Sunday, May 21, 2006

Day 11 - Christchurch

Another early start but not quite like yesterday but our aim was to reach Christchurch early enough to give us most of the day to do the main sightseeing around the city.

It's a short trip really between the two places, not more than about 2 hours (and that's at NZ speeds). The drive south of Kaikoura is spectacular, probably one of the best drives we did over in NZ. For about 20 miles the road hugs the coastline and takes you alongside rocky beaches and through tunnels hollowed out of the mountainside. It's unmissable. We stopped a few times during this stretch with a whimsical idea of spotting some more dolphins but alas this wasn't to be the case and all we saw was the Dolphin Experience tour boats jetting across the water.

We had one "official" scheduled stop along the way at Cheviot and Gore Bay. Here we drove up he hill at the southern end of the beach to a view point overlooking "The Cathedrals". The Cathedrals are a set of cliff faces which through erosion were said to resemble pipes of a cathedral organ. They do as well. It's a bit like Bryce Canyon on a very small scale. It was a pleasant enough stop but nothing spectacular so we continued on our drive to Christchurch.

Our choice of motel here in Christchurch was perfect, both in terms of location and affordability. Bella Vista is a chain of motels over in NZ, but each one is a franchise and I guess some are great and some not so great depending on the owners.

We arrived at the motel around 10am but were fortunate enough to be able to check in straight away. As usual we were given a pint of milk from reception and had a nibble of the biscuits in the room. This was perhaps one of the smallest rooms we had during our stay but we were careful not to unpack much and for two nights it was hardly a problem and still had more than enough facilities - fridge, kettle, TV, ensuite etc... Actually the bathroom was almost as big as the bedroom, that is to say the bathroom was actually huge and we could've slept in there instead.

Christchurch is often described as reminiscent of the old English towns of Oxford and Cambridge with the Avon River flowing through the city centre. Almost every guide book features the stock image of a straw-hatted boater punting his passengers up the river, floating through the beautiful Christchurch Gardens. However we knew that we had a lot to see and do in our time here as although we were staying for two nights in the city we intended to drive out on an excursion on our second day.

Town was a short 15min walk away and with a map in our hands we decided to head straight out. Actually we didn't really need a map as we'd been told by the motel owner that we should just look out for the catherdral spire and head towards that. With that good advice we ended up in the main square of Christchurch, funnily enough named Cathedral Square.

Cathedral Square is a hive of activity. It reminded us of the style of square you get in a European city, particularly as the glorious weather had tempted the locals to find a nice spot in the square for a long, lazy chat.

The cathedral itself was just as beautiful inside as it was outside. Entry is free here but donations are recommended.

It was lunch time before we knew it, and we hadn't even made it out of the square before finding a fantastic little bagel cafe in a shady corner. The Yellow Rocket Cafe is a favourite of locals and tourists alike and even though there isn't much seating here the array of bagels (both savoury and sweet), on offer is awesome (hey I haven't said that in a while!).

Despite queuing for 15mins before being served we were lucky enough to get a table in the shade outside overlooking the square, which enabled us to watch the city's famous trams come and go whist enjoying our lunch.

The Christchurch Tramway is probably the best and most enjoyable way to see the city and straight after lunch we hopped aboard.

The trams follow a 2.5 kilometre loop around central Christchurch taking in the main sites. These include Cathedral Square where we caught it from, The Arts Centre, Botanic Gardens, Canterbury Museum, Punting on the Avon, Victoria Square, and New Regent Street to name just a few. The tram is a delightful way to get your bearings with insightful and light hearted commentary (supplied live by the over-heated drivers), and as we had an unlimited pass we did the entire circuit before deciding which stops we wanted to get off at. An Unlimited Pass means you can get on and off as many times as you like within the day. To get yet another discount we combined this with a gondola pass, which is also run by the same company. More on that later.

The first stop we alighted from the tram put us on the doorstep of the Christchurch Art Gallery. This is a free attraction and we can highly recommend it (hey it's free!).

We checked in our bags, picked up the guide and started our wander. We don't know much about art but there were some magnificent pieces on display as well as some unusual modern art pieces and installations. You could have easily spent an afternoon wandering around the building (the building itself is a work of art), but we had to push on after just over an hour.

Christchurch is a city that encourages its art and just over the road from the Art Gallery is an arts institute. Subsidised by the local university this is a large building sub-divided into little craft shops selling woollen products, wood crafted gifts, pottery and the usual tourist guff. It's more entertaining than seeing yet another Starbucks!

Back outside we were on the food trail again and we discovered a whole new way of making ice-cream. Whilst waiting for the next tram we found an ice-cream vendor who basically makes the ice-cream live before your very eyes. The concept is simple; he has a selection of fresh fruits (we picked boysenberry), and some home-made vanilla ice-cream, he takes a scoop of each, whacks it in the top of a machine, pulls a handle and hey presto it all gets mashed up together into a lovely cone. Now I know what you are thinking... what the heck is a Boysenberry? We were thinking the same too and yet with no knowledge of the afformentioned fruit we managed to enjoy it immensely. If you are curious as to what a boysenberry is you can check it out here.

