharp right up a hill. “The views are amazing,” she says. We pull into the parking lot of the Christchurch Gondola, which offers a 360-degree vista over the city and the bays. We don’t have time to go up—she has to get back to her children—but even from the base, we’re struck by the spread of Christchurch in front of us. “There are just so many beautiful little pockets around here,” she says.
Kirsten Taylor at her brewery
Vintage Shops and Veggie Eats in Sydenham
Brewer, The Fermentist
Chatting with patrons, Kirsten Taylor, with her blonde hair piled up in a red scarf, seems the real-life embodiment of The Fermentist’s logo embroidered on the back of her shirt. It makes sense. She’s been working in the beer industry for nearly 30 years, and when backers gave her and her boss creative license on a new endeavor a few years ago, she knew she wanted the project to express her values.
As a microbrewery, Fermentist’s point of difference is sustainability, from the locally sourced menu to the plastic-free taproom. “Breweries can be very unsustainable places,” Taylor says, rattling off every pitfall from food waste to energy consumption. She’s proud of what she and her team have built here in Sydenham, south of Central City. “We just recently launched the first carbon-zero-certified beer in New Zealand, which was a real thrill.”
The brewery sits in a converted bank and you can eat inside the old vault. When I deliberate over the brewery’s vegetarian menu, Taylor steers me toward a five-cheese broccoli pizza. “We’ve had a lot of converts, actually,” she says. Sinking my teeth into the salty, melted cheese, I can certainly see why. I wash it down with a crisp cider that Taylor herself crafted. Though portions are small to avoid food waste, I still have leftovers, which she boxes for me to grab later.
Flight of craft beers at The Fermentist
The area was badly damaged during the earthquake, which left clapboard houses, office buildings and industrial garages ruined in its wake. In the past few years, new restaurants and cafés have moved into old spaces, bringing foot traffic to the neighborhood, which Taylor describes as laidback with pockets of quirkiness.
“We like the fact that Sydenham is in a real phase of urban regeneration, especially after the earthquake,”
says Taylor, who grew up just south of here and was introduced to the science of brewing during her final year of university, where she studied biotechnology.
The first spot that Taylor wants to show me is the Jonathan Smart Gallery, where we’re greeted by the toy-size gallery dog, Sadie, and Jonathan Smart, whom Taylor befriended in yoga class. Smart, who specializes in contemporary art works from New Zealand, points at a set of photographs depicting what appear to be mountains, explaining that they’re actually six-inch-high piles of dirt at a construction site. Though there are galleries scattered across the neighborhood, it’s easy to see why Taylor wanted to show me this one. For every piece of art, Smart has a backstory laced with his dry humor. He’s as much of a draw as the art he shows. “He’s fascinating to listen to,” she says. Smart spent more than 20 years in a gallery on High Street in the city, and when he got priced out almost a decade ago, just before the earthquake, he knew he wanted to move to Sydenham. He walked the streets until he found the right spot. “It’s a place where people come to work, and that’s what art is,” he says. “It’s work.”
We head back to Colombo Street, Sydenham’s main drag, and then on to Form Gallery, which displays ceramics, sculpture and jewelry, and where Taylor purchased the earrings she’s wearing today—a stylized silver and red rubber interpretation of a rata, a native New Zealand tree that blooms in the summer.
Vintage finds at Junk & Disorderly
We’re only a few blocks north of The Fermentist, but outside it feels like we’ve entered the truly industrial part of town. As we walk, there are signs of transition—a barber shop sits next to a mechanic—before we reach Junk & Disorderly, an open-plan space with two vintage clothing shops, and one selling used furniture and goods. We skip the floral dresses and macramé handbags in favor of the furniture section: Taylor has a small obsession with Danish-style chairs from the 1970s, which she reupholsters herself. Today we’re just window-shopping, though.
“I’ve been trying to not find things,” she says, smiling. “I need to get rid of some stuff.”
