Published on 21 Mar. 2021
Estimated Reading Time: 10 min
by John Knight
A taste of France in the South Island
We are in the South Island of New Zealand. The larger of the two main islands of New Zealand. Larger, and more spectacular, but much less populated (30 percent larger but with only 23% of the country’s total population). Some might say this is the perfect combination!
In December 2019 I planned a visit to the St. John observatory in Tekapo to indulge in some nights of star gazing and astrophotography in one of the worlds designated Dark Sky Sanctuaries. Dark sky sanctuaries are areas that have been internationally designated as having an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment. Essentially these are the best places in the world to see the night sky. And New Zealand has one of the best. But this is for another story, because this (amazing) experience was not to be on this trip. The day we flew into the gateway city of Christchurch, the largest South Island city, we learned that the braided rivers between us and Tekapo had flooded after heavy rain. There would be no way through for a couple of days at least. So, what to do?
Akaroa - a Hub of Activity
I had often talked about visiting Akaroa, a picturesque and historical settlement about 1 hour 20 minutes by car from Christchurch. It has always sounded like a perfect destination for me because of the combination of culture, history, cuisine and (inevitable in this part of the world) natural beauty. Akaroa is a small permanent settlement of only a few hundred people, sitting on the eastern side of the harbor after which it is named. The drive from Christchurch is spectacular as it takes you around 80 kilometers over the Bank Peninsular in which the harbor sits. The peninsular was formed by two huge volcanic eruptions which have created a wheel shaped peninsular studded with beautiful bays and small harbors around its perimeter.
All of the bays are interesting in their own way and some harbor their own treasures like Okains Bay - which has the delightfully quirky Okains Bay Maori & Colonial museum. This was a private collection gifted into public ownership in the 1970s. It houses an eclectic collection of Maori and colonial artifacts that illustrate the early history of the peninsular. The displays include a range of heritage colonial buildings that provide an intriguing insight into the day-to-day life of the early European settlers here. There are also traditional Maori whakairo (carved houses) and pataka (raised food storehouses) which provide a focus for the Maori aspects of the displays.
But onto Akaroa's township itself. It is a pretty colonial era town built along the harbor and extending back a little way towards the surrounding hills. The best way to orient yourself on arrival is to wander the length of the town along the waterfront. The views are beautiful and soon you will have a feel for the town and all of its amenities. There are plenty of photo opportunities! Both into the town and across the beautiful harbor. The thing that struck me particularly was how pretty most of the houses and gardens are – neighbors seemed to compete to have the most spectacular gardens – which of course is a treat for those wandering by.
I am a walker. I love to explore anywhere I go on foot, so I quickly became familiar with the town. But it is a good idea to look further than the township itself. It is easy to head off on a range of beautiful hill walks. The trails range from easy half hour wanders to all day hikes into the hills above the town. We walked several of the middle length walks and enjoyed the wonderful scenery with tree lined walkways, paths though grassy fields, and along laneways covered in flowers (during the spring and summer), and even hidden streams and waterfalls. And as soon as we got above the town there were magnificent views back over the town and across the harbor. Truly every perspective is beautiful. You can obtain an Akaroa Country Walks brochure from a number of signposted places in the town.
Tourist Magnet and Nature Idyll
Although the local population is small there are a lot of weekend and holiday visitors from Christchurch and the surroundings areas. Before covid, large cruise ships were frequent visitors, disgorging thousands into the sleepy town. This can be a bit overwhelming when it happens, but the advantage is that it provides support for a wider range of restaurants and boutique stores than would otherwise be possible for the locals. And that improves the experience for everyone.
Akaroa is an interesting mix of things – essentially a rural town, but relatively close to a major metropolitan center, and a tourist draw card with the associated economic opportunities. All of this is then surrounded by extensive natural beauty. This combination of attributes has attracted a range of different people into the town and with them has come an interesting selection of accommodation options. There are of course the standard motel type options, in a range of different levels of price and facilities. Some of these are in prime spots in the town and come with magnificent views for free! But the best accommodation options in my view are the various B&B’s offered in some of the magnificent colonial era houses. These are typically large two-story wooden buildings set in beautiful gardens and owned by intriguing people. We tried two of these, each with very different amenities, but both fascinating in their own way.
