The George, Christchurch: A hotel that stood its ground

At 12.50 pm on Tuesday February 22, Christchurch's first five star hotel - The George - was heaving (metaphorically speaking). "Both our restaurants were full and we'd got a massive conference on the fourth level," recalls Jan Stuart, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. "The whole city was busy with conferences. Marquees had been set up for a huge flower expo in Hagley Park, across the river Avon."

One minute later, The George (like the rest of the city) was heaving - this time, literally. At 12.51pm Christchurch was struck by the most devastating earthquake in its history, 6.3 on the Richter scale.

Normally, someone in Stuart's position would be reluctant to remind potential visitors of the catastrophe that struck Christchurch that day.  But - as we approach the sixth anniversary and the unveiling of the new Canterbury Earthquake Memorial on the banks of the Avon near the historic and repaired Bridge of Remembrance - she's happy to discuss the vital role The George played in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and the city's resurrection.

"For several months, we were the only hotel in the CBD that remained open," Stuart explains. "The George was very shaken by the earthquake, but it wasn't damaged structurally at all - which is incredible, though there was cosmetic damage such as cracks in the walls and ceilings and splits in the parquet floor."

Because the airport was closed and no-one could fly out, guests from the other, much more badly damaged hotels spent the night in the marquees in the park. But guests at The George were allowed to remain in the hotel despite continual aftershocks (over 1200 in the following 12 months).

"Quite a few guests wanted to sleep that night in the lobby rather than go upstairs to their rooms," Stuart says. "But actually it is safer to be on the upper levels because if a building does collapse, you don't want it coming down on top of you. That's something we only learned later."

The next day, Christchurch airport reopened to evacuate those who wanted to flee. Tanks and armed guards were placed round the CBD, preventing anyone but the emergency services from entering.

Every other hotel in the CBD was shut, but the four-storey George stayed open, initially hosting a few international reporters and key emergency workers including police, nurses, forensic teams and CityCare workers, supported by a skeleton hotel staff. 

"We were here on our own," Stuart recalls. "We provided the emergency workers with cereals and toast, but the restaurants were closed. And we had to bring water in so they could shower."

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That lasted three weeks. Then - after stringent safety inspections - The George reopened for paying customers on March 22, exactly a month after the earthquake. "It's a record we're very proud of," Stuart says. "Christchurch needed us."

For example, before the earthquake, The George - a boutique, 55-room hotel - hadn't taken any tour groups. But, given the emergency, tourist authorities asked management to relax the rules, arguing that if Christchurch was dropped from tour itineraries it could be years before the city won the tours back again.

"They asked us to do it for Christchurch," Stuart says. "But it has turned out to be great for the hotel too, though most of our guests are still what the industry refers to as 'free independent travellers'."

Six years on, and The George has been completely refreshed (including a $NZ 2million refurbishment of its neighbouring VIP property, The Residence, which was nominated as the World's Leading Luxury Hotel Villa in the 2016 annual World Travel Awards).

At a previously insignificant and inaccessible city centre bend in the river Avon on February 22 this month, a memorial will open to honour the 185 people who died six years ago. The new memorial wall and park is part of a post-earthquake initiative to open the Avon to public access, with more riverside walks, panoramic steps, picnic spots and greenery.

Nowadays, The George is no longer the city's only five star hotel - Hotel Montreal (formerly Chateau Blanc Suites) opened in 2014 and was acquired by the same group which owns The George (Brook Serene Hotel Management) in 2015.

But essentially The George remains the same now as it was before the earthquake. Which is how both most guests - many of them repeat customers and locals (who use its conference and wedding facilities plus two restaurants), prefer it.

To be honest, nothing about The George is "Five Star Flash". The architecture is so-so (though even more earthquake-proof since 2011!). 

The executive bedrooms (many with park views) are comfortable and stylish, but not outstanding (admittedly, I didn't see the more expensive Park Suites). The breakfast buffet at 50 Bistro is disappointing. (My tip? Go for the a la carte options, such as the smoked groper hash with buttered spinach, poached eggs and chive beurre blanc.)

So why does the The George deserve its five star rating? 

Position, personnel and Pescatore.

Though it's less than a 10 minute walk to many of Christchurch's leading tourist attractions (The Canterbury Museum, Botanic Gardens, the Christchurch Arts Centre, the Australian-designed City Art Gallery and the Victoria Street dining precinct), the hotel is located in a quiet corner of town opposite the Avon and North Hagley Park.

The George is famed for its attentive service. Take Mark, the moon-faced concierge who clearly loves his job. "Hello mate," he says cheerfully each morning as I approach, map in hand. "How did you get on yesterday?'

Such a greeting probably wouldn't go down well at The Dorchester in London or The Plaza in New York. But we've already established a casual rapport as he's advised me how to negotiate Christchurch's ever-changing one-way system in my hire car over the past few days.

Then there's Cashia Gumbo, possibly Zimbabwe's greatest home-grown sommelier.

Since the earthquake, Pescatore (two hats in the NZ Good Food Awards) has returned to its roots as Christchurch's premier seafood restaurant (though there are plenty of meat options for the Canterbury farmers who regularly come in with their fish-loving wives).

Tonight I've opted for Pescatore's seven-course degustation menu (not including the cheeky Amuse Bouche I was served in the restaurant's elegant foyer). And it's the ever-smiling Gumbo's job to match each course with the appropriate wine and explain why it perfectly complements each dish.

The Popcorn Crab (crab meat, sweet corn puree, popcorn and puffed buckwheat)? Obviously we've gone for the Nautilus Albarino, 2016 from the Marlborough.

The Seafood Pho (a Thai consomme with fish floss and instant noodle which enlarges at the table)? Gumbo recommends a Bond Road Gewurztraminer, 2009 from Gisborne.

I'll spare you every course but suggest you try the Not Quite Fish n Chips (a blow-torched Akaroa groper served with a beer batter puree, potato puff and smoked fish roe tartar) with Gumbo's choice: Waipara Springs Primo Chardonnay.

For the finale, Gumbo suggests a suitable sticky: the Crater Rim Riesling, 2012. 

It's good, but I can't take my eyes off the confectionary - a Bill Clinton-style "Cognac Cigar", made of edible (and hopefully, non-carcinogenic) "tobacco ash", cognac parfait and mint gel.

Earthquake? What earthquake? 

Christchurch has already moved on.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/christchurch

christchurchnz.com

FLY

Christchurch is served by several airlines from either Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, the Gold Coast or Perth including Qantas, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Virgin, Jet Star and China Airlines.

STAY

Doubles at The George, which overlooks Hagley Park in the heart of the city, starts from Pescatore's degustation menus start from $NZ 129 per person. See thegeorge.com

Steve Meacham was a guest of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism

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