Akaroa is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most loved towns, famous for its French cuisine, spectacular harbour, sightseeing, rare dolphins, and more.
This small seaside town on Banks Peninsula, a scenic volcanic region in the South Island, has an interesting history.
Walk down Rue Jolie or the Rue Lavaud, two of Akaroa’s main streets, and you’ll pass bistros serving bouillabaisse and escargot. If you feel a vague sense of disorientation, as if you’ve just passed through a part of France, it’s because Akaroa almost was one.
A former French settlement, founded in 1840, Akaroa might have been an important South Island city had the British not signed The Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti) with Māori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand, before the French could arrive in significant numbers.
The French didn’t stick around for long, but they left a splendid legacy on the town’s culinary scene.
Restaurant and cafes
The Little Bistro
In a tiny white villa opposite the French cemetery is The Little Bistro(opens in new window), the kind of place you go to when you have something to celebrate, or when you want to impress someone. It serves beautifully presented seasonal cuisine, much of it plucked from local waters and hills. Its menu is essentially a fine dining version of comfort food. Try the 42-day aged beef fillet, horseradish dauphinoise, bone-marrow butter, winter veg and beef glaze. Or if you’re vegetarian, try the beetroot parmesan arancini, beetroot hummus, and truffled mayo.
For something you won’t have tried before, visit Mandala Restaurant(opens in new window). Fijian chefs Muni and Shomika combine local flavours with Asian cooking techniques. Try slow grilled fish, pistachio crumb, sauteed potato, curry paste, and coriander mint pesto. Finish with orange cardamon panna cotta, spiced mandarins, pistachio, and berry crumb. If you’re wondering which wine pairs with the main course, it’s a Riesling.
The Brasserie Kitchen and Bar
In a 100-year-old villa at the end of a long lavender-lined pathway is The Brasserie Kitchen and Bar(opens in new window). Dine here for a modern European- and Asian-inspired menu, served in a relaxed, old-world setting. Order Normandy-style mussels cooked in apple cider, crème fraiche, shallots, and lemon. Or prawns served with Marie rose sauce and fresh lemon. Then grab a seat outside to enjoy the age-old pleasures of great food and sunshine.
Barry's Bay(opens in new window) know a thing or two about handcrafted cheese. But then they should, they’ve been making cheese since 1895. Specialties include Havarti, Maasdam, Aged Gouda, Rinded Cheddar, and Peninsula Blue.
The makers of Pot Poruri Fudge(opens in new window) claim to have perfected the art of making fudge. With a line-up that includes lime sorbet, maple walnut, and passionfruit, alongside staples like Russian caramel and dark chocolate, it’s not hard to imagine that this might be true. However, there is only one way to find out. You know what to do.
Roughly 5km south of Akaroa is the small Māori settlement of Ōnuku(opens in new window). This sleepy rural idyl is home to one of the region’s most photographed landmarks: the Ōnuku Church. Aside from a backdrop of Banks Peninsula hills and a foreground of grazing cows, this neatly painted Christian church would be unremarkable if it wasn’t for the stunning Māori carvings that adorn the church’s entrance. Here you have two contrasting architectural styles creating a striking visual symbolism: that of two very different cultures coming together.
For a small town, Akaroa has had an interesting history. For starters, it was a potential candidate for a capital city; the birthplace of sailor Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance during Earnest Shackleton’s ill-fated voyage to Antarctica; and a favourite stop-off for William ‘Bully’ Hayes, a notorious mid 19th-Century pirate. To find out more, visit the Akaroa Museum(opens in new window).
With an Akaroa Dolphins(opens in new window) harbour cruise, you almost get a two-for-one nature experience. The operator uses a team of life-jacket clad dogs to help spot rare Hector’s Dolphins in the harbour. If you’re lucky you might also see the occasional whale. But don’t stress, the dogs will point them out to you.
It's a pleasant 15-minute walk along a winding road to reach Akaroa's most famous landmark, Akaroa Lighthouse(opens in new window). Although completed in 1879, it has stood in its present location for ornamental purposes for about 40 years. Before being retired, it was 10km away on the Akaroa Heads, at the entry to the harbour – also a great spot to explore.