The first accommodation had wonderful gardens including lots of old-fashioned roses and domestic doves who would coo throughout the day. The owners were escapees from the hectic world of large production movies (like Lord of the Rings and Avatar). They were looking for a quieter way of life and were excellent hosts – and people with an intriguing range of stories which they were happy to share!
The second B&B was a beautifully presented luxurious home with grounds that included a small vineyard and even a “haunted” (we thought) cottage in a small, wooded area! The owners were retired restaurateurs who had left nearby Christchurch after the 2010/11 earthquakes. This had natural benefits - a beautifully cooked breakfast, and a magnificent platter and choice of wine for a late afternoon pre-dinner snack on the deck, overlooking the flower garden. These hosts had had stories of years in the restaurant business and round the world yachting to keep us entertained.
A Journey into Akaroa's Past
I need to talk a little about the history of this place. This makes it so interesting and just a little bit different from every other beautiful New Zealand holiday town. The difference is that the town is French! Or at least it has a French character, French street names, French themed shops and even a number of the descendants of the original French settlers still live here. But there is no need to bring your French language skills – kiwi English is spoken by everybody local.
And so why is Akaroa the sole French outpost of this English colonial country? That is a fascinating story. New Zealand had received numerous English settlers during the early 1800s but was still not an English possession by the late 1830s when a French whaling captain negotiated to buy Banks peninsular from the local Maori. He returned to France to establish a trading company and to secure French colonists for this south sea adventure. However, by the time the first 63 French colonists arrived the English had just signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the local indigenous Maori population and claimed sovereignty. An English warship raced to Akaroa to raise the English flag just before the French arrived...and so the future culture of the country was determined.
The history of this place – including the earlier stories of the local Maori population – is well covered in the modern museum in the center of town. This is really a very impressive place – much more sophisticated than I expected for a town of this size. I spent half day absorbing the stories of this place. One of the most arresting exhibits for me was a wax mask of one of the of one of the leading Maori warrior chiefs, created in 1840 by a French sculptor. It was like looking back across time and into the face of someone who was experiencing a change in his world that must have surpassed anything that he could have imagined.
Of course, the combination of walking, intense historical experiences and good sea air combined to ensure that I had a very strong interest in the food options in the town. Essentially everything is available, from self-catering via the grocery store, good traditional NZ takeaways – fish and chips and other more modern options – through to modern cafes and some higher end bistro style dining.
Time to say Goodbye - for now!
There are several very good restaurants – the equivalent of good dining in a large city. My favorite was a place called the Little Bistro. It is exactly as its name suggests! Very small but with impressive high-end dining. It is owned by a chef and his wife and they have dedicated themselves to providing sustainable, local, and seasonal cuisine – prepared imaginatively and cooked perfectly. After our first visit we have been back several times because it is the most pleasant experience. If you can, try to get a window seat and bask in the sun streaming into the building while watching the passing parade of interesting visitors as you enjoy your dinner and accompanying beverage of choice!
Akaroa is a hub for a range of activities. The harbor allows access to a range of water-based fun. The usual fishing and cruising on a range of vessels, but a highlight is the dolphin watching and swimming - with encounters effectively guaranteed. Further outside the town are vineyards, an artisanal cheese workshop, and even an alpaca farm - all set up for the tourist trade. My favorite visit was to the French Peak organic vineyard. Visiting at a quiet time we enjoyed a tasting platter of local delicacies with a range of organic wines in bright early sunshine. It was only when we visited that we discovered that the vineyard also provides some quirky boutique accommodation with a view over the harbor below. I am committed to returning to stay here one day soon...what better option than to be living in a vineyard overlooking a magnificent glittering harbor?
So, an unexpected turn of weather took us to Akaroa, and now we have another favorite South Island destination. The rivers subsided three days after we arrived, and we headed off to see the stars in Tekapo (perhaps with a faint feeling of regret). I won't keep you in suspense through. Each of our days in Tekapo was overcast and so there were no stars to see! This is something else we need to return to one day soon. But the upside was that we felt we needed some compensation for this disappointment and decided to head back straight away for another long weekend in Akaroa!
Based in New Zealand, John travels around whenever time permits and shares his fascinating travel stories and pictures on Instagram! Follow him for more travel inspiration, and in case you are thinking about making a trip to Akaroa in New Zealand, feel free to book one of our five Customized Information Packages and we will plan a travel experience of a lifetime for you!
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