When You're in Christchurch

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Steve Bly / Stone / getty images

Akaroa Harbour

At the prestigious ellerslie international Flower Show, held in March in Christchurch, New Zealand, locally born Crusaders and All Blacks scrum-half Andy Ellis did something that rugby players aren't generally known for: he picked up a gardening award. He had help from landscape-architect mate Danny Kamo, and the theme of his silver-winning entry — cricket, beer and outdoor pursuits — was all macho.

None of the people of Christchurch would be surprised to learn of Ellis' green fingers. The South Island's largest city is obsessive about greenery, famed for its meticulously manicured greenswards — many of them rose gardens in the English style — and fully deserving of its "Garden City" tagline. Edwardian punts float down the peaceful, winding river Avon, while helmeted sightseers glide past on futuristic Segway transporters. This combination of the genteel and the modern is typical of the place, which offers plenty of artistic, culinary and recreational opportunities against a panoramic backdrop of ocean, peaks and plains. "Christchurch is a beautifully green, clean, safe city," says Ellis, who appreciates that "it's 10 minutes to surf at the beach and an hour from a snowboard in the Southern Alps. I go for a coffee at the funky cafés in town or grab a beer down by the Avon." (See pictures of luxury private islands.)

Compact and friendly are Christchurch's operative words. Studios and galleries flourish in the Cultural Precinct, www.culturalprecinct.co.nz, a small but artistically rich quarter featuring the Arts Centre, the Christchurch Art Gallery, the Centre of Contemporary Art and other must-see cultural outlets. Chic boutiques are concentrated in the rejuvenated alleyways of the Poplar Lane and High Street heritage districts. In the area south of Lichfield Street (or simply SOL), lively venues like the Base dance club, www.thebase.co.nz, and Fat Eddie's jazz bar, www.fateddies.co.nz, rock their respective houses. Pub server Debbie Cartwright says "all ages hang together comfortably." Bryan Pearson, who manages local conference venues, thinks of Christchurch's navigable dimensions as a boon. "We have most of the benefits and amenities of a major city, with the essence of a village," he says.

One of Christchurch's smartest places to stay, the spectacular Otahuna Lodge, www.otahuna.co.nz, is almost a reason to visit in itself. The nation's largest private historic residence was reborn as a small luxury hotel after a multimillion dollar renovation in May 2007, and today houses a superb art collection courtesy of its new American owners, Hall Cannon and Miles Refo. After a five-course degustation menu by chef Jimmy McIntyre in the clubby Victorian-era dining room, you can warm yourself by the fire (the lodge contains 14 working fireplaces) before retiring to one of seven expansive suites fashioned by Auckland interior designer Stephen Cashmore. If resting your head at the Otahuna blows the budget, try the handsome Clearview Lodge, www.clearviewlodge.com — a French-style château with working vineyard, easily accessible from the airport — or Hotel SO, www.hotelso.co.nz. The latter offers affordable minimalism in the heart of town, on the doorstep of shopping and nightlife.

Out of town, the splendid Akaroa Harbour lies by the volcanic Banks Peninsula, a 90-minute drive away. Forgo perfect hair and don a wetsuit from Black Cat Cruises, www.blackcat.co.nz, to cavort with one of the world's smallest and rarest dolphins — the endangered, friendly Hector's. An hour north of Christchurch, the fruitful Waipara Valley is home to the Claremont Country Estate, www.claremont-estate.com. This 2,400-acre (10 sq km) property, circa 1866, is a working sheep and cattle station that offers lodge accommodation if you feel like spending the night. But if you can't tear yourself away from downtown Christchurch, you'll be forgiven. "Most countries would kill to have just one of our major attractions," says venue manager Pearson. "We've got so many and still, the city remains the center of it all."

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