Pallet Pavilion.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Glen Jansen

Two years after the devastating earthquake, Julietta Jameson visits Christchurch and finds innovation and hope abound.

On a rough grey-brick wall facing a dusty, vacant block in downtown Christchurch is a thing of beauty. It's a simple mural, part of Poetica, a project that has adorned unexpected places with a combination of art and verse.

There was a competition to find the best poems for it, and Kirsty Dunne's won the right to be on the exterior of the empty shell that was once Sedley Wells MusicWorks.

Re: START precinct.

Re: START precinct. Photo: Alamy

Amidst the shards of glass

& twisted steel

Beside the fallen brick

Astroturf soccer field.

Astroturf soccer field. Photo: Julietta Jameson

& scattered concrete

we began to understand

that there is beauty in the broken

Strangers do not live here anymore

So it should have won; it's a spot-on snapshot of the Christchurch experience, two years on from the February 22, 2011, earthquake that devastated this New Zealand city, both physically and emotionally.

That event followed a less powerful though still shocking quake the previous September, and took down or irreparably damaged a huge number of buildings; among them, much-loved Victorian landmarks. Sand and silt were shaken to the surface in a thick sludge, destroying the foundations of thousands of houses. The quake took 185 lives, injuring thousands more.

A drive from the airport belies all that; you might see a wonky gate here, a propped-up fence there, but generally pass lovely, well-kept houses on verdant avenues.

That all changes in downtown Christchurch, where the glass, steel, fallen brick and shattered concrete of Dunne's poem are evident in an overwhelmingly sad amount.

It doesn't take long, though, to find signs of hope. These are the things of beauty Dunne also writes of: picnickers enjoying the picturesque banks and shady trees along the lovely Avon River that winds its way through the city. Youths in straw boaters taking people for rides in dinky red punts. The punts only recently returned, after bridges were made safe. (Not quite like before - their joyride menu now includes a trip through the "Red Zone", the fenced off no-go area, deemed unstable and dangerous.)

Christchurch's Botanic Gardens is, as always, a gorgeous place to wander while the adjacent area around the university, though damaged, still boasts attractive architecture.

Those places aside, many of Christchurch's beauties are not the usual stuff of poets and painters - take the Ibis Hotel. Budget the brand may be, but this particular branch has enormous significance for the people of Christchurch. It was the first hotel in a central location to return to operation after the earthquake - it did so in November 2012.

The Ibis has not only given travellers 155 decent, well-priced rooms in which to stay - its restaurant and bar, Oopen, has become another option for locals generally starved of entertainment, and its meeting rooms are an important asset to getting business back up to speed.

Moreover, though, the Ibis is a slice of normalcy restored. Hotels are part of the fabric of any city. That Christchurch CBD at last has one again is a leap forward.

Other things of beauty in Christchurch are unique. The vacant lot across the road from the Ibis is (for now) an Astro Turf soccer field, while another nearby forlorn space has become Dance-o-mat, a quirky combo of dance floor, disco ball, lights and sound system operated via a laundromat washing machine.

You plug in an iPod, pick a tune, put a coin in the slot and it's lights, music, dance.

Dance-o-mat is one of a number of energetic and unexpected creations of Gap Filler - a collective dedicated to creating temporary installations that transform vacant blocks left by razed buildings into spaces for the public to enjoy.

There are communal gardens, the fruits of another regeneration project, poignant temporary shrines and other patches of cheer and tidiness that are the results of working bees.

And there is a good number of either new or re-opened bars, cafes and restaurants and others lucky enough to have escaped the quake relatively unscathed. It's not quite a slew, but more are slowly coming online.

They include several on Lincoln Road, among them, The Pedal Pusher, a bustling comfort food and beer kind of joint.

The Cargo Bar has a sports bar vibe, with putt-putt set up in one corner and cocktails served in jam jars from a shipping container.

Fiddlesticks is an up-market (and very well executed) bistro opposite the still-closed art gallery. And the dessert bar, Strawberry Fare, pumps out sugar highs from an old motel dining room.

Locals love Smash Palace, a kooky makeshift bar with an old bus as its focal point, while CBD Bar, the city outpost of Cassels & Sons Brewery, gets a little messy late but the beer garden and pizzas are great earlier.

Christchurch has some terrific coffee, brewed by the likes of C1, which has a vineyard on its roof, tended to by the good people of Black Estate in the Waipara Valley. Black Betty is a jumping Sunday morning breakfast joint.

These are the things New Zealand tourism authorities are keen to entice visitors to Christchurch with, highlighting the coolness of the new cafes and bars and the vibrant success of Re:START - the city-centre shopping precinct constructed out of brightly coloured shipping containers.

And it's not just local authorities talking things up. Lonely Planet made the optimistic statement of putting Christchurch among its top 10 must-visit places for 2013.

Not to say that any of that is misleading, but it's only a tiny part of the Christchurch story right now. Anyone expecting the usual kind of cool city tourism experience when they come to Christchurch in 2013 is in for a shock.

