Akaroa: All the best places to visit in this ridiculously charming town
On a picturesque peninsula not far from Christchurch, is the très charmant village of Akaroa. Discover its French past and all the best ways to enjoy this town.
Hands up anyone who’s been to Akaroa! Mmm, I thought as much. Even though you haven’t, you probably know it was set to be a French colony, but while the settlers were en route to the place they knew as Port Louis-Philippe, the pesky Brits signed the Treaty of Waitangi and made it theirs. Clever them – this is one of New Zealand’s prettiest towns, with a long and lovely harbour.
There’s still a French flavour in the historic settlement – they have rues instead of roads, and lots of la this and le that.
Excellent towns (in my not-very-humble opinion) have to have great cafés, walks of every length and difficulty level, antique shops, historic buildings with gorgeous gardens and a cinema – and if you can throw in brilliant fish and chips and a waterfront promenade, then you’ve really got the lot. Akaroa gets full marks. It doesn’t have a bookshop per se, but Rona’s café has a tiny, well-curated selection for sale (and top-notch coffee).
Akaroa's township is ridiculously charming
It’s a much quieter place these days, as the cruise ships aren’t visiting. I tried and tried to find someone who missed the great invasions of tourists, but it seems the locals enjoy not having thousands of snaphappy cruisers mooching round their streets, moaning about queues in the cafés. The loss of income has been offset by the joy of having the town to themselves again.
The waterfront is full of families walking and children learning to cycle, wetsuited locals with paddleboards under their arms heading for the harbour, and less sporty types making for Harbar, a tiny building offering shade on sunny days and cosy comfort on cold ones, not to mention superb cocktails and bar snacks every day. I do like a bar that can stretch to fit everyone – our group of five arrived to find it full, but seats magically appeared before we’d even asked.
Given the French start, it’s no wonder wine and cheese are such a big part of the economy here. There are wineries and fromageries (okay, a single cheese factory, but “fromagerie” sounds so much more exotic) all over Banks Peninsula. I’m not going to list them all, but do make a point of visiting Barrys Bay Cheese – the “balls of fire” looked and sounded irresistible: Havarti rolled in cracked peppercorns. It wasn’t one of the cheeses available for tasting, so I bought the three they had for sale. Utterly delicious. The other ones I tasted were all great, but the balls of fire? Formidable, as we say in Akaroa.
With our balls of fire on board, we took a wrong – but very right – road. This place is built for exploring and the road we took was narrow and winding with bright green paddocks on one side and dangerously beautiful bays on the other. We came to the Shamarra Alpacas farm at the top of a very steep and narrow track.
Here, Frank and Anya Walkington breed posh alpacas that sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Anya patted her stud, Rising Sun, who at 14 is pretty much a pensioner in alpaca years.
“You know,” she said, “even at his age, he can still serve two females every day, and he can make each session last 15 minutes.” Gosh, how many men can do that? And he still has all his own hair. If you’ve never had an encounter with an alpaca, you must. They have such soft fleeces and they are so ridiculously loveable. Cousins Connah, 9, and Beau, 2, were lying all over the deceptively named Tornado. Tornado was almost comatose, with no raging or swirling at all, as the children snuggled in and tickled the fluffy, toylike chap.
Alpacas are hard to leave, but we had to get back to town in time for lunch – fish and chip shop Murphy’s on the Corner has a big reputation, and three generations of one family work on the boat and in the café.
Their boat pulls up at the jetty and delivers the freshest of fish to the only building in town with a huge shark over the door. Akaroa salmon are justly famous too, and Murphy’s can batter or grill them to perfection.
If you want to buy fresh whole fish straight off the boat to take home, contact Akaroa Salmon and you can buy a maximum of four per person at the Wainui Wharf.
I’m a bit fed up with people telling me how much they love the privately owned Banks Track. I’ve never done it and I have terrible FOMO, especially after driving down to Flea Bay (no fleas, sorry) and seeing where the lucky hikers get to stay on the second night.
They can even book a kayak tour of the Pōhatu Marine Reserve in a little blue penguin sanctuary that the Helps family (great name) set up more than 30 years ago.
There are also adorable Valais sheep! Alpacas, penguins and Valais sheep? Is it even legal to have so many uber-cute creatures on one peninsula?
Not so cute but also very impressive is the rhino in Children’s Bay Park. It occupies a prime spot in a conservation reserve on Humphrey and Debra Rolleston’s farm, which they created so everyone in Akaroa could enjoy the unspoilt view of the harbour. There are several walks, and my goddaughter Caroline and I took two of her family’s many dogs up to visit the big recycled metal rhino sculpture on top of the hill. It was a short walk up through native bush but steep enough for me to feign an intense interest in the fuchsia bushes as I stopped to catch my breath, and we enjoyed a nice, slow stop to fill our water bottles with chilly water from the spring.
Akaroa township is ridiculously charming – there are lots of tiny cottages covered in wisteria and roses. The most photographed one is French Bay House, and the owner, Tim, who runs a B&B out of it, was busy weeding under two heavily laden lemon and grapefruit trees when we arrived. There must be something very nutritious in the soil here to have all these gardens so bountiful.
Staying here meant being handy to everything – the cinema, the library, the shops and beach... It’s fun to wander the streets and find the madness that lurks round every corner. The Giants House is a bizarre, Daliesque creation that has been named a “garden of national significance”. Try not to take a photo – it’s impossible.
It’s also well worth visiting Tree Crop Farm. When we called in, owner Lynnie Alexander was chatting away to a man called Lindis, who we assumed was a gardener. Lynnie was obviously busy, so we asked Lindis to show us around.
In fact, he was an overnight guest and was just checking in, so we tagged along on the very different check-in procedure – no formality here! There are tree houses and cabins scattered throughout the farm, and nature is definitely in charge. “My chooks sometimes wander in and lay eggs when I’m doing online yoga”, says Lynnie. All the plants and ducks and trees are allowed to do exactly as they please, too.
Visitors always say that’s how they feel when in Akaroa – it’s so relaxed and easy, and whether it’s swimming with dolphins or poking about in antique shops, admiring the line up of sausages and tomahawk steaks in the local butcher’s shop or just watching the seabirds swooping around, there’s more than enough to please even the fussiest visitor. Akaroa, je t’adore!
What to do
- Banks Track
- Children’s Bay Park
- The Giants House
- Pōhatu Marine Reserve & Pohatu Penguins
- Saturday markets
- Shamarra Alpacas farm tour
Where to eat
- Barrys Bay Cheese
- Murphy’s on the Corner
- Rona’s The Hilltop Tavern (en route from Christchurch)
- Little River Café
Where to stay
- French Bay House
- Tree Crop Farm