Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula

Even before we’d left the States, Akaroa was high
on my New Zealand travel to-do list. I’d been captivated by a
family friend’s
description of this historic French village on the Banks Peninsula
around 50 miles (80 km) east of Christchurch. I
wondered just how a quaint and quiet European town would fit into New
Zealand tourism. During our weekend visit, we explored:

  1. Akaroa Town and Harbor
    by foot and boat
  2. Banks Peninsula by
    driving tour
  3. Barry’s Bay Cheese
    on the drive out
  4. UPDATE: revisited in October

We had been living in New Zealand almost six months before we made it
to Akaroa
and
our first chance was going to be at the start of Easter weekend. With
family visiting we finally had the perfect excuse. We wanted to stay
somewhere with two rooms and a kitchen, but even with several weeks
notice, we completely struck out on finding a
bach or holiday home to stay in for two nights. We began checking
online hotel and motel listings but still didn’t find two
consecutive nights anywhere. Only when I reverted to the Lonely Planet
guide and picked up the phone did I succeed in scoring lodging. The
kindly owner of La Rive Motel was reluctantly about to turn me away
when he
suddenly produced an opening by cleverly reshuffling guests.
We’ve learned that personal contact can still help make
things
happen in New Zealand, much more so than in the US. (See more tips
for traveling in NZ.)

Overlooking Akaroa

1. Akaroa Town
and Harbor

We arrived in Akaroa, the main town on the peninsula, at the end of a
long driving day winding through the
Waipara wine country and skirting Christchurch en route from our
previous night in Kaikoura. As dusk fell, we pulled into the motel at
the beginning of town, dumped gear into the room, then hustled into
town for some groceries. (The New Zealand government, in support of
workers, fines restaurants heavily for opening on holidays, so those
few that do open usually pass that cost on in a surcharge. Since our
two-room suite had a kitchenette, we were determined to avoid fees by
cooking for the weekend.) Upon our return, we assessed with some
disappointment the lodging value we’d gotten, as the
rather
rough 50’s, 60’s and 70’s furnishings
hadn’t
come cheap. But it was a holiday weekend after all and the room was
clean and comfortable enough, so we shifted our attention to whipping
up
a nice pasta dinner.

The next morning we had time to cook breakfast and wander Akaroa a
little before boarding the Akaroa
Dolphins

harbor
wildlife cruise we’d booked from the Kaikoura I-Site office.
The French history is really quite fascinating, as the French were
rushing to stake claim of Akaroa before New Zealand became a British
colony. Yet, the British foiled their claim by sneaking in just days
ahead of them, and left the settlers to choose between becoming British
or
going back. We
found the town to be a little French, but more notably a quiet
wee town (population around 600) with just a small row of tourist
businesses on the main thoroughfare. The waterfront area, though, was
packed
with tour companies, restaurants and gift shops. Wandering out onto the
wharf, we were solicited for a cruise by the crew of the Fox
II sailing ship
which we will definitely consider next time.

The town didn’t exactly charm our socks off, but we
appreciated
that it wasn’t end-to-end French kitsch. Much of the tourism is
designed for the many bus tours that come out on a day trip from
Christchurch for a quick overlook, a little shopping and a harbor
cruise.

Heading into the Harbor

If you are staying longer than that, it’s a perfect kind of
place for hanging out over leisurely meals in
cafes, so we probably robbed ourselves a bit with our self-sufficiency
campaign. And while there wasn’t a ton going on, we could see easily
filling quiet days with fishing, kayaking, world renowned dolphin swims
or hiking the numerous mapped trails that surround the village.

Then it was time for our cruise. We were all excited, particularly
since the brochures and staff guarantee you will see dolphins, and the
norm is to see large pods.

Fur Seals

Our dolphin viewing experience
wasn’t
all we’d been promised (our
skipper blamed excess holiday boat traffic), but we were still glad
we’d gone. By avoiding the larger Black Cat cruises designed for the
tour buses, we were on a smaller boat with under 20 people. As we
headed to the mouth of the harbor, we got a good bit of useful patter,
including geology, Maori culture and European history. The
harbor is beautiful and the highlights were great
close-up views of seal colonies and seeing a few penguins at sea along
with
our two brief sightings of tiny and endangered Hector’s dolphins. The
weather was good, the staff very kind and the cruise made for good
photos and memories.


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