Overlooking the romantic Avon River and restful Hagley Park, Christchurch’s The George is among Canterbury’s most eminent hotels, rich in character and famed for its impeccable service. So, it’s only fitting that their impeccable head concierge, Bryan James Wilkinson, also happens to be so rich in character, too. Verve caught up with him to find out more about his work, the hotel, and his top tips for exploring Aotearoa’s Garden City. We begin by asking what Bryan most loves about Christchurch. “The energy and spirit,” he says without missing a beat. “We have come a long way—it’s the safest and newest city to explore in New Zealand.”
A Hotelier History
Born in Christchurch, not only does the city course through Bryan’s veins like its iconic river, but travel and hospitality do also.
“My great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side arrived from Great Britain after 99 days at sea aboard The Randolph—one of the first four ships,” he says. “He was a pioneering settler in Christchurch, planting the first orchards and introducing the Cox’s apple. On my father’s side, my great-great-grandfather was a British hotelier who discovered gold in the South Island in 1861—where he also owned a hotel. I have taken a keen interest in the writing of a book on The George hotel’s history after returning from serving in the grand hotels of London.”
The multi-award-winning concierge trained in some of London’s most prestigious hotels and gentlemen’s clubs such as the Royal Automobile Club in St James, and Mayfair’s Connaught Hotel. While there, Bryan was accepted into Les Clefs d’Or—a highly exclusive international association of professional hotel concierges.He describes this as “one of the high points of my professional career”.(The George now has two Les Clefs d’Or members on the team, with the acceptance of Mark West in 2019). In 2005, he left the “world of business tycoons and aristocrats” to return to the Antipodes, signing up to the pre-opening team of the sumptuous Sofitel in Queenstown. He moved back home to Christchurch—and The George—in 2015.
“Being an international resort destination still brings me into contact with guests from all over the world,” says Bryan. “One of my great loves is to travel and meeting people to experience their cultures. It’s often a very humbling experience, and one that suits my character well.”
What do guests usually most enjoy about their stay at the hotel?
“Guests take George away with them—it is something you cannot buy. An experienced team that understands the importance of hosting perfectly at home. That is something you come back for.”
Bryan says that he gets the biggest kick when returning guests arrive and their children call him uncle: “Priceless!”
What were your favourite things to do in town as a child?
“Growing up in Christchurch, my favourite things were my bicycle and my fishing rod. I loved cycling to fresh-water rivers or the sea—we have access to some amazing beaches and none better than Sumner. After checking on the tides, I have great memories of running through Cave Rock—it’s a scream, if you dare!”
Bryan admits that his fishing days are well and truly over but is more than happy to “watch others and let nature do its thing”. One of his favourite seaside spots is the top of New Brighton Pier, “watching the full moon rising over the surfers catching the perfect waves”.
Other insider tips include the brand-new hot pools and sauna, He Puna Taimoana, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beach (“paradise!”), and the “very exciting experience” of the Waka on the Avon which entails paddling through the city aboard a traditional canoe.
As for seeing some of the city on-foot, Bryan recommends taking a stroll along the paved City Promenade, a “beautifully planted and landscaped route” that follows the meandering river: “Stop at the Riverside Market for lunch and feed the eels too. Later in the evening, return to experience it as it buzzes with the nightlife of bars and restaurants.”
Bryan also steers visitors to Worcester Boulevard, beginning at Peacock Fountain in the Botanical Gardens, before taking in the Canterbury Museum, currently celebrating its 150 years.
“Across the road is the Arts Centre—the largest collection of listed buildings in the country—home to a collection of boutiques,” he adds, “and then on to Christchurch Art Gallery, home to one of Aotearoa’s most important public art collections.”
The concierge recommends finishing at the “epicentre of our dear city, the Cathedral”.
Best place for shopping?
“Retail therapy is an important part of every visit. Time to switch to the hotel limousine and be driven to the Tannery—a trip worth dressing up for! The premium boutique shopping atrium sells quality fashion and New Zealand made items, alongside florists and a real book shop. Finish up at Penny Black for tea with all the trimmings—fine china, table linen, tiered cake stands and elegant tableware. Live the dream!”
Best place for cocktails?
“OGB, built in 1913 with its imposing Renaissance palazzo style has a powerful presence in the square. While the men have their pints, the ladies can retire to a luxurious cocktail bar. The Parlour is a very special, unique feature in the bar scene. Access is through a secret bookcase and sheer curtains. It is a ‘ladies-only’ space with a menu that brims with 40 cocktails and six champagnes by the glass.”
Best place to dance?
“A favourite jazz club is Fat Eddie’s. The second-storey bar is one of many bars on Oxford Terrace, overlooking the banks of the Avon River. Head upstairs, for a big stage that’s home to different musicians every night of the week. With plenty of room for grooving, the spacious establishment is the ultimate spot to twist the night away, or for some people-watching on the balcony.”
And the best view?
“The gondola ride to the top of the Port Hills. The panoramic views across the city from the Pacific Ocean around to the snowcapped Southern Alps is breathtaking enough, but it’s further enhanced when turning back to peer into what was the caldron of a volcano towards the pretty working port of Lyttelton. There is a café at the top to sit and take it all in, plus walking tracks if you wish to explore further.”
From his concierge desk at the front of The George hotel, Bryan says that he often finds himself gazing out across the Avon River and “grand-tree lined Hagley park, literally as far as the setting sun”. Guests, he says, will often ask where the city centre is, and he will proudly say that they are in it, in Christchurch’s heart. His role, he concludes, is not just about supporting guests in their quest for creating long-lasting and happy memories, but to be “a weaver of dreams.”