Retirement in New Zealand's Garden City

Kathleen Peddicord
September 11, 2012

From its showcase botanic gardens, public parks, and nature reserves to community vegetable plots, school planting projects, and well-kept private grounds, Christchurch deserves its status as a garden city. The gardens give the city its breathing space, provide a backdrop to its numerous festivals and public entertainment, and present an opportunity for residents to escape all that a bustling city has to offer.

With a population of about 375,000, Christchurch is a small city by world standards, but it is New Zealand's second-largest and the gateway to the scenic delights of the South Island. Lakes, rivers, wine country, beaches, ski fields, mountains, and thermal springs are all on the doorstep while the city offers all you would expect in urban shopping, dining, education, entertainment, health care, and recreational facilities.

Situated in the South Pacific, New Zealand is a safe and separate haven. It's a clean and green oasis with a stable Western democratic government that's far away from many of the world's trouble spots but well-connected and engaged in world affairs. In 2010, the United Nation's human development report ranked New Zealand as the world's third best country to live in, and in 2011 it was ranked as the world's least corrupt country. Christchurch personifies all that makes New Zealand such a great destination and is one of the country's most vibrant cities.

Christchurch is located a third of the way down the east coast of the South Island, in the province of Canterbury. Lying between Pacific Ocean beaches and the ancient volcanic Port Hills, the city is flat and crossed by the rivers Avon and Heathcote. It is surrounded by the Canterbury Plains, an area of productive farmland running from the coast to the Southern Alps, the mountain range running the length of the South Island.

The beauty of Christchurch lies in its gardens (740 parks and reserves) and its natural environment. The city founders, with much-appreciated foresight, reserved a huge park and botanical gardens in the center of the city for public use. The 161-hectare Hagley Park is now very much the heart of city life.

For all these reasons, Christchurch qualifies as a top retirement option. The small population means Christchurch can offer a slower pace of life and a community feel. Visitors and expats alike marvel at the lack of crowds and traffic even though Christchurch is the major urban center for the South Island and offers all the services and entertainment you could desire.

Recreational opportunities abound. Within 30 minutes to a three-hour drive you can be bungee jumping, skiing, hot air ballooning, white water rafting, tasting wine at the cellar door, whale watching, and hiking. In the city you could be surfing, swimming, playing golf, boating, or shopping. Entertainment options include attending live theatre, a concert, watching a film, and visiting museums. And, of course, you can always relax by the river or beach. The city has a full festival program celebrating jazz, Chinese New Year, drama, and flowers.

All types of community groups are active, and, as the local language is English, it's easy for foreign retirees to connect and become part of the active local scene. The local university, many secondary schools, and retiree education groups offer adult education courses including crafts, photography, history, cooking, philosophy, languages, science, and do-it-yourself. All this is on offer within a safe and clean city with a pleasant climate.

Once known as a Pavlova Paradise, Christchurch is not the perfect escape for everyone, and there are two downsides in particular. First is the earthquake risk. The risk of another large quake has receded significantly, but there is still a lot of damage in the city. Some areas will be construction zones for years to come. However, if you are living in a damage-free area you can go about your day-to-day life without being affected much beyond some traffic delays and detours.

The second downside of note is the distance. New Zealand is a long way from the rest of the world (except Australia and the Pacific Islands), meaning travel can be expensive and time consuming. With flight connections, it can take more than 24 hours to reach a destination in Europe or North America. This remoteness, though, is seen as an attraction by many would-be retirees looking for an escape from world crises.

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas--Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.