As you follow the road (SH75) to from Christchurch to Akaroa you come first around the flat area at the neck of the peninsula and then the road begins to twist and turn as you climb to the crest of the hills between Little River and Akaroa Harbour. It's a pretty drive through rural countryside - and then you reach the top. I defy anyone not to stop at this point and get the camera out. The view that spreads out before you is stunning! Click on the photo for a panorama
The long arm of Akaroa Harbour lies below; the small spit extending into it is the Onawe Peninsula, scene of a terrible inter-tribal Maori massacre in 1830. The local Ngai-tahu tribe had built a large pa (fortified village) on the peninsula, which is joined to the mainland by a neck of rock only a few metres wide that is covered by water at high tide. This seeming safety became a trap however . There was no escape once the invading tribe gained access - hundreds of Ngai-tahu people were killed and eaten. Ownership of the peninsula has been returned to the Ngai-tahu fairly recently and it is no longer accessible to the public.
From here you can continue on the highway into Akaroa - it will take you about 15 minutes - or you can turn right onto Summit Road and follow round the rim of the ancient volcano around to where the Long Bay Road comes up from the main highway. Your reward will be a series of spectacular views, alternately of the Akaroa Harbour Basin and and then eastwards to the Outer Bays and the Pacific Ocean. Little roads (most of them sealed) branch off all along the way, either to the harbour or to one or other of the outer bays. The road is sealed, but it is narrow, steep in places and has many bends and it will, realistically, take you a couple of hours to make your way to Akaroa as you are sure to want to make stops along the way.
First settled by French would-be-colonists ( their ship, the Comte de Paris, sailed from La Rochelle only days before the British had signed the Treaty of Waitangi which saw all of New Zealand become a British colony, so their venture was doomed before it began) Akaroa town treasures its French connection and makes the most of it. This was the first European settlement on the South Island and it was to be some years before British settlers followed, by which time there were French street names in place, walnuts and willow trees brought from France were growing well and gardens were planted with vines and roses that are still to be seen there today. The ancestors of some of those first pioneers still live in Akaroa and you'll see lots of French names and words in use as you walk around the town.
Akaroa's main attraction is really its lovely setting and its fine collection of colonial era buildings- its streets of pretty houses and gardens (check at the Visitor's Centre to see which gardens are open to the public), churches, attractive shops and public buildings. There are some wonderful old buildings - some, such as the Shipping Office and the Post Office, quite grand - others like the old Customs House, very simple. Some - like the old Pump House, now housing an art gallery alongside the old pumping engines - have have found a new purpose. A path up behind the Pump House will take you up to the French Cemetery - though the wooden grave markers themselves are long gone, there is a monument there telling the names of those who lie buried here.
This was just the nicest way to spend a morning!
The Eastern Bays Scenic Mail Run delivers not only the mail and the morning newspapers to the little hamlets and isolated farmhouses of the Outer Bays of the Banks Peninsula - it also delivers a unique opportunity for visitors to ride with the mailman over some 120kms of backroads, down steep hills into 10 of the peninsula's beautiful little bays and up to the highest points of the crater's crest with spectacular views all the way - including a marvellously panoramic view of both sides of the peninsula from a height of 2000m
Leaving from the Post Office promptly at 9am, the trip takes about 4 and a half hours. Along the way you'll have time to visit little churches, walk along quiet sandy beaches, stop at scenic viewpoints and enjoy a delicious morning tea break. Gerry Trott, the mailman, was a mine of information about the history and personalities of the area and the morning was a real highlight of our Akaroa holiday. Don't miss it!
2012 Update Gerry has retired but the mail run is still operating. All the details can be found here
The mail bus can carry eight passengers, and is very popular, so booking is advisable.
Reservations may be made through the AkaroaInformation Centre (03) 304 8600 or direct with the new operators, Robin and Jo (03) 304 8526 between 5.00pm and 7.00pm.
