A little piece of France in New Zealand
A mere 85 km from Christchurch lies Banks Peninsula. The caldera that formed this beautiful part of God’s Zone provided the founders the opportunity to establish the town of Akaroa back in the 1840’s. A crater nurses the picturesque harbour, with many smaller bays indenting the spectacular coastline that was first sighted by Captain Cook in 1770. The English translation of the name Akaroa is “Long Harbour”.
This is a region of New Zealand that has long been on my list of places to visit. Luckily for me, even after all these years, the town has retained its charm and uniqueness. The setting and the surrounding scenery are breathtaking, ensuring that it remains a top tourist destination.
In 1840, French settlers arrived in Akaroa to find the British had already claimed it. The story goes that as the French were sailing into Akaroa Harbour, the British were raising their flag and holding a court of law on a hilltop just outside the settlement, thus legitimising the area as British. The French influence is still strong, however, with many of the streets bearing French names. Names such as Rue Jolie and Rue Lavaud, together with the predominantly colonial architecture, conjure visions of a bygone era and French panache.
The French atmosphere is enhanced by the descendants of the original French settlers who still reside in the town to this day. It is, in fact, the only attempted settlement by the French in New Zealand.
One of the best views of Akaroa Harbour is from the Hilltop Café on the approach road, before descending down the mountain. It is worth lingering here a while, not only for coffee and a meal, but to simply bask in the awe of the surrounding majestic mountains, the crystal clear waters shimmering below and the town of Akaroa hardly making a dent on Mother Nature’s incredible plan.
During my stay in Akaroa, I chose to stay with Dai and Margy Morris who own and operate Maison des Fleurs on Church Street, right opposite the main wharf. Designed and built by Dai and a few of his local friends, this boutique style accommodation offers the ideal retreat for couples. The whole structure is made from local timber and its warmth and charm welcome you as soon as you set foot in the front door. The king-size spa bath in my room was a welcome sight and ensured that my travel weary bones were well rejuvenated before I headed out to discover more of Akaroa.
Maison des Fleurs is a haven for total relaxation. Dai and Margy also own and operate Fire & Ice, situated right next door. This shop has a veritable plethora of gemstones, crystals and aromatherapy oils – a great place to discover something unique for everyone. My wife was the recipient of a stunning string of large black pearls, at a price well below those of Auckland retailers!
Even though my visit occurred mid-week, the town promenade was extremely popular with all the cafes and bars well-patronised. I was assured by my travelling companion, who spent nine years running restaurants in Akaroa, that it is always a hive of activity and a very popular weekend getaway for many Christchurch residents.
Only around 2,000 people live in Akaroa ion a permanent basis. However, in the peak season, the number of folk in town can swell to 10,000. We visited several of the cafes and bars over the next couple of days and found, without exception, the food and service to be of a very high standard. The Bakery, at the intersection of Beach Road and Rue Jolie, does a superb cooked breakfast as well.
At the southern end of the town stands the old lighthouse, which used to guard the heads at the entrance to Akaroa Harbour, before an automated one was installed.
Akaroa is world renowned as the best place to catch a peek of and indeed swim amongst the rare Hector’s Dolphin. These amazing animals are found only in New Zealand and are very friendly. There are several charter companies offering trips in and around the harbour. We opted, on this occasion, not to take a dip in the water which, heading into winter, was a little too chilly for my liking. We cruised with the Black Cat Group who operate Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruises off the Main Wharf. The two hour cruise took us out of the heads at the entrance to the harbour, and around what can only be described as extremely rugged coastline.??The sheer cliffs had many on board gasping in awe.
The Hector’s Dolphin, the main attraction of our tour, couldn’t wait to attract our attention away from the majesty of the land and back to their watery playground. They entertained with their playfulness and acrobatic skills, no more than a couple of hundred metres off the wharf. Throughout the ensuing two hours they kept reappearing, amazingly enough they were always in a group of three.
For those of you who prefer the older style of cruising, the Fox II is the way to go. Whilst also undertaking harbour cruises, she does so at a more leisurely pace. Sea kayaking is another popular way of getting up close and personal with the dolphins or merely investigating more remote spots.
Once a year, Akaroa celebrates its historical French connection with the French Fest, held over two days towards the end of April. The entire Akaroa Recreation Ground is laid out with stalls, performers, food and competitions. The weekend commences with a re-enactment of the arrival of the French on Main Beach, followed by a parade to the recreation grounds where the festivities continue for two full days and go well into the night.
Other activities to hand include farm tours where one can actually partake in a sheep muster or try one’s hand at shearing. The Akaroa Golf Course is very popular and provides panoramic views. The 18-hole course occupies 28 hectares of undulating country at the head of the harbour. Guided walks can be arranged, either in a group or privately, and the mail run is a pleasant mini-couch drive through 100km of scenery taking in both sides of the harbour.
At Barry’s Bay Cheese you can watch the cheese making process or simply stock up the larder with a their fine selection of cheese and wines.
Our next port of call was historic French Farm, so called because it is where the French used to grow crops to supply the ships calling in for provisions around the 1840’s. Nowadays, however, it is operated as an exquisite winery and restaurant. Mark Smith and partner, Ann Tillson, have owned and operated French Farm for the last 18 months or so, and it has fast established a reputation for fine wining and dining on Banks Peninsula. ??Located on the aptly named Winery Road, on the opposite side of the Harbour to Akaroa township, French Farm offers the discerning traveller a location second-to-none. Weddings and corporate events are catered for, but there’s always a good reason to visit – it doesn’t have to be a special occasion!
As is typical of many of the sojourns I make, the trip was over far too soon. And contrary to popular belief, this Aucklander thoroughly enjoyed his time in the south. It certainly is another magnificent part of this beautiful country of we’re so lucky to call home, and I look forward to returning there for a more prolonged stay.