An hour’s easy drive from Christchurch and just over the crest of the hill you reach Akaroa harbour – literally, ‘long harbour’ in Māori – opening dramatically before you, the land dropping steeply to turquoise sea.
Akaroa is a tangible link to one of the tantalising ‘what-ifs’ of New Zealand history: the attempt mounted by the Nanto-Bordelais Immigration Company to annex the South Island for France in 1840. A boatload of Frenchmen arrived in August, to find the English had beaten them to it by three months. Zut alors!
But all was not lost: the French were permitted to stay and Akaroa became a little slice of Bordeaux in the deep South, retaining its Gallic flavour in some of the street names – Rue Jolie, Rue Balguerie – and many of the names of shops and businesses are, ’ow you say, a giveaway.
As if to bless the colonial enterprise exhibited by those early French settlers, the land round about the harbour yields every kind of produce you need to live with true Gallic panache – olives and olive oil, walnuts, cheese from the famous Barry’s Bay fromagerie, and wine from the several vineyards that are coaxing surprising results from Banks Peninsula’s volcanic soil.
The harbour itself hosts an aquaculture venture raising superb salmon and the rugged coastline is a prime blue cod fishery.
You can enjoy the fruits of land and sea at any one of a dozen excellent cafés and restaurants.
Those who wish to stay on in Akaroa – and who wouldn’t – can choose from backpacker to luxury bed and breakfast accommodation.
The area’s unique history is celebrated by the Akaroa Museum and the Akaroa Historic Walk, and the local community is sprinkled with artists and craftspeople, whose wares are available for display or purchase in the many little galleries and shops. One shop on the wharf sells the intriguing, locally-grown and widely-prized paua pearl.
Another major attraction of the area is the chance to take a cruise to observe the local wildlife, including penguins, seals and the area’s resident population of Hector’s dolphins.
Hector's dolphins are known to Māori by other names, including tutumairekurai, aihe, papakanua, upokohue, tukuperu, tūpoupou, pahu, popoto and hopuhopu. These are not only the smallest dolphins in the world, but they are also, sadly, the rarest, with their population drastically decreasing in recent years.
And Akaroa is the start and finishing point of the Banks Peninsula Walkway, the perfect way to see and experience this rugged and beautiful part of the country.