Christchurch: The Gateway to the South Island
A January 2008 travel journal by IgoUgo member stomps
Like nearly all travelers intending to explore New Zealand's South Island, my adventures began at the Christchurch Airport. I got off the plane exhausted after 30 hours in transit, including a 5-hour layover in Auckland and a very entertaining flight next to an ingénue of an 8-year-old who spent the entire 1 1/2 hours to Christchurch solving the world's problems. For instance, no airplanes would ever catch on fire if their engines were filled with water. Who knew?
Christchurch definitely wasn't something I circled on my itinerary as being a highlight. It mainly served as a jumping-off point, a city where I could get myself ready and supplied for the wild yonder that lay ahead. For this reason, I only booked one night in Christchurch; I needed somewhere quick to crash and sleep off the worst of the jetlag.
That said, Christchurch still has a lot to offer in its own right. Even though I'd been there before, I was excited about returning to see both the best Botanic Gardens I've ever seen and the Gothic cathedral in the center of--you guessed it--Cathedral Square. There are lots of other activities for visitors that I didn't try, including taking a tram ride around the city centre, riding the gondola to get a bird's eye view of the South Island's largest city, and enjoying a relaxing afternoon in a gondola on the Avon River.
Christchurch has excellent markets in both Cathedral Square and the Arts Centre on the weekends, which is a great place to get a taste for Kiwi life; many stall owners are very willing to tell you all about their work and how it relates to Maori legend or just New Zealand in general. They're a great place to get handmade NZ jewelry or a bite of the wonderful Kiwi ice cream called hokey pokey.
The first thing that surprised me about Christchurch was the lack of easy-to-access supermarkets in the CBD. When I asked about groceries at my hostel, they told me that I would have to catch a bus to get to any reasonably-sized stores; otherwise, I was stuck with what I could find in the small and massively overpriced convenience stores on Gloucester Street. Since I had less than 24 hours in Christchurch, I decided to spend my time seeing what I could rather than stocking up on provisions; I just hoped that my next destination would have a supermarket within walking distance! However, if you do have more time (and perhaps your own form of transport) shopping in Christchurch is a very good idea. All of the major supermarkets are there, including Pak 'n' Save, where you can buy non-perishables in bulk for the more remote parts of your journey.
Before planning your trip, I would definitely check out the Christchurch Events Calendar. I got lucky enough to stumble upon the World Buskers Festival, which I have reviewed in another entry, while I was in the city and there are loads of other events & festivals throughout the year that you might enjoy as well. Only days after I left the city, Bon Jovi had a sold-out concert and every hostel in town was booked up and charging excessive rates for those that did get beds. This calendar will help you avoid those times or book well in advance so you don't end up disappointed or paying exorbitant amounts for a place to sleep!
Finally, if you can, stay in the Old Country House. I heard good things about it from nearly every person I talked to in New Zealand--even a girl that worked there for a few months. The only downside is that it is a little way out of town--about a couple kilometers walk--which is why I didn't stay there, even though it got resoundingly better reviews than the Coachman, which was conveniently located just off of Cathedral Square.
Best Way To Get Around:
I chose the closest hostel I could to Cathedral Square without staying in Base Backpackers (which I'd heard way too many bad things about on my last trip to NZ to even consider). Because of this, I could walk to everything--Victoria Square, Cathedral Square, the river, and the Botanic Gardens, mainly. However, those staying further out of town or wanting to see other attractions (like the gondola) will need to utilize the bus system.
Getting into and out of Christchurch is quite simple and there are a whole plethora of choices, depending on where you want to go. The airport has quite a few domestic flights that go to the major hubs (Auckland, Wellington) as well as many of the smaller airports around the South Island (Hokitika, Nelson). The international airport has daily flights from Australia on the major carriers along with the budget airlines Virgin Blue and Jetstar.
If you're after a scenic train ride, there are two available. One, the "TranzCoastal" will take you north along the coast, through Kaikoura and Blenheim to Picton, where the Interislander ferry docks. The other is called the "TranzScenic" and is billed as being one of the most scenic train rides in the world. It takes you across the Southern Alps and Arthurs Pass National Park to Greymouth, the largest city on the West Coast. I took both of these trains on my previous trip to NZ, and thought that both were quite nice, their price was a bit prohibitive for essentially the same product as the bus lines (although on the train, you get an open air car from which to take pictures of the Canterbury Plains and the Southern Alps).
Three major bus lines run daily from Christchurch--Intercity Coach Lines, Atomic Shuttles, and Southern Link K Bus. Their routes are all slightly different, but in the span of 8 hours or less, you can go north to Picton, Nelson, or Kaikoura, south to Dunedin, west to Greymouth and Franz/Fox Glaciers, or southwest to Lake Tekapo, Mt. Cook, Wanaka, or Queenstown. Pretty much, if you have the time, you can get there from Christchurch. Intercity and Atomic tend to be a bit more expensive than the Southern Link Bus, since nakedbus.com sells their cheap tickets (starting from ) on Southern Link. However, look early and online for Intercity fares and you'll find very affordable "Web Saver" fares.
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