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Christchurch is the most English of New Zealand's cities, named after an Oxford college. The atmosphere is reminiscent of an English university town, with school boys in striped blazers and punting on the River Avon, a grand Anglican cathedral dominating the central square, little stone-walled bridges, elegant Victorian architecture, and numerous parks and exquisite gardens.
Dubbed the 'Garden City', it is the lively capital of the Canterbury region, priding itself on its green areas, arts, and history, as well as its sports. The surrounds offer beach suburbs, protected bays and dolphin swimming, green valleys and snow-capped mountain ranges for skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and climbing. The city itself has a relaxed and cosmopolitan centre with historic trams rattling along the streets of the bustling downtown area, a lively pub and restaurant scene, theatres, street buskers, museums, and art galleries.
Christchurch was devastated by a major earthquake in February 2011, and some of the damage is still evident, but the city has rapidly risen from the rubble and now frequently graces lists of the top cities to visit in the world. The nightlife and restaurant scene has bounced back impressively, with close to 1,000 cafes, bars, and restaurants currently operating in the city. Some tourist attractions and hospitality businesses have not reopened after the earthquake, but others have sprung up to replace them.
Christchurch is the gateway to the South Island and offers the visitor an appealing mixture of historic charm and vibrant city life, a pleasing balance between urban pursuits and outdoor activities. With the least rainfall of any of New Zealand's cities and plenty of sunshine, it is a perfect base for a diverse range of activities, including a Canterbury skiing experience.
Christchurch's heritage trams, dating back to 1954, have been beautifully restored, offering visitors a unique experience that takes visitors on a two-mile (3km) loop of many of the city's best attractions. The drivers offer insight on the history, architecture, activities, and points of interest. Visitors can hop on and off at any of the stops to explore at their leisure. The most interesting sights include the Aquarium of Discovery, punting on the Avon River, the exquisite Botanic Gardens on the banks of the river, New Regent Street with its pretty Spanish mission-style architecture, the magnificent Gothic buildings of the Arts Centre, and Canterbury Museum, with an excellent Antarctic exhibition.
The spectacular ride takes visitors to the top of the crater rim of Christchurch's extinct volcano on the outskirts of the city, unfolding magnificent views over the Canterbury Plains and towards the Southern Alps, and the sweep of Pegasus Bay and Lyttelton Harbour, as it rises to 1,460 feet (445m) above sea level. At the summit the Gondola Complex features the Time Tunnel Heritage Show with a walk-through exhibition and video relaying the history and geological evolution of the Canterbury region as well as Maori mythology. From the summit it is possible to walk back down through the Port Hills to Sumner Beach.
Mount Cook National Park is known for its exquisite alpine beauty and is home to the highest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook. Its Maori name, 'Aoraki' means 'cloud piercer' and at 12,218 feet (3,724m) it towers above the surrounding snow-covered peaks in the park. A third of the park is covered in permanent ice and snow and the mighty Tasman Glacier is the longest glacier outside of the polar regions. Glacial melt gives the lakes their beautiful milky, turquoise colour and there are many walks in the area to take in the dramatic beauty. Mount Cook has always been the focus of climbing and mountaineering, most notably the expeditions of Sir Edmund Hillary, who went on to be the first man to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain, Mount Everest.
Canterbury is one of the most popular ski areas in New Zealand. It's located not too far from Christchurch. Mount Hutt is the most developed ski resorts in Canterbury. The resort caters for skiers of all levels, with good intermediate and advanced runs, and a 'magic carpet' lift for beginners. There are also some excellent off-piste areas, including a run through the Towers rock formations at the top of the mountain. One of the main disadvantages of Mount Hutt is its location on a very windy section of mountains in New Zealand. The ski area is forced to shut down roughly 14 days per season due to dangerous winds. The drive to Mount Hutt is also rough, so most drivers unaccustomed to mountain and snow driving take the shuttles from Methven. The ski season in Canterbury lasts from June to October. There is no accommodation on the mountain, and most skiers stay in the small town of Methven, which has a few bars, cafes and restaurants. The larger towns of Hanmer Springs, Ashburton and Christchurch are all about an hour's drive from the mountain.
Situated on a peninsula just 45 miles (75km) south of Christchurch, Akaroa is a historic colonial settlement nestled in the heart of an ancient volcano. It is Canterbury's oldest village and its French character is evident in the street names, quaint historical architecture, and French inspired cuisine. The pretty town and its lovely bays and harbour offer an enormous range of activities for tourists. With its beautiful colonial architecture, cafes, and restaurants, Akaroa is an easy place to spend a relaxing day, and for the more active the surrounding area offers fantastic walking trails, sea kayaking and sailing.
Christchurch has a fairly dry, temperate climate, with warm to hot summers and mild winters. Summer temperatures range from mild to hot, often moderated by sea breezes blowing in from the northeast. Northwesterly winds, however, are not so kind; hot air blows in with increasing strength and has been known to reach storm force, wreaking havoc on occasion. Winters bring cold days, with temperatures often dropping below freezing level at night, with frost. Snow is a rarity in the city, but falls occasionally in the suburban hills. In summer, between December and February, temperatures average between 51°F (11°C) and 72°F (22°C); and in winter, between June and August, temperatures average between 35°F (2°C) and 54°F (12°C). Rainfall can be expected any time of year, but is more likely in winter.
Christchurch has an efficient public transport system and is an easy city to navigate. The bus service is reliable and extensive. The most popular is the Orbiter, which circles the outer city in both directions seven days a week.
Two of the best transport options for sightseeing are the city's tram, which runs from Cathedral Square, and the City Circuit Bus, which connects major attractions in the city. Taxis are readily available and there are also several car rental agencies.
Christchurch is fairly flat, so bicycles are another popular mode of transport and many streets have dedicated bike lanes. While public transport is a great way to get around, visitors may find some buses too infrequent for convenient travel and want to hire a car.
Christchurch is ideally situated for outdoorsy holidays, with countless beautiful scenic areas on the city's doorstep. The best adventure activities on a Christchurch holiday include kayaking, deep sea fishing, whitewater rafting, hiking, mountain biking, quad biking, 4x4 trails, skydiving, paragliding, hot air ballooning, and much more.
Mount Cook National Park, Akaroa, Lake Pukaki, and the Banks Peninsula are all popular areas to explore. Those wanting to meet the local wildlife and some exotic beasts from further afield should visit the Orana Wildlife Park or the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.
There are also some worthwhile cultural attractions in and around Christchurch: the Canterbury Museum gives good background on the history of the city and the region, while the Ko Täne Living Maori Village in Willowbank Wildlife Reserve offers an exciting insight into the traditions of the indigenous Maori people.
Art fanatics will be impressed by Timaru's Aigantighe Art Gallery, and the Little River Gallery at the gateway to the Banks Peninsula. The Court Theatre entertains visitors with a fabulous schedule of shows; and because sport is integral to Christchurch culture, watching a rugby game at the famous Christchurch Stadium is a must.
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