The Subtle Charms Of Akaroa

4 March 2015

You’d have to say that one of the best things about Akaroa is getting there.

It sits on a milky-blue bay on the Banks Peninsula (Horomako to the Maori), which is a dramatic collision of sheep-nibbled hills and deep inlets formed by two enormous volcanic eruptions that are happily well in the distant past.

If you head out from Christchurch, 80 kilometres on Highway 75 brings you across the Banks Peninsula to Akaroa on one of those impossibly scenic drives in which New Zealand seems to specialise.

The road is steep, bendy and unnervingly narrow, especially if you happen to encounter a truck-sized campervan coming in the other direction. Don’t let that put you off. Slow down and take your time, because the getting there is as good as the destination itself.

 Bathers at French Bay (Credit: Brian Johnston)

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Crank Up The Wow Volume

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You could stop along the way at Little River, a now defunct railway head with some attractive old houses; the railway line has been turned into a walking and cycling track. You should certainly halt at aptly named Hilltop, if not for a drink at the pub, at least to take in the magnificent view.

If you really want to up the wow factor, detour along Summit Road for the last section of the drive into Akaroa. It leads around the rim of one of the volcanic craters. Alternatively, you could explore the Banks Peninsula the active way, by walking all or part of its 35-kilometre track across farmland and along coastline where fur seals flop.

At the southern end of the peninsula, one of its collapsed craters has formed a sheltered harbour deep enough for cruise ships to sail into (though passengers are ferried ashore by tender). Akaroa means ‘long harbour’ in Maori, but today it’s the town that is famous.

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Check Out The French Connection

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Early French explorers arrived here in 1840, too late to claim the area for France.

Though the British had beaten them by just a year, the French settlers stayed on and scattered the landscape with Francophone names such as Duvauchelle (town), Le Bons Bay and Rue Lavaud. Some of their descendants still live here.

Akaroa tries to make the most of its tenuous French connections, though calling its streets rues and putting French names on cafés and shops is about as far as it goes. It doesn’t really matter, since the town is a sleepy little delight of cottages and some 40 colonial buildings, many fronted by pretty gardens bursting with roses, lavender and hydrangeas.

 Historic Langlois-Eteveneaux cottage (Credit: Brian Johnston)

If you’re keen to learn more about the points of interest, you can buy a booklet or hire an audio guide at the visitors' centre, which is housed in the old post office. You can stroll around the whole town in about two hours.

Among the places to stop are the 1880s lighthouse, the Old French Cemetery and the yellow-painted Langlois-Eteveneaux Cottage, a prefab from France dating from around 1846 that is probably the oldest building in the Canterbury region.

The history museum, though only partially reopened since being damaged in the Christchurch earthquakes, is also interesting for its insight into the area’s Maori heritage.


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Take A Walk On The Art Side

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Though you could visit Akaroa on a longish day trip from Christchurch, an overnight stay (or more) allows for a more tranquil pace. The town offers plenty of accommodation and dining options.

Historic sights apart, it also has bakeries, cafes, craft stores and boutiques in which to while away an hour or two. There’s even a delightful little cinema offering an impressive line-up of art-house and foreign movies.

 It's all part of the charm (Credit: Brian Johnston)

You could also follow the Akaroa Bays Art Trail and visit the studios of 20-odd local artists, sculptors and ceramics-makers, though not all are in the village itself. Many are spread around the Banks Peninsula.

Right in town, the Giant’s House is a highlight. It’s a pink historic home surrounded by tumbling, flower-filled gardens where eccentric owner and sculptor Josie Martin has created giant sculptures and entrancing, Gaudí-like mosaic works.

A visit feels as if you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole into an enchanted world. Kids will love it.

 The Giant's House is worth a visit (Credit: Brian Johnston)

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A Dip With The Dolphins

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Get out on the water if you have time. You can swim – though the waters are chilly –  sail, fish and paddle. You can kayak with the likes of Pohatu Sea Kayaking, which specialises in penguin-spotting tours, or head out on a catamaran with Black Cat Cruises, which has scenic sails and specialised tours that allow you to swim with hector’s dolphins, the smallest (and one of the rarest) dolphin species.

You’ll also be able to spot seabirds, seals and sea lions.

The scenery from the sea – with formations given names such as Elephant’s Head and Cathedral Cave – is spectacular, especially when contrasted to the curiously opaque water, whose milky blueness comes from suspended volcanic ash.

Brian Johnston

Born in Nigeria of Irish parents, Brian Johnston has lived in Switzerland,the UK and China, and now calls Sydney home. The widely-published freelance writer and author is a two-time Australian Travel Writer of the Year.