To be clear, this remains a ravaged place. Huge tracts of the CBD are vacant, dusty lots. Devastated ruins remain. Bulldozers and jackhammers work day after day tearing down condemned structures, creating more dust and unpleasant noise. Cracked, abandoned buildings bear eerie witness, untouched since the moment they were vacated in a rush. The Red Zone, though shrinking, disconnects one side of the city from the other. Public transport is scant and the tram system remains inoperative.

Conversations with young people reveal at least pockets of despondency at the lack of places to go and things to do.

But that, too, is only part of the story.

There is a bigger experience to be had here and it's one that takes in both the devastation and the hope to produce one incredible encounter.

Lonely Planet was right in one respect - 2013 is a rare moment-in-time opportunity to bear witness to a city and people responding positively to an unthinkable horror and to see the buds of progress spring fresh and new from the rubble, fertilised by a collective belief in this place that for the locals, after all, is home.

The unique attraction of Christchurch's new restaurants, cafes and bars is not the food and decor. It's in the stories of the people behind them who had the tenacity and wherewithal to stay and create them in extraordinary circumstances.

It's in their ingenuity and spirit.

It's in the spirit of all the people of Christchurch.

The chief executive of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism, Tim Hunter, wants to emphasise the fact that visitors are welcome.

"At first I think that Aussies felt that by coming here they were intruding but they are now starting to realise that every traveller who comes here and stays in a hotel or takes a tour or eats in a restaurant is helping us rebuild our city and grow our economy," he says. "And we are so grateful for that."

And he is right; absolutely, this is a welcoming place.

As one local puts it, "Christchurch was very conservative but that has changed. We've had to. We used to be all about our beautiful cathedral, our beautiful old Victorian buildings. Those are largely gone. Now we've become about vibe and community spirit." And then he adds: "I now know my neighbours' names. I didn't before the earthquake."

And with that, the "Strangers do not live here anymore," line of Kirsty Dunne's poem makes perfect sense.

PITCHING IN: THINGS TO DO

Christchurch remains a great jumping-off point for exploring Canterbury. The Waipara Valley wine area is less than an hour away. Family-owned vineyard Black Estate has a new, casually elegant restaurant featuring local produce as well as a tasting room, and the famous Pegasus Bay estate is just down the road. See blackestate.co.nz; pegasusbay.com.

The International Antarctic Centre near the airport is a great attraction, too. It's an intriguing look into the world of Antarctic exploration, with added Disney-style experiences. See iceberg.co.nz.

Re:START at Cashel Mall is a great place to spend a few hours. Browse the collection of funky shops in brightly coloured shipping containers, then head to the food vans for good, cheap, hawker-style fare. Dimitri's Greek Food is spectacular.

Get right into the Christchurch spirit by volunteering on a Gap Filler project. There's always something new going on. You must register beforehand. See gapfiller.org.nz.

Go punting on the Avon or take a bus tour. Both give a good overall view of where Christchurch is at any particular moment (it's changing all the time). See punting.co.nz or, for the red double-decker bus tour, see hasslefreetours.co.nz.

FIVE OTHER CITIES TO RISE FROM THE ASHES

Alesund, Norway In 1904, almost the entire town was destroyed in one night by a terrible fire. Made mostly of timber, it was rebuilt in stone, bricks and mortar in spectacular art nouveau style, and is regarded as an architecturally significant site.

Hiroshima, Japan A nuclear bomb was dropped on this city near the end of World War II, destroying 70 per cent of buildings and killing more than 80,000 people. Today, the City of Peace is a bustling, modern port.

Newcastle, Australia In 1989, a 5.6 magnitude quake, one of the worst disasters in Australian history, did $4 billion worth of damage to the northern NSW city. In recent times, the Renew Newcastle program has transformed it into a creative hub.

Banda Aceh, Indonesia The westernmost point of the Indonesian archipelago copped the brunt of the 2004 tsunami. The rebuild was swift and the city boasts new roads, schools, hospitals and houses, thanks to $6 billion in donations from around the world.

San Francisco, US The earthquake of 1906 caused devastating fires. Up to 300,000 people were left homeless. A massive effort by the US Army and a huge relief influx revitalised the city.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Emirates flies non-stop to Christchurch from Sydney for about $400 for the three-hour daily flight. Air New Zealand flies non-stop daily as well for about $400 for the 3hr 20min flight. Fares are return and include tax. Australians don't need a visa.

Staying there Ibis Hotel, 107 Hereford Street; +64 3 367 8666. Rooms at Ibis Christchurch are priced from $NZ195 ($157) a night. See accorhotels.com.

Eating and drinking there

Black Betty, 165 Madras Street; see blackbetty.co.nz.

C1 Espresso, 150 High Street; see c1espresso.co.nz.

Cargo Bar, 359 Lincoln Road; see cargobar.co.nz.

CBD Bar & Pizzeria, 208 Madras Street; see cbdbar.co.nz.

Fiddlesticks Bar and Restaurant, 48 Worcester Boulevard; see fiddlesticksbar.co.nz.

Smash Palace, Corner Victoria Street and Bealey Avenue; see thesmashpalace.co.nz.

The Pedal Pusher, 286 Lincoln Road, see thepedalpusher.co.nz.

Julietta Jameson travelled courtesy of Emirates, Accor Hotels and Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism.