Four years after the Christchurch earthquakes, New Zealand’s South Island still welcomes LGBT travellers with open arms, incredible views, and a renewed energy.
Does New Zealand’s South Island show us the future of LGBT equality?
It seems an unlikely question as you search for places to meet and mingle with the local queers in Christchurch, a city of 375,000 that is still recovering from the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. But as it rebuilds its devastated core, Christchurch also seizes the opportunity to redefine itself for the future, including LGBT residents and visitors.
While New Zealand has long been known for its relaxed, progressive attitudes, the South Island has remained more traditional than its cosmopolitan neighbour. Designated gay bars, clubs and cruise venues are scarce, and with Christchurch still rebuilding, it’s hard to see that number growing any time soon. Yet as you travel around the island, meeting the locals and taking in the jaw-dropping scenery in every direction, you may start to wonder if dedicated LGBT venues would have that much to contribute here. In a land dotted with smallish towns, where most couldn’t care less about who you love or sleep with, is such passive acceptance the ultimate future of LGBT equality?
New Zealand is blessed not only with accepting attitudes, but with some of the most beautiful mountain and coastal drives in the world. Both the resort towns of Queenstown and — the lesser known, more local — Wanaka boast spectacular lakeside locations with plenty of adventure and tourism options. Neither has an official queer bar or venue, since the LGBT community largely mixes with everyone else. So LGBT visitors will rarely experience overt discrimination or feel in any way unwelcome.
Those wanting the ultimate queer celebration in the Southern Alps should book early for Queenstown’s Gay Ski Week. The Southern Hemisphere’s biggest winter Pride event turns this beautiful resort town into a snowy gay wonderland every late August to early September. The week’s events calendar is packed with activities to help even non-skiers get the most out of the region. Helicopter trips, snowshoe treks and zip-lines through the snow-covered forests are just some of the attractions on offer, but budget travellers beware — Queenstown is New Zealand’s most expensive destination at any time of year, and those adrenaline-pumping highlights add up quickly. Still, there’s no better way to see one of the country’s most beautiful regions, while meeting some like-minded queer friends along the way.
Christchurch, however, should still be the start of your adventure. Even post-disaster, it’s the South Island’s cultural core and has embraced quake-recovery tourism in a big way. Explore the innovative Re:Start Mall for a look at the city’s ambitious rebuild plan, a taste of local street food, and creative arts and fashion. You can learn more about the disaster at Quake City, a moving museum exploring not just the events of 2010–2011, but New Zealand’s ongoing, unavoidable relationship with its fault lines. Numerous pop-up art projects are scattered throughout downtown, weaving a path of quirky optimism in between the sombre, demolished city blocks.
A wander through the expansive Canterbury Museum will put some perspective on your trip. Learn about the South Island’s natural, Maori and colonial history, New Zealand’s Antarctic discoveries and brace yourself for the explosion of kitsch that is Fred and Myrtle’s Paua Shell House. The couple’s living room has been lovingly rebuilt here, complete with walls filled with beautiful paua shells and other twee Kiwiana. It’s an eccentric highlight that captures the trademark Kiwi irreverence that charms visitors right away.
Given the number of bars and clubs that were shuttered or demolished after the quakes, Christchurch’s queer scene, such as it is, has made a remarkably fast comeback. LGBT nightclub Cruz claims the distinction of being the first nightclub to reopen. Its small, but new location opposite Christchurch Casino offers a lively mix of new and classic dancefloor fillers, friendly staff and a relaxed, welcoming vibe. As far as LGBT venues go, it’s fairly generic, being the only LGBT gig in town for now. A mix of straight patrons has become the norm on Friday and Saturday nights, so arrive prepared to accept that as the city rebuilds, dedicated queer spaces may be a ways off, if they return at all.
Also back in record time is the city’s cruising scene. Menfriends is a laid-back, well-maintained new sauna. Attracting a wide mix of guys in a relaxed atmosphere, this is perhaps the current cruising ground of choice for guys steering clear of apps. The Box is an older style of cruise club with dedicated swingers nights. Both can be found a little outside the downtown core, though if you’ve rented a car – something that is highly recommended for exploring New Zealand – this won’t be a problem.
University town Dunedin lays claim to the world’s steepest street, Baldwin Street, where the annual Jaffa race cements New Zealand’s commitment to eccentricity. You might also pay a visit to Otago Peninsula, or the supposedly haunted Larnach Castle. Dunedin even has a cruise club, Bodyworks, right in the centre of town — but the social side of LGBT life rests mostly with local community organizations. The same can be said of Invercargill in the Southland region, and Nelson in the island’s North, which is well worth visiting for the surrounding wine regions and Abel Tasman National Park.
Outside of Gay Ski Week, New Zealand’s South Island may not top a traditional list of queer destinations. But for those open to more than nightlife, the southern half of the Great White Cloud might be the perfect queer-friendly feast for the senses, offering just a taste of a future where LGBT folk are seamlessly accepted as another part of nature in all its beauty — something the South Island knows plenty about.