IT’S LIKE VISITING A SUNNY ENGLAND; CHRISTCHURCH, NZ, SHINES

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – Punters, pole-taxing themselves, move their narrow wooden boats through the the city with grunts and shoves as part of the scene of a small, charming city that might have been shipped in from England in 1850 as a gift from the British Empire’s Big Mama, Queen Victoria.

You could be in Oxford or Cambridge, except that the summer sun in Christchurch is serious and the population of the entire country, 3 million or so, wouldn’t come close to filling London.

“There aren’t many of us – but quite enough,” says Margrit Scott, a guide at the neo-Gothic cathedral. Enough to bravely stand up to the United States and bar a proposed visit of American nuclear submarines a few years ago. Like most kiwis, she likes to chide another much larger country, the immediate down–under neighbor, by pointing out that, unlike Australia, her country wasn’t settled by criminals as an English prison colony. “It’s a friendly rivalry. The Aussies needle us, too.”

“Oh, New Zealanders? Well, they’re . . . uh, people . . . I guess,” says Sarah James, an Australian waitress at a splendid restaurant called Bon Bolli.

Christchurch on the South Island was named for Christ Church College at Oxford, an earlier punting town. The River Avon, shaded by weeping willows, gurgles calmly, wandering aimlessly in downtown parkland and beneath handsome ironwork bridges that will give headaches to punters who aren’t careful to duck.

“You see it, and it can be comical,” says Tracey Thomson, a traffic warden (that’s meter maid). “A bloke in a punt is standing up, poling along, chatting up his lady love. He has eyes only for her, and – clang! He gets bridged. Sometimes knocked out of the boat.”

A New Zealand bridgehead?

Perhaps a safer means of transportation is the TranzAlpine Express, a train from Christchurch that crosses the island spectacularly, wending through the Southern Alps to Greymouth on the west coast. Unless you fall out of the open-sided photographic car, transfixed by the scenery – the sheep-strewn Canterbury Plain, then billowing hills leading to snow-spattered peaks, cloud-heaped valleys, turquoise mountain lakes and streams, plentiful wildflowers like the stunning lupine, both purple and pink. Not likely, according to a conductor. He recalled no fallouts, only an occasional camera dropped by a butterfingered tourist. And maybe picked up by a farmer near the small station where a sign suggests: “Believe in the hereafter. We’ll be here after you’ve gone.”

Now, walking along Christchurch’s Avon and passing Canterbury University, we come to the magnificent Botanic Garden. Garden-maintaining lovers of horticulture, like friend Aurelio and Terri Aufranc, are ecstatic. The lukewarm rest of us must admit being impressed. What overpowering trees. Dog heaven. Tall purple beeches spread intriguing networks of branches. Cedars of Lebanon thrust upward nobly as do sequoias, African cork oaks with sculpted bark and a circle of maritime pines. A comperdown elm droops and sequesters, seeming a green haystack. Lemon and lime leaves distinguish a balloony Louis van Houtts elm.

A lily-clogged pond with stone bridge is a Southern Hemisphere version of painter Claude Monet’s “Giverny.” Showing off brilliantly in their beds are a dazzlement of dahlias, blond to bloody in shade, and a riot of roses, incredibly aromatic. The Tequila Sunrise’s lemon and peach petals are intoxicating, and the Double Delight’s cerise and flesh downright aphrodisiacal.

“First time I’ve ever fallen in love with a rose,” says Ron Sampson, and I nod dreamily, concurring.

Tucker Aufranc prescribes, “Cold showers for you guys.”

Terri and Aurelio think, “Or a warm dinner. It’s obviously time for dinner.”

They’re right. Oyster soup with caviar and lamb risotto at Bon Bolli take the bloom off the roses, and the next day will find us getting off the TranzAlpine Express in Greymouth at lunchtime.

A saloon called Steamers (once the office of the bygone Union Steamship Line) looks good, and is. Brave man Tucker orders nachos – and pronounces them excellent – accompanied by Monteith’s dark beer. “Some of the best nachos I’ve ever had,” he says.”

How can that be? In New Zealand? Did a Mexican cook get lost on the way to Los Angeles? If so, says Tucker, God bless him and his defective compass.

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