Eight Days Without a Quake! is not exactly a tourism slogan, but it was inspiring enough news to merit a Page 2 headline in The Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, on Aug. 29. That was the longest the city had gone without a "felt" aftershock since a 7.1 earthquake rocked the region in September 2010.
The previous tremor-free record over the past two years had been all of three days.
I was in Christchurch with my family as part of a 15-day, New Zealand working holiday when I saw the "Eight Days" headline. To be honest, I'm not sure we would have scheduled time in the city, New Zealand's second largest, had it not been for that quake and the even more destructive and deadly aftershock that ripped through the city's central business district in February 2011.
It's not that I have a morbid streak, but I had been following Christchurch's recovery, and I had taken note that there were some tourism-related recovery projects under way, as well as organized tours of the "Red Zone," a four-square-kilometer portion of the business district in which 52,000 people had once worked but which was now mostly unsafe and uninhabited. About 70% of the buildings have collapsed or are being brought down in what has become the largest demolition project ever in the Western world.
The best publicized recovery effort is Project Re:Start, a "pop-up" plaza of 27 boutiques, cafes, banks and even a department store built out of recycled shipping containers. The containers, each as large as a small shop, have been colorfully painted, creatively stacked or joined, and fitted with windows and doors to create a cheerful mosaic on the fringe of an often heartbreaking area of demolition.
We took two Red Zone tours. The first was on a public bus and went down some streets that are currently off-limits to the public, including Cathedral Square. Shortly after boarding the bus, we were given a safety briefing: Shipping containers were placed at intervals throughout the Red Zone to provide quick shelter should a quake hit during the tour, we were told.
On my seat was a one-page, laminated manifesto explaining the purposes of the tour, among them to "enable visitors to ...reflect and move on from the devastation and see the shape and style of the new city beginning to appear."
Our guide's narrative was in turns nostalgic, informative and emotional, and she frequently expressed surprise at how quickly the landscape within the zone continues to evolve: Iconic structures had diminished significantly or had even disappeared completely since the last time she had gone through, just days before.
We passed a pew with a frame of flowers around it on an otherwise empty lot; that and a fence with the word "FAITH" painted on it were all that remained of St. Paul's Church, our guide told us. A clock on a damaged tower was stopped at 12:51, the moment when the February quake hit. Our guide pointed out the site of the Canterbury Television Station building, where 115 of the 185 people who perished in the quake had worked; it had "pancaked, then caught fire." We passed another partially ruined building that she said would take another 29 weeks to dismantle, due to the presence of asbestos.
Though it was an overwhelmingly sober tour, the guide also described a 10-year plan that completely reimagines the city. For the time being, however, there was scant evidence of the manifesto's promised "new city beginning to appear," aside from the pop-up containers and a few creative one-offs, such as a bookstore operating out of what had once been a commercial refrigerator.
Our second Red Zone tour was on water, seated in a poled punt floating on the shallow, narrow Avon River. The company that runs that tour also offers a more traditional punting trip through peaceful Hagley Park and its botanical gardens, in the opposite direction from the Red Zone.
The one we took offered the disorienting juxtaposition of a relaxing journey through a battered landscape. From the perspective of a punt moving through a channel cut below ground level, the cranes loomed particularly large. The highest -- in fact, the tallest working in the Southern Hemisphere -- is nicknamed "Twinkletoes." In certain alignments seen from the punt, the cranes created jagged patterns that suggested fracture lines in damaged glass.
There were success stories brought to our attention during the tours, as well. A wooden building, better than 100 years old, stood waiting in isolation on a block, weakened but salvageable, its owner having found a taker after offering to give it to anyone willing to move and restore it. A Thai restaurant that jumped off its pilings was being repositioned atop a new foundation. We watched as signage on an Ibis Hotel, closed for two years, was put in place by three men riding a crane platform, in preparation for an imminent reopening.
Our hotel, the George, was a minor miracle in itself. A modern luxury boutique across the street from Hagley Park, the George is on the edge of the Red Zone but sustained no structural damage. It closed voluntarily to reinforce its walls and replace a cracked parquet floor, but otherwise it appears to be in fine shape.
Importantly, the George not only seems to provide a sense of continuity and security for visitors, but its stylish and contemporary vibe is clearly a draw to locals, as well. Its bar and restaurant were bustling from early evening into the night, giving physical expression to the sense of optimism we heard from some residents.
Away from the Red Zone, life seemed largely unchanged, at least on the surface. A highlight for us was a visit to the International Antarctic Center, housed next to the airport and adjacent to a terminal where flights take American, New Zealand, Italian and Canadian researchers to their respective national territories in Antarctica.
A series of highly interactive exhibits included an obstacle course ride in a Haglund, the Swedish-made vehicle used to cross Antarctic snow-and-ice shelves, a chamber simulating Antarctic conditions (you could go down an ice slide as the wind picked up and temperatures dropped from 17 to zero degrees Fahrenheit) and a fun "4-D" movie. The museum truly seemed a continent removed from the Red Zone.
When I had first read the manifesto lying on my seat before the morning bus tour, it struck me as a reasonable justification for crafting an interpretive visitor tour out of a tragedy. But as our reporter Michelle Baran suggested in a Travel Weekly cover story earlier this year, "dark tourism" such as this, even when done thoughtfully and with sensitivity, always walks the thin lines separating education, voyeurism and questionable taste.
Any squeamishness we might have felt about touring the site of a recent tragedy was to dissipate later that evening. On the drive back from the Antarctic Center to the George, we passed an unusual pop-up. Someone had fashioned a white-walled enclosure around an empty lot, cut windows and a door into it and named it "Smash Palace." I recognized the name from a terrific New Zealand film from the 1980s, but it also seemed to be making a wry commentary on Christchurch itself.
It appeared to be a restaurant or bar, and my wife and I decided to return later that evening to investigate.
When all was said and done, Smash Palace not only gave us a fine night out, but some welcome perspective. It was a pub of sorts, offering a good selection of local beers and a creative menu of burgers, all served from what had once been a school bus centered in a mostly bare interior. Although colorful lights were strung up overhead, there was no ceiling; a few gas heaters worked to keep the South Island winter chill at bay.
As we sat on stools in front of a window, a man who identified himself as the owner came over to chat. A New Zealander of Irish descent, he had previously owned a club in the Red Zone but lost it in the quake. He said the city fathers had not made it particularly easy for him to open Smash Palace, but he good-naturedly attributed that to possible hard feelings left over from positions he had taken when he had been a council member. (As the conversation progressed, it became clear he was a man of strong opinions.)
Our seats were beyond the range of the space heaters, and as we were chatting, the bartender walked up and handed my wife an old-fashioned rubber hot water bottle to put on her lap. It was a creative and charming gesture that delighted (and comforted) my wife more than central heating could ever have done.
The beer was good, the food OK, but Smash Palace really had some magic going on. And its mojo was a direct result of the challenging circumstances: It's unlikely such a place would have come into existence without the devastation that preceded it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it represented a type of lightness that would not exist outside dark circumstances.
In the end, it is places like Smash Palace that offer the best experiences within dark tourism. A visit to a locale in recovery is not exactly an escapist vacation, but it can nonetheless restore one's spirit, offering epiphanies about the wonderfully complex and resilient nature of human beings.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter.