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One hundred and fifty years ago some hardy English settlers scrambled up the steep slopes of the Bridle Path to the summit of the Port Hills and looked down on their new home, a vast stretch of unattractive muddy swampland. It must have been a horrifying sight after such an arduous journey. Those early settlers would be amazed if they were to stand at the same vantage point today. The swamps have been drained and the water runs to the sea through two orderly rivers, the Avon and the Heathcote, while houses have filled vast flat areas and are steadily climbing the hills.

Nowadays few people arrive on sailing ships; most fly into Christchurch International Airport. On a fine day they enjoy a panoramic view of a city lying on the edge of the Canterbury Plains, bounded to the east by the Pacific coastline, to the south by the hills of Banks Peninsula, and to the west by the mountains of the Southern Alps. As the plane circles lower, newcomers can see the expansive Hagley Park and the reasons why Christchurch is lauded as the Garden City. Everywhere there are trees, parks and gardens, but very few high-rises.

Central Business District
The city’s Anglican heritage is evident in Cathedral Square, the heart of the city. Some fine hotels overlook it, while one block west, ‘The Strip’ follows the Avon River along Oxford Terrace, offering visitors cafes by day and clubbing by night. Cuisine styles range from Egyptian to Asian to Pacific Rim.

Taking a tram is a pleasant way to see the western CBD: the Gothic stone buildings of The Arts Centre with its cafes, cinemas and Court Theatre; the Canterbury Museum and Christ’s College; while the McDougall Art Gallery hides in the expansive Botanic Gardens next to Hagley Park’s golf course and sports fields. If the flatness of the city and its one-way streets are disorienting, get maps and advice from the Visitors’ Information Centre before heading off.

Experience the spectrum of entertainment at the Town Hall, the Convention Centre, and the Christchurch Casino, with nearby specialist shops and restaurants. Expensive shops tout for tourist trade close to the Central library, while the tram journey ends under the Spanish facade of New Regent Street.

Further south, you’ll discover an eclectic mix of restaurants, dealer art galleries, bookshops, red light establishments and a variety of churches, from the traditional to the more lively Pentecostals. South City Centre offers upmarket clothing and department stores, footwear, wine, antiques and other specialty stores. Cinemas and Science Alive offer entertainment nearby.

West of Cathedral Square
West of Hagley Park, Riccarton is best known for its large indoor shopping facility, Riccarton Mall, and the Riccarton Racecourse, which hosts a thriving Sunday market. Two early settlers’ homes and some original native forest can be seen here at Deans’ Bush. The upmarket Fendalton has Christchurch Boys’ High School, built on land purchased from the Deans family, and Christchurch Girls’ High School, erected on a former mill site alongside the Avon River. Just upstream is Mona Vale, with its popular rose garden. Further west is the University of Canterbury’s Ilam campus with its world-renowned rhododendron gardens that flower in October/November.

Hornby has Airforce World, cinemas and the site of November’s annual Agricultural and Pastoral Show where country comes to town for three days.

North of Cathedral Square
Merivale is a fashionable suburb with cafes, designer clothing and a a growing reputation for antiques. To the northwest Jellie Park Aqualand offers waterslide and picnic facilities. Golfers have Russley Golf Course, and Garden City Golf driving range next to Pirate’s Island Adventure Golf. To the northeast, Christchurch Golf Club Inc claims to be among the best in New Zealand and borders on Horseshoe Lake Reserve. Here QE11 Park offers aquatic fun and Leisureland tempts kids with a variety of rides.

South of Cathedral Square
At Addington, the WestpacTrust Centre offers a new multisport facility and Addington Raceway hosts the prestigious New Zealand Trotting Cup. Head up through Cashmere on to the Port Hills where you can walk and mountain bike along various tracks, or hang-glide and revive at the Sign of Takahe. The Mount Cavendish Gondola gives 360 degree views of the Southern Alps, Canterbury Plains, down to the thriving port of Lyttelton and across to Diamond Harbour.

East of Cathedral Square
The suburb of Linwood is a very old part of town, but sports fans will appreciate the rugby fields and cricket grounds of Jade Stadium (formerly Lancaster Park) near Eastgate shopping mall.

Sumner District
The pick of the city’s beach suburbs, Sumner is a favourite summer swimming spot with the landmark Cave Rock and popular restaurants like Scarborough Fare. On Clifton Hill, the Gethsemane Gardens look out to the Kaikoura mountains. Further east, Taylor’s Mistake offers surfers a superb point break. Various walks begin in the area, notably to the old WW2 gun emplacements on Godley Head, while Ferrymead Historic Park provides graphic insights of life in a bygone era.

Outside the City
Canterbury is renowned for its wines. A drive around Banks Peninsula to the early French settlement of Akaroa brings you to French Farm Winery, plus a variety of cafes, accommodation, walks and harbour attractions. West of Christchurch are vineyards like Giesen Wine Estate, Morworth Estate and Sandihurst Wines. Forty minutes’ north is the Waipara district and a cluster of wineries with dining facilities including Pegasus Bay Winery and Restaurant, Waipara Springs Wines, Canterbury House Winery, and Glenmark Wines. Award winning wines proliferate in the area, so be sure to make time to enjoy them.

And in keeping with true Canterbury pioneering spirit, head towards the Southern Alps and check out the numerous skifields and all the action adventure tours of our Southern skies, rivers and harbours.

