Akaroa - The Jewel of Banks Peninsula

 

Akaroa is the jewel in Canterbury's bank peninsula's crown and just an hour and twenty over the hill from Christchurch. Highway No. 75 out of Christchurch to Akaroa is well signposted. At the end is Akaroa Village. It's on the waterfront and your starting point for harbour cruises, fishing trips, swims with Hector dolphin and close up experiences with other wildlife. Here, Orca may even cast a beady up at you!

Lunch at Akaroa

Getting There And How Far Is It From Christchurch?

Akaroa is just over 80kms from Christchurch and initially the 80 kph speed limit road passes through rich Tai Tapu and Motukarara farming country, wrapping around the edge of Lake Ellesmere, then climbing dramatically out of the settlement of Little River to the Hilltop at around 500 metres.

Here a hotel boasts a magnificent view over Akaroa Harbour. Akaroa translates to long harbour and much of it can be gleaned from this point. Like nearby Lyttelton Harbour, Akaroa is also an extinct volcano. At this altitude the road is susceptible to snow in winter and although with ample passing bays, care is still required.
It's definitely winding and is best negotiated in a lower gear, with special care to following distances. If you prefer to sit back and enjoy the scenery - then there are small group and private drivers who offer guided trips from Christchurch.


The Eastern Bays route around the crater rim to Akaroa is also offers stunning scenery. Here the road's a little narrower and will need a bit of nerve if you're in a camper van. The descents are steep also. Small settlements like Barry's Bay and Duvauchelle, greet you as you come of the hill and back to sea level, with the cheese factory at Barry’s Bay, a must visit. Another hill or two and you pass Robinson's Bay and Takamatua, before a final haul upwards and voila, Akaroa Village is there in its cosy wee bay.

Who Lives Here? Is It A Friendly Environment?

Locals will fall over themselves to make you welcome. There are just short of 800 people living here permanently though that population can swell hugely during the summer holiday season. Many of the houses here are holiday homes for people from Christchurch.
There is also a Maori marae at nearby Onuku, while the outer eastern bays of Pigeon, Okains, Little Akaroa and Le Bons are also popular, though accessed by very steep narrow roads.

The History

Akaroa identifies as strongly with its Maori history as it does its French. Its Frenchness is still very much evident in street names, business logos and its regular French styled celebrations.
I believe Akaroa's maintained an almost thoroughbred place in New Zealand's grand scheme of little towns. At the very least it has been consistent in its evolution with a modern-day presence still of many original family bloodlines.
For example, Le Lievre, Brocherie, for the tricolour and Robinson and Tainui for New Zealand Maori. These are proud people in an equally staunch settlements, who've for so long, likely been taken for granted by the bigger neighbour Christchurch, though there's been more of a move in recent years to bridge that gap. 

How Else Might I Get There?

Cruise ships were frequenting Akaroa Harbour after the Christchurch earthquakes shut down Lyttleton as the port of destination. However, Akaroa was divided in the benefit that was to the area. Many passengers simply hopped on a bus and went over the hill to Christchurch anyway, while others wondered what there might be to do in Akaroa anyway. 
Anyway, the cruise ships have now returned to Lyttelton port and with it the discussion has moved on too... Akaroa doesn't have an airport as such, so road remains the major access option.

Where Can You Stay? Where Do You Eat And Is It Expensive?

Akaroa is absolutely well worth a visit and a must stay if you've the time.
One of the indulgent pleasures of the place is the pace of life. It's pretty cruisey as we say here in Kiwiland, in other words, it's very relaxed.
I call it the 'stroll', the slow easy work from one end of the town to the other. Here you'll find boutique shops and cafes, just as there's very well stocked local supermarket.

Dining options are all very good. From my mate Murphy's fresh fish and chips and more, on the main wharf, to Bully Hayes, Mandala, La Hotel, Ma Maison, The Brasserie Kitchen and wine bar, the Little Bistro, to good pub grub. You’ll not be disappointed. There're others too. Prices vary though seem reasonable for what is essentially a tourist town.

There's a wonderfully safe and popular bathing beach which occupies much of the small bay, plus launch cruises, as already mentioned, catering to all needs, walking tracks and a large recreation ground. The Giant's House is a great sideshow, as is the museum and the local markets. Just ask a local.

Having stayed in a number of different places in Akaroa over many, many years and all of them clean and comfortable, it's fair to say there's an excellent range at very competitive prices. In my experience and in no particular order, the Waterfront Motels, Bruce Apartments and Tresori are well placed, though there are other options. From the Top Ten holiday Park, to the more exclusive and boutique venues such as Beaufort House and Blythcliffe and the local pubs, the Grand and the Madeira.

Akaroa, or the 'Village', as some still call it, has another wee surprise. The Akaroa Craft Gin Distillery and right on the main street. Next to the well-stocked fuel and service center and in a cute and very French Akaroa style building is where it sits with its myriad of secrets.Check the operating hours online and make sure you tell the tasting manager Ange, 'Dunney sent you'.
 

