A scenic one and a half hour’s drive from Christchurch leads to Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, a quaint town steeped in European history with more than a touch of French charm. Captain James Cook and the crew aboard the Endeavour were the first Europeans to sight the peninsula in February 1770. Cook, deceived by the peninsula’s low-lying marshes and high headlands, mistakenly recorded it as Banks Island after his botanist Joseph Banks. It wasn’t until some 40 years later, when a mariner sought a non-existent sea passage, that the mistake was discovered and charts were corrected.
In 1838 Jean Francois Langlois, the captain of a whaling ship, purchased land from local Maori and the French began a determined effort to start a colony in the Pacific. Langlois returned to France and made arrangements for French settlers to colonise the land, but while the immigrants were en route the English were already in the process of establishing sovereignty over New Zealand following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Six days before Captain Lavaud arrived in Akaroa Harbour with his cargo of 57 French and German migrants, the British flag was raised at Akaroa’s Green Point. The settlers, having travelled such a long way, chose to stay regardless. They built houses and planted their gardens with fruit and nut trees, and with rose bushes that had survived the long sea journey. In 1843, after several years of debate, an agreement was finally reached which saw the French accepting British rule of law in New Zealand and relinquishing any claims to jurisdiction.
During the early 1800s flax traders and sealers made irregular visits to the peninsula and in the mid-1830s whalers established several land stations around its southern shores. Local forests also provided a source of income and several timber mills opened to supply wood for the buildings of Christchurch.
It wasn’t until April 1850 however that the first British settlers arrived aboard the SS Monarch. From this point onwards the township of Akaroa was established with the French located at the north end of the beach and the British at the south end. A small bay divided the settlements.
Today evidence of the town’s Gallic past remains in many of the street signs and historic buildings. Keen historians will find much of the town’s varied and colourful history on display at the Akaroa Museum. There are Maori taonga (treasures), relics from its whaling past, and the museum incorporates several historical buildings including the Customs House at Daly’s Wharf, the old courthouse, and the Langlois-Eteveneaux House, built in the early 1840s and one of the oldest houses in the South Island. A 20-minute audio-visual relates the complete history of the town.
The Akaroa Historic Area Walk also provides an insight into Akaroa’s history, following the town’s narrow winding streets past old colonial cottages, churches and other mid-nineteenth century buildings which reflect the influence of the early French and British settlers. Guide booklets detailing the walk are available at the museum or from the Akaroa Information Centre.
Alternatively Akaroa’s ambience can be soaked up while relaxing at one of its many seaside cafes overlooking the deep, still waters of the harbour. Here all sorts of fishing, pleasure and charter boats travel to and fro on the changing tide. Fresh catch of the day can be sampled at these tables by the sea as can some of the excellent local Akaroa wine.
Akaroa is well known for its artisan products and there’s some great boutique stores offering local arts and crafts. You can also meet artists in their home studios and, while en route, discover local gourmet foods such as olive products at The Olive Grove and specialty cheese at nearby Barry’s Bay Cheese.
Akaroa Harbour is a deep sea-filled crater, which creates a fascinating marine environment. Informative harbour cruises are offered aboard the Black Cat, taking visitors to historical sites and offering opportunities to spot fur seals, blue penguins, Hector’s dolphins and several species of sea birds. The company also provides the only opportunity in New Zealand to swim with the unique Hector’s (or NZ) dolphin, one of the world’s smallest and rarest species with a total population of around 6000-7000 individuals. Tours depart daily from the Akaroa wharf.