Next door, Flip Grater welcomes us to her shop, Grater Goods, a name she chose to pay homage to her grandfather, a pork and beef butcher in England who ran a shop called Grater & Sons. The younger Grater hasn’t exactly carried on the family business, as her shop is dedicated entirely to plant-based alternatives to meat and cheese. “I bought some of your chorizo mince last week, and we had it last night, and it was divine,” Taylor tells Grater. “I loved it!” She samples the imitation turkey, and I try some faux lox. It’s tasty, and the saltiness and texture really do resemble cured salmon. We decide to split a kiwi and raspberry “slice,” the New Zealand version of a cookie bar. It makes for a yummy treat for the walk back toward The Fermentist, where I say goodbye to Taylor and remember to take my broccoli pizza leftovers with me.
Hollie Woodhouse sitting in The Welder's indoor garden
Books, Fashion and Culture in Central City
Graphic Designer and Adventurer
It’s drizzling when Hollie Woodhouse bounces up to our rendezvous spot near the Avon River wearing a leather jacket, wool sneakers and a huge smile. In fact, she doesn’t seem to notice the rain, let alone be bothered by it. Then I remember this is a woman who’s completed an ultramarathon in Peru and walked across the Greenland ice cap dragging a 130-pound sled behind her.
Though one of her favorite training methods is to run the trails in the hills around Christchurch, especially when it’s wet and muddy, this afternoon she’s (thankfully) showing me the city side of her life. We stroll for a quick bite to Riverside Market, a new indoor complex of eateries and stalls on the river. It’s packed with everyone from families to workers on lunch break. Woodhouse tells me her mission is to try a new vendor every time she visits—today it’s the fish taco stand. As we settle onto a picnic table, she points out Dimitris, a souvlaki stand she says epitomizes the resilience of Christchurch, explaining how it bounced around locations after the earthquake. “I remember as a child coming up here and getting Dimitris,” she says. “It’s really cool that they’ve come back into the city.”
Around the corner, we saunter into a sprawling, brightly lit independent bookseller, Scorpio Books. As Woodhouse peruses tables stacked with recent releases, she explains that for five years, Scorpio operated out of a shipping container as part of Christchurch’s Container Mall, a block away from their current location, where roughly 35 shops and cafés temporarily reopened post-quake, even as many residents were wary of coming back into the damaged areas of town. “The shipping containers saved the Central City, really,” Woodhouse says. “It brought people back into the city again.”
Woodhouse, who grew up in a rural area about an hour and a half south of Christchurch, moved to town just after the quake. She’s watched it blossom since. “In the last year, the vibe has really come back,” she says. “It’s so good. The town is buzzing.”
We hit brick-paved High Street, which is lined with a mix of New Zealand clothing brands and a handful of upmarket clothing and accessories shops, and then head south to The Welder, a boutique, open-plan mall in the southern part of the Central City that has curated its hip tenants around a theme of wellness, including O-Studio, a yoga and recovery studio run by a former professional rugby player.
In the center’s indoor garden we sip on cold-pressed juices and Woodhouse scrolls through her Instagram, revealing photos she’s taken on runs in the Port Hills, about 15 minutes south of town. “There are so many trails up there, it’s amazing,” she says, wistfully. When I ask her if she ever runs through the city, she wrinkles her nose. “I would much rather go off-road and do that,” she explains, “and come into town to buy my coffee, go to Scorpio Books and just enjoy the urban part of the city.”
Installations on The Arts Centre lawn
Down the street, a cluster of neo-Gothic buildings greets us. For a city that was razed by an earthquake, there’s an impressive collection of beautiful architecture from the 1800s and early 1900s still standing, including this complex of 23 stone buildings. The expansive campus was once a high school and university, and now houses The Arts Centre, comprising an open-air cinema, events hall, market and a handful of shops. We wander inside and poke our heads into Rekindle, a workshop space focused on reducing waste, at the top of a dramatic wooden stairway. “They offer classes, so you can make wooden spoons or take up basket weaving,” Woodhouse says. Next door, at Frances Nation, Woodhouse picks up a ceramic dish made up the coast in Amberley, then a mug from Te Atatu on the North Island. “Everything here is New Zealand-made,” she says.
