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Akaroa is one of New Zealand’s most charming towns. Just 90 minutes drive from Christchurch, it is popular with day-trippers, although the Banks Peninsula’s wealth of attractions demand a much longer visit.
The Peninsula is the eroded remains of two large volcanoes, with the two harbours of Lyttelton and Akaroa formed from old craters. A network of roads that climbs up, down and around its steep slopes provides panoramic vistas while linking up the small settlements dotted around its coastline.
Nestled into its French Bay nook, Akaroa is decidedly French in flavour. The story behind this begins with Captain Jean Langlois, who in 1838 negotiated with Maori chiefs to purchase much of Banks Peninsula. While he was back in France hatching plans to annex the entire South Island, the British snuck in and started to set up shop. When an advance French party arrived in August 1840, they discovered that they would now be settling in a British colony. Sacré bleu! Nevertheless, two small towns of around 60 French inhabitants were established, and their influence is very much in evidence on the peninsula today. The museum at Akaroa tells the story in all its colourful detail.
The township is home to many historic cottages, cemeteries, and other points of historical interest. Wandering its streets and bush tracks, the legacy of the French is unmissable, with many streets sporting Gallic names and the Tricolour flying here and there on the breeze. Akaroa does a great line in ‘quaint’, and knows that its visitors love it, but this is still a town inhabited mostly by down-to-earth people living typical small-town New Zealand life.
The town boasts some gorgeous cottage gardens, none better than at The Giant’s House at 68 Rue Balguerie – an Akaroan highlight. Artist Josie Martin has transformed the grounds of Linton, an elegant old home built of native timbers, into a psychedelic garden bejewelled with playful sculptures and mosaic. The onsite Artist’s Palate Café serves up light lunches and morning/afternoon teas, much enjoyed while lounging on the grass or at a table under a shady tree while the strains of Edith Piaf flow from the ceramic, succulent-planted piano. Its quirkiness and colour will delight young and old alike.
Another activity well suited for all ages is a trip on Akaroa Harbour. Here is your chance to see the Hector’s dolphin, one of the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphin species. Officially listed as endangered, all 7500 or so live within New Zealand waters, and fortunately they’re relatively common around the Banks Peninsula. Several boat operators run tours to see them, and some will even help you swim with them. A dolphin sighting is almost guaranteed, and you’ll likely catch glimpses of the pint-sized, white-flippered penguin (kororā), other sea birds, and seals, while learning local history and taking in the scenic bays, sea caves and volcanic cliffs of the harbour.
On our last visit, the usually courageous Sarah opted for the warm comfort of the two-hour Black Cat Cruise aboard a 20-metre catamaran. I meanwhile was bobbing about on the chop in a small, open-cabin runabout wearing a wetsuit. A chance to swim with the Hector’s dolphins was too good to resist – even with the water at 12°C. Brrrr! Luckily, it’s a lot warmer in Summer.
The odds of a dolphin encounter are excellent: around 98% to spot them, and over 80% for a successful swim. Our group swam with two different pods, an experience every bit as enchanting as I’d hoped. We also spotted a couple of penguins, and were buzzed by several Buller’s Albatross and a particularly rotund Northern Giant Petrel. After a couple hours we sped back to port, smiling like Cheshire cats and thawing out on a cocktail of adrenaline, hot chocolate and warm water fed through a hose down the back of our wetsuits.
Back on dry land, Sarah and I are reunited and head to Akaroa’s famous ‘world famous’ fish and chip shop to swap salty stories and eat salty chips. We resist the urge to be greedy – Akaroa’s not short of places to eat, and dinnertime is just round the corner…
A restaurant that we’ve now tried twice and enjoyed is the popular Vangionis Trattoria. Eschewing the town’s Gallic flavour, it offers instead a menu of tasty Mediterranean tapas and pizza, many of the ingredients sourced locally or grown in the owner’s garden. Our pick of the town for something casual and quick is L’Escargot Rouge Delion Beach Road, with its brilliant baguettes, gourmet meals-to-go and patisserie the French themselves would be proud of.
Self-catering visitors are particularly well served. On the way to Akaroa, Barry’s Bay Cheese is a great stop, and in the town there’s La Boucherie du Village, a traditional butchers that stocks local organic meat and the award-winning Akaroa Salmon. It also sells cheese, wine, honey, and other essentials.
If you fancy cooking but don’t know how, you’re in the right town. The Akaroa Cooking School was named in Lonely Planet’s ‘Top 10 places to learn to cook the local cuisine’. Its inspirational location no doubt helps in honing those culinary skills.
Accommodation options in and around Akaroa are plentiful, but arguably the best deal on the whole peninsula is the Akaroa Top 10 Holiday Parkup Morgan’s Road. Sitting a wee way up the hill behind the town, this is a spacious, green park with an enviable harbour outlook. It’s so gratifying to see affordable accommodation situated on such prime real estate, so that everyone gets a chance to enjoy a million dollar view.
Thoughtfully landscaped with plenty of mature trees and shrubbery, there are grassed and hard-sites for campervan, caravan or tent. Tenters get a particularly good end of the bargain on terraces towards the bottom of the hill, as these are some of the best seats in the house. Non-campers are also well catered for, in a range of affordable motel units and cabins lined up to make the most of those views.
The park boasts all the usual facilities, as well as a pleasant barbecue area, adults-only TV lounge, playground for the kids and swimming pool for the brave.
It’s only a five-minute stroll down a leafy path to town, making the Top 10 the perfect place from which explore le petit ville and the delights beyond.
Akaroa Top 10 Holiday Park, 96 Morgans Road
www.akaroa-holidaypark.co.nz; 0800 727 525, 03-304 7471
Black Cat Cruises, Akaroa Main Wharf
www.blackcat.co.nz; 03-304 7641