Overlooking Banks Peninsula. © Liz Carlson

Banks Peninsula: land of volcanoes and mini dolphins

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Would you believe me if I told you there is a place in New Zealand where you can sleep under the stars in a glass house, swim with miniature dolphins and dine on amazing local food all in the same day? Oh, and it’s peaceful and quiet for most of the year?

An hour and a half outside of Christchurch, Banks Peninsula is surely one of the South Island’s best-kept secrets and has managed to remain a more local tourist destination than many other spots in New Zealand.

Originally an extinct volcano, Banks Peninsula is an easy one and half hours drive from Christchurch or a more challenging but incredibly scenic two hours drive from the South Island’s big smoke. Though you’ve been warned, the longer of the two is not for the faint of heart. A playful peninsula full of introverts, artists and creatives, there is something here for everyone, and there is so much more than meets the eye. All you have to do is dig a little deeper on a visit out here and you’ll be surprised by what you find.

Farmland views on Banks Peninsula

Sunset on Banks Peninsula, with many great viewpoints. © Liz Carlson

At the risk of sounding cliché, if I had to pick one word to describe Akaroa, it would have to be charming. New Zealand’s first French settlement, it still manages to ooze loveliness decades later. With great dining spots and luxury and boutique accommodation plus great shopping and heaps of unique experiences and activities to chose from, it’s a great place to base yourself on a visit to the Banks Peninsula.

Getting out on the water is a must-do if you find yourself in Akaroa. Whether you go whale or dolphin watching or check out the local penguins, if you are a fan of marine wildlife, this is the place for you.

Bank’s Peninsula is also home to the Hector’s dolphins, one of the rarest and smallest dolphins in the world, and you can even swim with them in the wild.

If you are looking for something a bit more quirky and unique, head up to Shamarra Alpacas across the harbour to meet some champion alpacas. Soft as you can get, these spunky, sassy animals are super entertaining and great for families. And the views from the farm are worth the drive all on their own.

The Giants House, Akaroa

Giant’s House in Akaroa. © Liz Carlson

Perhaps the quirkiest and most memorable spot of them all in Akaroa is the Giant’s House. Home to local artist Josie Martin, a beautiful 19th-century mansion converted into a living, breathing life-size art project, it’s an incredible space to spend an afternoon exploring. With any luck, you might meet the artist herself wandering about. I could (and have) spent hours sitting amongst the huge sculptures and mosaic garden just watching kids and adults alike enjoying the house and lawns.

My favourite parts of Banks Peninsula, alpacas aside, are further afield than Akaroa. Little River is one of those tiny New Zealand towns that if you blink while driving by, you might miss it. But lo and behold, it’s actually an incredibly beautiful and interesting place to stop. Home to the kitsch art gallery slash cafe Little River Cafe, you can also stay nearby in some newly pimped out farm silos. Little River is also home to New Zealand’ first Purepod, or a solid glass eco house out in the middle of nowhere. More of a luxury cabin than a basic hut, this is the place you go to unwind, detox, relax and disconnect, or all of the above. Falling asleep out here on a clear night is not something you are soon to forget.

Banks Peninsula Purepod

Little River Purepod. © Liz Carlson

If you don’t mind driving on scary dirt roads with no guardrails, then I definitely recommend heading out to Lavericks Bay on the far side of Banks Peninsula. A beautiful farm with a local beach, it’s a stunning place to spend a weekend with friends and family. You can rent out a glamping site that can sleep a big group of people, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have the entire place to yourself.

Only thirty minutes from Akaroa, it feels like you are entirely on your own in a stunning location with nothing but the sound of the sea to soothe you to sleep. Combined with an outdoor bath and mini wood burner fires inside the tents, you’ll be in heaven. This is the kind of place you come to stay and never leave, a destination in and of itself.

If you're after a classic kiwi bach vibe, head over to Le Bons Bay, the next beach over for a truly authentic holiday like from when you were a kid.

Banks Peninsula is a place for people looking to slow down from their hectic everyday lives in exchange for a mellow, slow and peaceful holiday. In addition to an artistic creative atmosphere, history and a bit of culture, it makes for a great combination for the perfect getaway.

Glamping in Lavericks Bay

Glamping in Lavericks Bay. © Liz Carlson

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