At the end of the block she points out a green space, Hagley Park, a 407-acre stretch that runs along the entire western boundary of town, making up about a third of the land in the Central City. It’s also Woodhouse’s one exception to not jogging in the city. “If I go on a morning run, it’s around the park,” she admits. I follow her through the Botanic Gardens, past a cafe and a rose garden. We come across a greenhouse. Inside, planters are spilling over with ferns, palms and vines. “This is kind of what it’s like up in the Port Hills,” she says with a smile. “Overgrown.”
MORE LOCAL TAKES
Alex Davies, Chef
The Lyttelton Coffee Company is a beautiful little space that fell over during the earthquake and was rebuilt by hand by the owners. The walls are adorned with local artists’ work, and occasionally they’ll have evening gigs with international artists who have grown up in this community (Lyttelton is renowned for producing many of Christchurch’s best artists and musicians). The coffee is brilliant, too. They roast everything in-house and you can sit out on a big deck overlooking the working port with beautiful hills nestled behind it.
Richie McCaw, helicopter pilot
Getting up into the Port Hills overlooking Christchurch is one of my favorite things to do. I love mountain biking or running the many tracks and trails. The views of Lyttelton Harbour, Banks Peninsula, the Canterbury Plains and Southern Alps are absolutely spectacular. For me, flying helicopters every day gives me another incredible perspective of Christchurch and the Canterbury region.
Jed Parsons, musician
It’s intriguing to explore Christchurch’s “red zone,” a vast mass of land that has been deemed unsuitable to rebuild on since the earthquake. The area, which was once largely dedicated to dense residential housing, is now expansive space, teeming with birdlife as well as fruit trees that were once contained in people’s backyards. The Avon River runs through it, and it’s an ideal place for foraging, exercising or finding a quiet space.
Naomi Haussmann, photographer
Infinite/Definite boutique is a favorite of mine. I recommend it for beautifully made clothes with an emphasis on ethically sourced materials by local New Zealand designers (as well as some international brands). My go-to brands include Kowtow, which has done an amazing job making ethical clothing, right down to the dyes they use. Another is Stan Ray, whose pants and tees are rad for both men and women.
Endangered dolphins and a French village
New Zealand is home to one of the world’s smallest dolphins, and the best place to find them is just outside Christchurch.
Akaroa is known as a charming, historic French town, but I’ve come here for the Hector’s dolphin. The species, one of the world’s smallest, measures between four and five feet long, and is both native to New Zealand waters and endangered. Even so, a relatively large population lives in Akaroa Harbour. I take the 90-minute drive out onto the Banks Peninsula with my Tours by Locals guide, Dermot Hall.
In Akaroa, we board a Black Cat Cruises catamaran and within half an hour, the boat slows and the crew announces they’ve found what we’re searching for. The passengers jostle to the starboard side to see two miniature dolphins springing from the water.
I know they’re dolphins, but with their rounded dorsal fins and tiny size, it doesn’t quite compute. I’m rapt. Later, we spot fur seals shimmying up the rocks, and another diminutive species, a white-flippered penguin, bobbing on the waves.
We make our way back to Christchurch and Hall stops several times to take in the views. As we pull up to the last vantage point, we happen upon a wedding, which is about to take place on the small bluff just below the road. Is it a bit strange to get married by the side of a road? Probably. But looking out over the turquoise harbor and hills in a green and gold ombré, I can’t really blame them. toursbylocals.com
WHERE TO STAY
Novotel Christchurch Cathedral Square
With its central location, this sleek hotel overlooks the Christchurch Cathedral and Cathedral Square and has sweeping views of the Southern Alps. The Square restaurant whips up international cuisine with a Kiwi flair.
Just south of Christchurch, this 19th-century Victorian estate boasts seven themed rooms, tennis courts and its own woodlands to explore. The property combines historic charms with modern amenities and views of the Canterbury Plains and the Banks Peninsula.
Located inside the city’s Old Government Building, the historic hotel was designed in an Italian palazzo style with ornate floors, a grand staircase and stained-glass windows. Their O.G.B. bar boasts live music and a mean espresso martini.