'I thought Christchurch was a terrible place," admits Caroline Nelson. "I couldn't wait to get out."
It's a sentiment echoed by many Kiwis who grew up in the city before the catastrophic earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Sure, the city was genteel and quaint, but it could also be conservative and stuffy.
The earthquakes irrevocably changed not only the city's geography but also its mindset - creativity and innovation are no longer optional.
Nelson works with Rekindle, a shop in New Regent Street that sells furniture and jewellery made from reclaimed timber. It's the brainchild of Juliet Arnott, who wanted to create a social enterprise that turns waste into usable objects, creating employment along the way.
When Arnott returned to Christchurch in May 2012, she was appalled to see houses being hurriedly demolished and native New Zealand wood being dumped. She negotiated a grace window with demolition crews so she could salvage the timber and began transforming it into one-off pieces of furniture and jewellery.
The Heritage Hotel
Last year, Arnott embarked on an even more ambitious project - to highlight the reuse potential of a modest family home. She found a condemned house in the Christchurch suburb of New Brighton, paid off the demolition crew and with a salvage team and 33 volunteers dismantled it, cataloguing everything from window frames to fridge magnets.
Brewery at The Tannery. Photo: Rob Mcfarland
She then invited the creative community to submit design ideas for transforming these everyday objects into artworks. The project is called Whole House Reuse and will culminate with an exhibition and auction in Christchurch in October.
Similarly enterprising efforts are happening in the suburbs. Twenty years ago, Alasdair Cassels bought the remains of an old tannery in Woolston, a 10-minute drive from the city centre. His dream was to turn it into a shopping complex but the council rejected his application.
Then the quakes hit and overnight the city lost most of its retail business. The council reconsidered and in October 2013 Cassels opened The Tannery, an elegant Victorian-style shopping precinct inspired by the Strand Arcade in Sydney. It's now home to more than 30 boutiques, a craft brewery, a restaurant and will soon be joined by an art-house cinema.
Sewing machine water dispenser at C1 Espresso. Photo: Rob Mcfarland
"This simply wouldn't have happened without the quakes," says Cassels.
Sam Crofskey, owner of cafe C1 Espresso, is candid when I ask about Christchurch before the quakes. "It was a bit shit," he says. "The lack of creative opportunities meant young people would often leave to work overseas."
C1 Espresso was a beloved fixture in High Street until the building collapsed during the 2011 quake and Crofskey had two hours to salvage whatever he could fit into a rubbish bin. He considered relocating to Sydney but instead decided to stay. "The city was broken and we had to fix it."
The Hummingbird Cafe at re:Start. Photo: Neil McBeth/Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism
The cafe reopened in September 2012 in the old post office, an imposing heritage building across the road with a cavernous interior that can seat 350 people. It was a bold move given that at that time, the CBD was still a ghost town. But it paid off. The cafe became a much-needed meeting place. He was soon serving 1000 customers each day.
I follow Crofskey up a steep spiral staircase to the building's rooftop where he shows me the vines he hopes will produce 55 bottles of pinot noir this year. He's planning to turn the upstairs floors into a six-room boutique hotel. "The shackles are gone," he says. "Now anything can happen here and it is."
Walking through Christchurch's abandoned city centre on a Saturday night, it's hard to believe that the earthquakes hit more than three years ago.
Heritage trams. Photo: Rob Mcfarland
Although the CBD is still a confronting mess of rubble, fences and cranes, there is a palpable feeling that a corner has been turned. For the first time, more buildings are going up than are being torn down and desolate blocks are being "greened" with lawns, murals and sculptures.
The quakes claimed 50 per cent of the city's historic buildings but one that survived is the stunning Italianate Palazzo-style Old Government Building on Cathedral Square. For 2½ years it remained cordoned off within the Red Zone, a no-go area in the heart of the city, until access was granted in March last year. Five months later it re-opened as a 42-suite hotel - one more important step on the city's road to recovery.
Despite the tragedy, inconvenience and financial hardship, many business owners remain relentlessly optimistic about Christchurch's future. Time and time again I was told the same thing: "In a few years we'll have a fantastic city."
The writer travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand, Heritage Hotels and Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO
HERITAGE TRAM RIDE The city's famous tram service resumed in November 2013. Using beautifully restored vintage wooden trams, it makes seven stops between New Regent Street and Canterbury Museum. Stage 2 is due to open later this year and will extend to the Re:START container shopping mall. See tram.co.nz.
AURICLE SONIC ARTS GALLERY Located above Rekindle in New Regent Street, the Auricle Sonic Arts Gallery is an art gallery for the ears. In addition to sonic exhibitions and performances, it also holds wine and sound pairing events. See auricle.org.nz
VICTORIA STREET NIGHTLIFE A 10-minute drive north from the city centre, Victoria Street has emerged as a popular nightlife and restaurant hub. Tequila Mockingbird is one of its gems. See tequilamockingbird.co.nz.
STREET ART Stroll around the city and see the street art that is brightening abandoned buildings. Download the free Oi You! app from iTunes for a street art map and information about the artists. See streetart.co.nz.
OPEN-TOP BUS TOUR Get your bearings on Hassle Free's one-hour Discover Christchurch tour on a double-decker bus. See hasslefreetours.co.nz.
SEE + DO Rekindle, 35 New Regent Street, open Wed-Sun, 11am-4pm, rekindle.org.nz.
C1 Espresso, corner of High and Tuam streets, open 7 days, 7am-10pm, c1espresso.co.nz.
STAYING THERE The Heritage Hotel, 28-30 Cathedral Square, 1800 141 780, heritagehotels.co.nz, suites from $199.
MORE INFORMATION christchurchnz.com.
- FFX Aus