History Of Christchurch

Christchurch (Otautahi) is a paradox. Spreading outwards from the brown shoulders of the Port Hills, the sea to one side and the Southern Alps in the distance, it is a typically colonial city of wisteria-decked verandahs and wide streets. Yet its many old stone buildings, tree-filled parks and meandering streams give Christchurch the air of an English town – just as the city’s founders had intended. Indeed, the London-based Canterbury Association envisioned Christchurch as an English utopia in the South Pacific. They planned an orderly, tiered society (the first settlers had to brandish a reference from an English vicar attesting to their ‘sobriety and respectability’), with an aristocracy and the Church of England as its head and an underclass of artisans and minions to serve them. They named their fledgling city after an Oxford college (Christ Church) and laid it out like an English city, complete with a Cathedral, University and a boy’s school, Christ’s College, modelled on Eton.

This orderly existence was a far cry from the ravages of the Maori civil war in the early 19th century. Maori people (chiefly the Ngai-tahu tribe) had occupied the Canterbury area for several centuries prior to the European arrival. However, by the time European settlement began in the 1840s, around 500 Maori remained in Canterbury. Their numbers had been decimated first by the tribal wars, and then by raiding parties from the North Island, most notably the army of Te Rauparaha, who ransacked Kaiapohia Pa (village), north of present-day Christchurch, and Onawe Pa, in Akaroa Harbour, Banks Peninsula in 1832.

In Maori legend, Banks Peninsula is a pile of mountains heaped by Maui upon a marauding giant, but when Captain James Cook sighted this curiously-shaped landform from the Endeavour on February 17, 1770, he famously mistook it for an island, which he named after the ship’s botanist, Joseph Banks. Sealers and whalers frequented the deep harbours of the peninsula during the following seventy years, but it wasn’t until 1839 that the first settlers began hacking a living out of its rough hill country. A French colony was established at Akaroa in 1840 but the British, sensing the impending loss of the South Island to French interests, sent a frigate into Akaroa Harbour to hoist the Union Jack over Banks Peninsula and, by implication, the entire island. When French settlers aboard the Compte-de-Paris arrived at Akaroa on August 19, 1840, they discovered that the British had pre-empted them by seven days. The magnanimous Brits, however, granted them the right to stay in Akaroa where they flourished, creating a community which still retains its French flavour.

By 1848, preparations were underway for the arrival of the first four ships of the Canterbury Association at Lyttelton Harbour. Land in Canterbury had been purchased from local Maori, a site for Christchurch, with quarter-acre sections available at £25 each, was surveyed and a Bridal Path over the Port Hills constructed.

Though the lofty ideals of the Association, and it’s talented rather despotic, leader John Robert Godley, foresaw an Anglican promised land peopled by an English elite, they were pragmatic about the need for practical, self-reliant people in the new colony. Presbyterians had already been farming at Riccarton Bush for six years, Scottish shepherds were at work in the hills and many of the settlers arriving from Australia had cast off the class system, and in some cases, their chains!

The first of the Four Ships, the Charlotte Jane, sailed into Lyttelton Harbour on December 16, 1850, followed a few days later by the Sir George Seymour, the Randolph and the Cressy. The scattered buildings, muddy tracks and lone jetty – where Pilgrim’s Rock now stands – presented a less than romantic impression to the settlers. Furthermore, having crossed the Bridal Path and descended to Ferrymead, where a ferry crossed the Heathcote River, the first settlers found little in the way of civilization at Christchurch.

But in less than a year, Charlotte Godley was able to write of ‘tidy and weather-tight’ houses, and ‘gardens and cultivation all the way along’ Riccarton Road. Christchurch was becoming a town. Long streets intersected with the Avon River which was widened and straightened to enhance its beauty. The first Anglican church, where St Michael’s and All Angels stands today, was opened in July 1851; New Zealand’s first railway, the Christchurch-Ferrymead line, began operations in 1863.

Settlers flooded into Canterbury and the economy boomed. The Estuary and the Heathcote and Avon rivers provided navigable waterways into the city. Between 1850 and 1867, 240 vessels plied the river trade. In 1860 alone, goods worth £700,000 entered The Estuary. Fueled by produce, especially wool, from the vast farmlands of Canterbury, Christchurch grew into a prosperous commercial city. Municipal architects such as BW Mountfort and FW Petre set about designing a city built to last. Stout stone buildings – the Provincial Council Chambers, Canterbury University (now the Arts Centre), the Canterbury Museum – and churches: Christ Church Cathedral, St Luke the Evangelist, Holy Trinity Avonside – constructed of stone hewn from Hallswell Quarry, began to replace the wooden structures of the early town. Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens were formed. Along the Avon, the Antigua Boatsheds were one of several commercial enterprises catering for the city’s leisure time. The Christchurch Tramway Company began operations in 1893, providing public transport to the suburbs, including Sumner.

Throughout the twentieth century Christchurch grew and thrived, contributing men – whose sacrifice is commemorated by the Bridge of Remembrance – to every war fought during the century. Earnest Rutherford, whose laboratory remains at the Arts Centre), went on to split the atom; Kate Shepherd championed the rights of women; and Robert Falcon Scott set off on his disastrous attempt to reach the pole.

The city’s founders may have dreamed of a conservative community, but in recent decades, Christchurch has matured into a relaxed, cosmopolitan city. A stroll through Cathedral Square or along Oxford Terrace is confirmation of Christchurch’s growing sophistication and diverse population of over 300,000 people (for more information about Christchurch’s indigenous people contact the Nga Hau E Wha Marae).

One symbol of our Englishness that will endure is the Avon. Originally christened The Shakespeare but re-named after the Scottish Avon, the river flows through the city, Christchurch’s English heart.