Return to Christchurch: after the earthquake

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On 22 February 2011, the New Zealand city of Christchurch was ripped apart, almost literally, during a 6.3 magnitude 'vertical' earthquake. It followed a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in September, but this one was worse.

Many people heading to New Zealand now wonder what they will find in the South Island's largest city and beyond. Here's a little of what you can expect; note that much of the damage is in the centre of Christchurch.

In the city, hundreds of buildings now lie in ruin. Empty, already-cleared blocks sit next to buildings that are being held up by elaborate displays of steel reinforcement. Buildings that still feature in the 'Welcome to Christchurch' brochures at the airport are now awaiting reconstruction or demolition. A huge Arts Centre chimney sits on the ground beside the cracked and now closed building, rather than on top.

Some major streets in the city centre have been cordoned off and heading through town by car or even walking takes some navigating. Locals are slowly returning to see what happened to their city and months on, people are wandering around, taking photos. It's hard not to gawk in awe at the destruction; it's incredible.

Outside the city, many homes, some split in half, will never be lived in again. There are still 'portaloos' dotting nature strips on suburban streets and nearly all of the cars on the road are utility vans. There's so much to fix.

Christchurch International Airport, some of which is brand spanking new, abuts the International Antarctic Centre, which is open and operating as usual. Its resident blue penguinsĀ  (all of which have 'special needs' and couldn't survive in the wild) are still fed twice a day; its Hagglund all-terrain vehicles are still bumping and terrifying visitors as they whip around the perimeter, and you can still rug up and experience an Antarctic storm.

Heaps of hotels and hostels are still operating (see here for an up-to-date list). Award-winning Jailhouse Accommodation (a former jail) is open and often full - backpackers are still living it up in the common area thanks to New Zealand's generous duty free alcohol allowances.

Head out of Christchurch and there are only a few reminders of the earthquake damage; expect to see cracked brick fences and bumpy roads that were jolted out of their usual position when the earth pushed up. Some older buildings have cracks in them.

As you head north, the Waipara Wine Valley's wineries are open, and serving up local produce and offering tastings. You can still follow the North Canterbury Food & Wine Trail. People are still bungee jumping off the narrow bridge to Hanmer Springs and jet boating in the icy waters under it. Relaxing in Hanmer Springs' public hot springs, you feel like you're a world away from the earthquake-affected area 90 minutes away.

There are still aftershocks in the Christchurch area, check www.geonet.org.nz for an idea of how frequent they are, and expect a little rumble now and then. (Tourism New Zealand has a list of advice for travellers in the city.)

Tourism in the area has been dealt a blow, but Christchurch still has every right to call itself the gateway to the South Island.

Jayne D'Arcy is a Lonely Planet author.