We were only on the tram about 5 mins before we disembarked again at Christchurch Botanic Gardens. We spent a very pleasant hour walking around the immaculately kept gardens with flowers, herbaceous borders and shrubbery. We watched as couples punted down the Avon and slowly strolled along to the water garden through the scented gardens before eventually finding the exit. It was a lovely park and we were surprised how quiet it was really.

The next stop on the tram was New Regent Street. This is a pedestrianised area which was built in the Spanish Mission style in 1932. The trams are the only traffic on this street and it is full of small old-fashioned and quaint shops selling nick-nacks or delightful coffee shops with chairs and tables outside. The area proved an interesting distraction for half an hour and we bought a silver charm and thimble. Again there was no Starbucks in sight.

By this stage it was late afternoon and the shops were winding down and the restaurants and bars gearing up for the night ahead.

Heading back to the hotel we were suddenly struck by strong gusts of wind which came from nowhere (yes it was that unpredictable, instantly changable NZ weather kicking in again). From bright sunshine and blue skies the weather changed dramatically and it looked as though a storm was a brewing.

Now at this point sensible people would not head off for a gondola ride up the side of a mountain in a howling gale. However we are not sensible people and, more importantly this was our only opportunity to visit Christchurch's Gondola. The ride takes visitors up to the summit of an extinct volcano so we had no intention of missing out.

It was about a 15 min drive from the centre of Christchurch to the gondola station and by the time we got there it was already late afternoon and in a hour or so the sun would be setting - ideal for photographic opportunities.

Now, if you've been reading this blog from the beginning you'll know that I am not of fan of these gondola devices so you can imagine my worry standing at the bottom, watching the little carriages being battered around the the high winds.

The first third of the ride up the volcano in the gondola was pleasant enough and any reservations were distracted by taking photographs of the cable car, scenery and the obligatory couple shots. But as the gondola got higher we started to realise that the wind had become much stronger and the car started to sway to-and-fro whilst the wind whistled through the cracks in the seals of the windows and doors. This was a horrific experience for both of us and the worst bit was yet to come.

As we came out of the protection of the valley and onto the last third of the journey we were hit by gusts of wind so strong that our little gondola was being buffeted around like a leaf in a tornado. How the gondola held onto the cable we'll never know but the relief we felt as we crossed the threshold into the upper gondola station was immense... but this was soon shattered again by thoughts of having to go back down in the bloody thing.

We decided to try not to think about the situation that we were in. We thought they might have to shut the gondola down because of the weather but to our amazement although practically deserted at this time of night at the summit, those staff working did not seem the least bit concerned.

As the locals were so non-plussed about the whole affair we decided to take a walk along the summit path. Being such awful weather we thought we'd better play by the rules and stick to the paths so we followed the sign out the gondola building which pointed to the summit path and it lead us straight back into the building via another door. Confused we retraced our steps to see where we had gone wrong - but nothing. We eventually asked one of the guys operating the gondola who look disinterested and told us to jump over the safety rope guiding the path and walk where we liked but not to go too near the edge. In these windy conditions we had no intention of that.

The views from up here were magnificent, a full 360 degree vista of Christchurch, the Canterbury Plains and Lyttelton Harbour could be taken in. The weather was not initially ideal for great photographs but as the sun set the clouds began to form into interesting shapes and patterns. It was spectacular, particularly over the area known as the Banks Peninsula where we would be heading out to the next day.

As the light continued to drop we took shelter out of the wind in the closed cafeteria with a few other hardy travellers determined to stick it out to the end. As it happened fear overcame Kate and she was determined to leave before it got too dark. I on the other hand was convinced that as it dropped darker the wind would drop also, and with Kate firmly stuck in the cafe I took the opportunity for a few more shots.

Eventually we could delay it no longer. It was almost dark now, the wind hadn't dropped and the journey back down seemed even more horrendous but we placated ourselves in the thoughts of what wonderful meal could be waiting for us at the bottom.

We've been to the USA a number of times now (yes I know it's the wrong country but stick with me on this), and each time over there we track down our favourite diner - Denny's. Imagine our joy when we discovered one in Christchurch! We just had to go.

Denny's is a traditional American-style diner serving traditional American-style food in American-style quantities. It's fantastic at a value price, and the Denny's of NZ is no different.

For the meagre sum of around £12 we got 2 burgers, a chilli fries to share, coffee (bottomless!), and a pudding each. Very inexpensive and delicious. Plus the only place open this late as New Zealand likes it's early closing hours.

As we walked out to our car it was apparent that something had changed since we'd gone into Denny's. Yes, just as suddenly as it had arrived the wind had disappeared.


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