EN ROUTE TO AKAROA
If the French had been just a little bit earlier to the party, I would have been writing this in another language. Alas, Britain’s claim to sovereignty over the area was laid mere weeks before French emigrants alighted on New Zealand soil. When the Comte de Paris weighed anchor in Akaroa on the 17th August of 1840 with their (slightly dubious, and made months previous) land claim in hand, they were to find it had now been superseded by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Things could have become confrontational at that point, but the French representative for the settlement, a certain Captain Charles François Lavaud, graciously acknowledged that a French colony could not be installed without causing hostility between themselves and the English. The French Governor would later wistfully note, however that ‘it is truly regrettable that we arrived here after the British’!
Although the official French presence of their navy departed in 1846, most of the original settlers remained in Akaroa to later become citizens, and just like that the Race to Akaroa was over, and the British had (sort of) won. Not to be outdone entirely, the settlers ensured their French legacy prevailed and you’ll be able to note their signature in the form of street names and architecture, as well as a few notably Gallic surnames peppered here and there in the cemetery.
Blessed with an unusual geographical situation in the mouth of a long extinct volcano, Akaroa is both charming and wild, two adjectives that don’t often go together but that fit quite easily here. The multiple roads winding themselves over the peninsula offer grandiose scenery and a bit of an adrenaline rush if you look over the edge, whilst the town itself is a pure symphony of old and new, a rambling décor graced with French and Kiwi flags, verdant green hills as a backdrop and an idyllic harbour stretched out at its feet. Honestly, I’d be surprised if you didn’t have a little coup de foudre at first sight.
But what is there to do, you ask? To see? To eat? Plenty.
LEARNING MORE ABOUT AKAROA’S HISTORY
Akaroa Museum – A great way to start your trip if you’d like to find out more about Akaroa’s roots than the brief description given above. Three new, long term exhibitions about the history of the Banks Peninsula are present, produced in collaboration with local Maori.
Akaroa Lighthouse – Generally open on Sundays from 11am to 2pm, there is a small on-site charge to pay to go up the lighthouse – just don’t forget your sensible shoes! Otherwise the views from the bottom are free (and fantastic), and there’s a little information about the lighthouse and its interesting history on the side of the building.
ENCOUNTERING THE WILDLIFE
Pohatu Penguins – An authentic and unique way to see Little Blue Penguins, with a company that’s been looking out for the little guys for over 30 years from introduced predators. A great opportunity to learn about their conservation efforts and make some (small) new friends.
Akaroa Dolphins – There are few places left in New Zealand where you can swim with dolphins, and this is one of them. Equipped with top of the range dolphin seeking equipment in the form of canine radar (yes, I mean dogs), these cruises have a 98% success rate for sighting dolphins.
TASTING LOCAL CHEESES AND WINES
French Farm Winery – If food & wine is more your style, the best way to introduce your tastebuds to Akaroa is with a glass of wine in hand and a beautifully presented meal before you. Open for Dinner on Fridays & Saturdays, and Lunch on Saturdays & Sundays, the French Farm Winery also has on site accommodation for those who wish to tarry a while longer.
Barrys* Bay Cheese – Who, apart from the lactose intolerant (sorry guys), doesn’t love cheese? Made with milk from local, grass-fed cows since 1895, Barrys Bay Cheese is a dream, and when you buy it you’re truly supporting local, so you get to eat good cheese and feel good about yourself. One step better? A visit to their cheesery. Try the Havarti or the Wood Smoke flavoured cheddar, they’re to die for**.
*yes, I’ve studiously checked whether this needs an apostrophe, and no, it doesn’t.
**please, lactose intolerant people, please don’t do this.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY ACTIVITIES IN AKAROA
Hikuika Hazelnut Farm – Did you know you could grow hazelnuts in NZ? I didn’t! So if you’ve ever wanted to learn about hazelnuts, here’s your home-grown chance. The seven-hectare permaculture farm has been present on the peninsula since 1996, undergoing various changes along the way. Their minimum machinery approach has led to top notch hazelnuts!
Giant’s House – One woman’s labour of love and creativity has created a unique and special experience in this Garden of International Significance. Amidst sculptures and mosaics, you’ll easily find your inner child or inspire your dormant artist!
If the hand-picked activities above are your idea of an excellent travel amuse-bouche, then I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know we have a full tour that will take you to almost all of them! Check out our French-inspired tour “En Route to Akaroa”, and book yourself in for a getaway to Akaroa where French flags fly and Kiwis now reign.
AKAROA QUICK FACTS
Closest Airport: Christchurch International Airport
Distance from Christchurch by Car: 1hr & 30 mins, 83km
Population: 624 (as of 2013)
Local Iwi: Ngai Tahu
Son of France, by Geoff Cush
French Akaroa, by Peter Tremewan
Fresh from Akaroa (Recipes from the Akaroa Cooking School), by Lou & Ant Bentley
Written by Ebony, September 2020