Christmas in Christchurch

As the faithful approached the altar for Christmas Eve communion, the floors vibrated and the chandeliers swayed. The crowd began singing Silent Night when the lady next to Nick showed him her Ipad screen – a 4.0 earthquake! The verse, “Angels quake at the sight,” will now represent something very different to me! No one else seemed particularly concerned, just another tremor in Christchurch.

Christchurch has recently experienced two major earthquakes – one in September 2010 and another in February of 2011. Both caused major damage but, though less in magnitude, the 2011 earthquake resulted in much more destruction and 185 deaths. Driving around, you see crumbled buildings everywhere. The whole city seems to be one big construction site. That said, there is much beauty to be found among the devastation — pop-up parklets, murals, touching memorials, even the colorful shipping containers that shore up walls or are stacked to create a shopping mall! You find yourself in awe of the people that live in Christchurch and their tenacity to rebuild and move on. It was a very special place to spend Christmas and to count one’s blessings.

Frank and I arrived in Christchurch, our first city on New Zealand’s South Island, on Christmas Eve eve. Nick and Maddie were to fly in the next day from LA. Trying to preserve some semblance of holiday normalcy, our plans were to cook a couple nice meals at “home.” After dropping our bags, we made our way to the grocery store. It was pretty much what you’d expect on the day before a holiday — countless shoppers, picked over stock – What? No cloves?! Cornstarch is corn flour?! You end up making due and it all works out fine.

On Christmas Eve morning, we picked up our order from the local butcher. The place we rented had no decorations so Frank and I stopped at a dollar store for some holiday cheer — garland, ornaments, poppers. I whipped up a batch of Christmas cookies. NOW we were ready for visitors! We were so happy Nick and Maddie could come spend the holidays with us. It’s sad Andy couldn’t get away but he had fun visiting Jenny in Montana. It was a very different Christmas for all of us. After an early dinner and the very eventful Christmas Eve mass, the four of us went to Latimer Square for Caroling in the Park. Although it was (relatively) cool, the park radiated with holiday warmth–families gathered on picnic blankets, kids running around, hand-held candles and, of course, a band with singers — young and old.

Christmas morning the four of us rose early to help set up a luncheon at the Christchurch Mission. The large crew of friendly and happy volunteers quickly transformed an empty tent into a festive venue for over 600 guests! Feeling so fortunate to be here in New Zealand, it was nice to play a small part in helping to make someone else’s holiday a little happier. And being the holiday, we had the city streets to ourselves for exploring. Nick and Maddie took several long runs, getting acclimated to looking right versus left for oncoming traffBoxing Day, the day after Christmas, is also a major holiday in New Zealand. In addition to being a big shopping day, Christchurch was hosting a large cricket tournament. We decided to get out of town, heading to the scenic Banks Peninsula and the charming French town of Akaroa (pics below.) The next day, we explored Christchurch. Mike and Marianne Daley (friends of a friend of ours from back home) had us all over for morning tea at their lovely home in the hills of Christchurch. Marianne was originally from the States and had worked at Gesu (our church in Milwaukee). It was fun hearing about her life as a Kiwi and her experiences during the earthquakes. Mike, a native, gave us great tips for our journey around the South Island. He also gave us a suggestion for a nice restaurant in the Botanical Gardens, the final stop on the day’s tour and on our fascinating stay in Christchurch.


Napier and Hawke’s Bay

Today, we headed southeast to visit Napier and the Hawke’s Bay area. The zig zagging road between Taupo and our destination was stunning — evergreen laced mountains, rivers and waterfalls, steep grassy hills dotted with sheep and finally, pretty Napier, sitting on its perch along the Pacific Ocean coast.

In 1931, a massive earthquake – 7.9 on the Richter scale – rocked the Napier area for more than three minutes. Nearly 260 people died and most of the buildings were demolished. On the positive side, the land rose nearly six feet, draining swampland and increasing the city’s buildable land. And rebuild they did! While the rest of the world suffered through the Great Depression, Napier was quickly rebuilt. New buildings reflected the architectural styles of the times and the city is now known as the world’s most pure art deco city.

After a self-guided walking tour of the city, we visited the Classic Sheepskins factory. They walked us through the tanning and manufacturing processes of creating their super-soft sheepskin rugs. (Ohhhh, how I wish I had unlimited space in my suitcase!!!)

If you’re a wine drinker, no doubt you’re familiar with Hawke’s Bay. Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s oldest wine region, famous for some chardonnays but mostly for its reds. Frank and I visited two vineyards. The first, Moana Park, is a highly-awarded boutique winery whose focus is on low allergen, natural winemaking. We asked for a tour and were directed outside to a picnic table, where the two of us sat with our host drinking wine in the warm sunshine. He was passionate and down-to-earth, explaining each selection, along with the vineyard’s wine-making philosophy, in a simple, understandable manner. It was so relaxing and truly enjoyable! Our next stop was New Zealand’s oldest winery, Mission Estate. Established by monks in 1851, it is the birthplace of wine in New Zealand. Nowhere near as warm and welcoming as Moana Park, it was worth visiting in that the building and grounds were gorgeous. We ended our little day trip with wine and a late lunch on the grassy terrace overlooking the vineyard.