Aerial view of the Akaroa waterfront, New Zealand. Photo / 123rf
At the pier at Akaroa Harbor, waves slamming lazily on the pile. Today’s harbor is milky white, the mud from the Rakaia and Rangitata rivers hanging in the water, having completed its long journey from the Southern Alps and across the Canterbury Plains. It turned out that the water turned powder blue from a distance, but from where we sat, it was icy cold and clear.
Just back from the water, diners sit under sunscreen on wicker chairs outside the Bully Hayes bar, and watch yachts and schooners bobbing on the sparkling water just steps away. A gull full of hope hovered overhead, watching the chip situation. From our point of view, cold beer in hand, this could be France on a sunny summer day – if it weren’t for the sound of Fat Freddy’s Drop bringing a breeze. And the fact in New Zealand that we are sitting in the caldera of an ancient, flooded volcano.
Akaroa has so many stories, and so much history, to unravel. Made by volcanoes, inhabited by Māori, founded by the French, claimed by the British.
It’s a French heritage largely traded in the city, but the city’s authenticity, albeit based on fact and history, comes with a hint of flicker – a medieval marketing tool for luring tourists to the city.
It is true that this is Canterbury’s oldest city, and indeed it was founded by about 60 French settlers who arrived in 1840. But the French colonizers never got the right footing (the British quickly declared sovereignty over all of New Zealand to cut France off) and at The 1950s there is only one surviving example of French architecture in Akaroa – the courthouse, which is now part of the Akaroa Museum.
In the 1960s, French suddenly made a comeback – the city’s oldest streets with French origins were renamed “rue” and the modern identity of Akaroa began.
It is a very picturesque place, in a sheltered harbor surrounded by historic buildings and beautifully manicured gardens. It’s fun to walk along the “street”, to eat Toulouse sausages from a local butcher, or see posters for the annual “French festival”. To feel like you are in a place slightly different from other parts of New Zealand.
If you want to understand Akaroa’s history and heritage, a stop at the museum is a must. This is where we learn that Captain Jean-Francois de Surville was sailing these waters at the same time as Cook on the Endeavor, in the late 1760s. (Even though Cook named the area Banks Peninsula, he actually mistook it for an island). The French established themselves in the area, naming the bay of Port Louis-Philippe, creating a whaling and naval station, a doctor’s office, and a built road. For a time, French culture and language dominated.
The descendants of those 60 French settlers remain, and indeed lately, a French accent is heard, a more recent import from Europe. On the burial slopes of French L’Aube Hill, the names Pierre, Libeau and and Fleuri attest to the authenticity of the relationship.
How to see Hector’s famous dolphin
The French may have lured us to the city, but it’s another famous resident we’d love to see today – Hector’s dolphin, one of the smallest dolphins in the world. Their number is disputed, but there is generally an agreement between 9,000 and 15,000 in the world. Here on the Banks Peninsula, about 1500 reside.
We went with Coast Up Close, a small business run by skipper and owner Tony, who has been taking tourists out on Wairiri – a fishing boat built in Invercargill – for 10 years. It’s the perfect day for that, with clear skies and clear water.
In fact dolphins prefer small shelters. Because sharks don’t use echo locations, they prefer to hunt when the water is clear. Dolphins like a little mud for camouflage. Even so, they didn’t keep their distance. As we emerged from the harbor, our first sighting occurred within minutes. In between the sightings, Tony commented on the port, geology and history of Akaroa.
Judging from the water, Akaroa’s natural setting is clearer. We sailed across a volcanic crater, been extinct for about 6 million years, and now inundated by the sea. This massive cone, which forms the backdrop of the Akaroa mountains, has been eroded to only two-thirds its size.
As we sailed further afield, we saw Ōnuku Marae from Ngai Tahu, and a pretty little church nearby, built in 1871, one of the oldest non-denominational churches in New Zealand. Between dolphins, we saw red-billed gulls and white pigeons circling, taking advantage of the hunting of kahawai under the waves, pushing bait fish to the surface.
The benefits of a small boat aren’t just the comments and personal service you get from the captain. It’s also maneuverable, getting you straight to the shoreline and around (and sometimes through) rock. They do things a little differently on this ship. If the dolphins show up, that’s fine, but if they don’t, it’s up to them – captain Tony won’t chase them. He has been known to jump from the side when he wants a little fishing. On our return trip, a free diver approached his kayak to chat, and showed him the catch of the day – quinine and cray. He’s 75 years old. The young backpackers on the ship were flabbergasted.
But dolphins are stars and whenever they appear the deck is filled with oohs and aahs. They easily approached, surfed in the pressure waves that the hulls created beneath the surface, ducked and dived in front of us.
Back ashore at Akaroa
Back on land, like Mad Dogs and Englishmen, we took a walk in the midday sun. The small town is divided in two by a promenade, where locals and visitors stroll among the shops and cafes. But summer days can get very hot here. As in Europe, on hot days the locals retreated inside, or into the beautiful flower-filled gardens lining the streets, the roses falling on the wooden fences.
We walked to the ocean end of the Rue Balguerie, and watched the kids bomb from the pier, then came back and found ourselves at Harbar, a small restaurant and beach bar situated directly on the water, overlooking the French Bay. We settle for cold beer, gin-soaked mussels and fries, and watch the boat toss around. It may be summer on the Riviera, but here, a unique slice of Aotearoa.
Get out at the harbor and see the dolphins
Hectors dolphins are a must. Coast Up Close takes you out on their little kauri launch, allowing you to get up close and personal with the incredible dolphins, seals, sea caves and cliffs of the Banks Peninsula. The 2.5 hour cruise leaves twice a day. coastupclose.co.nz
Go sea kayaking with penguins
Across the Banks Peninsula, you’ll find the Pōhatu Marine Reserve, which is home to the largest Little Penguin colony on mainland New Zealand. Day trips on the Pohatu Penguins will pick you up from Akaroa, take you on a scenic tour with stops, across the peninsula, then sends you out into the water to see penguins as well as seals, seabirds and other wildlife. pohatu.co.nz
Walk the Banks Track
This three day and three night hike is a hidden gem. New Zealand’s oldest private walk offers stunning views through farms and forests, charming accommodation – and some well-worth the hike. It’s just enough challenge to make you feel good enough about yourself. Along the way, you’ll find up-close wildlife, unique huts, and the picturesque Hinewai Nature Reserve, an ecological restoration project. It is self-catering, but package carts are included. For an extra $ 50, you can have a chilled cabin that is driven into the cottage, so you don’t have to skimp on wine, cheese, and sausages. bankstrack.co.nz
Visit the Giant’s House
The Giant’s House is a sculpture garden created by artist Josie Martin. This is an eccentric Gaudi-esque mosaic display, including sculptures of animals, people, flowers and chairs. You can walk there from town – walk straight down Rue Balguerie from Beach Rd. thegiantshouse.co.nz