The Weather?

I love Akaroa any time of year. It's brooding, still, cold winter days, giving way to generally brilliant summers. Though for what it's worth, don't go if the forecast is picking strong southerly conditions for the area. That's usually unpleasant and likely to blow you from one end of the harbour to the other.

Akaroa Lives Long In The Memory...

I was young, maybe 7 which makes it the late 60’s and thought smoking looked really cool, you know the Marlboro man and all that...
It was just another gorgeous summer. Me and a mate (kiwi slang for friend) or two, I think they were the Slaven boys from Ashburton, had snuck away from a typically stunning day at the nearby beach to the glorious Garden of Tane, to further our education!
Somehow my Dad had cottoned on, my mates scattered and I was left with the old man, who insisted I finished that cigarette and joined him in another and another. You can picture the outcome. He was a good man, my Dad.

Point being, the beautiful Garden of Tane is one of the jewels in Akaroa's great crown and while we talk about the harbour’s undeniable attraction for water sport users, visitors and holiday makers of all sorts, it's the simple and natural beauty of the place that remains its real soul.

Akaroa And The Hector Dolphin

The Hector dolphin is the world's smallest and rarest and stand out from other dolphin with a rounded black dorsal fin, often referred to as a 'Mickey Mouse ear'. They're mainly found around New Zealand's South Island and although current numbers are around 15,000, they're still considered vulnerable..and Akaroa is one of the best places to see them.

How Can I See Them?

While getting up and close and personal with these mammals is not generally encouraged, they're very curious by nature anyway and Black Cat Cruises have special consents to operate, along with one or others, scheduled trips to see these dolphin..and even swim among them. Swimming with the dolphin, is well organised, with a real focus of safety and enjoyment. The dolphin seem to enjoy it too !
Generally they're found in small groups in the outer harbour or beyond, with the cruise vessels operating from their main wharf depots. Trips usually leave mid morning and early afternoon and last up to two hours.

Black Cat Cruises are specific to Banks Peninsula, with their origins in Akaroa. The Waghorn family, a well known name locally, still have a very hands on involvement. Their vessels are well appointed, with large cabin space and refreshments are available. Look out for the unique dolphin dogs. They're part of the crew and are expert at spotting a family of dolphin in the water! Be aware that sailings can be affected by numbers and of course, the weather.

What Other Marine Life is There?

The little Blue Penguin is a regular around the harbour and outer bays and you've a good chance of seeing them in their breeding season from September onwards. The best way to see them is with Pohatu Penguin Tours. They operate out of Akaroa and also offer sea kayaking adventures.

On occasions Orca are also seen in the harbour. These magnificent creatures, while never having caused any issues in the area, are always treated with great respect and while given a wide berth, make for stunning viewing from a distance.

What Walks Can I Take?

One of the most popular walks in the area, is the 'Banks Peninsula track'. This route was developed many years ago when a bunch of local farmers agreed to the idea of subsidising their farming operations.
Each contributed by cutting and maintaining the track across their property and providing appropriate accommodation. Operating in summer it is hugely popular, leaving from one point near the village and returning to another. Your provisions are ferried in and out for you, making for a generally light load for you to carry. The views to the ocean, down valleys into bays and the wonderfully remote and quirky places to say, are truly stunning, though you need a moderate standard of fitness and good hiking gear.

While the route has changed in recent times, it's still well worth the effort.
 

Anything Else I Should Know?

Leaving Akaroa always reminded me of the John Denver cover of the song 'Leaving on a Jet plane'. His tone was a plaintive cry as he dragged out the lyrics, 'oh babe I hate to go'.
Though there's a special place still within the Akaroa harbour confines that might help ease that pain, called French Farm Winery. 

Well signposted before you begin that long, almost wearisome climb over the Hilltop and back to Christchurch, French farm is a stunning garden bar and deli, focusing on weddings and offering accommodation. The venue may as well be on 'The canal du Midi', with its authentic and credible looking French architecture. 
This place comes with a warning, that it is very easy to get stuck here, so be sure to have a sober driver!

Once you're over the hill and on the flat road through Little River again heading back to Christchurch, look out for a signpost to 'Birdlings Flat'. It's a wild rugged coastline, a non-swimming beach, with a bunch of houses in a rugged landscape, though a short and worthwhile sidetrack. Beach combing is the go and many find unusual and coloured stones on the beach here. 

It's usually windy yet a few salty types live here. Look out for sign that used to point you to a museum and crystal shop of sorts down one of the side streets. If it's still there, it's old Vince's place and it's pure gold. If he's moved on, then like John Denver intimated in that 'Mamas and Pappas' song I referred to, he's gone somewhere on his 'jet plane'..and just like that, may your voyage be long and your trip happy.

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
By
John Dunne
: 24 Jan 2023 (Last updated: 24 Jan 2023)

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