The hilly and rugged nature of the Banks Peninsula is in complete contrast to the flatness of the Canterbuty Plain you have left behind you as you've driven here. So what formed these beautiful bays, dramatic hills and deep harbours that are different from the rest of this region of New Zealand?
The answer is two ancient volcanoes.
One - the Lyttelton volcano - first eruptied 15 million years ago or so but the outer Akaroa volcano is much younger - the most recent eruptions there happened less than six million years ago. At that time the volcanoes were seperated from the mainland but the forces of glacial erosion from the still evolving Southern Alps created the Canterbury Plain and eventually joined the volcanoes to the mainland over several ice ages. The sea level rose, the volcanoes eroded and the Pacific Ocean flooded into the craters, forming the harbours of Lyttelton and Akaroa, the principal settlements on the Peninsula. These harbours are considered to be among the world’s best examples of eroded and flooded craters. Enlarge the map here and you will see the contours of the volcanos and the craters very clearly.
Whilst the Peninsula is within easy day-trip distance from Christchurch (and it attracts lots of day-trippers) its volcanic nature makes it a wonderfully varied place to explore. There are hundreds of kilometres of road here - some good and well sealed, some unsealed, narrow and rather precipitous. There are several little settlements with campgrounds, B&Bs and backpackers for those who wish to get away from the main (and very popular) towns of Lyttleton and Akaroa. Lyttleton is only a 15 minute drive from Christchurch but Akaroa, with its quaint French connection, is very pretty and makes a great base for a more thorough exploration of the Peninsula.
You can't miss the pretty little house that is the pride and joy of the Akaroa Museum. A tiny weatherboard cottage , painted soft aqua green with a white picket fence and tumbling pink roses, it a absolute charmer. This is the Langlois Eleveneaux Cottage , built for one of the original French pioneers of Akaroa. Viewing access to the cottage is through the main museum building next door, and this is where you should start your visit.
The museum tells the story of Akaroa and the region around, its Maori origins, the wild days of the sealers and whalers, those first French (and German) settlers and the English and Scotsmen who followed. There are displays of the natural history of the area and a an excellent audio-visual presentation to put it all into perspective.
The Langlois Eleveneaux Cottage is furnished in period style ( no entry - you look through large glass panels).
Two other historic buildings house more of the collection - the Courthouse (next door to the museum - access again is through the main building) and the little red-roofed Customs House on Daly's Wharf.
The museum has wheelchair access. There is a small shop. Guided tours are available, otherwise, pick up a museum brochure. Signage and information throughout is excellent.
The sheltered waters of Akaroa's harbour is a marvellous playground with something for everyone. Wildlife cruises, sailing, boat hire, sea kayaking , jet boating - even swimming with dolphins or surfing with seals - are just some of the things on offer. Its safe, sandy beaches are ideal for small children to swim and to play on, or you could take a stroll by the water around to the lighthouse or simply sit sit and enjoy the view from one of the cafes along the front.
A walk along the main wharf could prove expensive - this is where you'll find Akaroa's unique blue pearls for sale.
As well as being very beautiful and a wonderful natural playground, the harbour is home to two very rare creatures - Hectors dolphins (the world's smallest species of cestaceans) and the hoi-hoi penguin.
Much to our regret, we didn't have time to take a cruise on the historic Fox II (owned until recently and still crewed when we were there by the owners of the B&B were staying in). This lady's a beautiful 85 year old - a red-sailed gaff-rigged ketch - and, if for no other reason than to set off up the harbour on her deck - I'm going back to Akaroa!
The lighthouse is situated on a point at the far end of Akaroa Harbour, past the long pier. That's not its original position - it stood for 100 years near the harbour entrance, with 2 lighthouse keepers to look after it. In 1976 it was announced that it was to be replaced with an automatic light. A local campaign began to save it and transport it to Akaroa, 9 kms down the road (which was done, after it was cut into 3 pieces, weighing several tonnes each).
Besides great views from here, it's at this point also that the Britomart Monument walk begins (1 hour return).
It's the monument which was erected to commemmorate the moment when the British proclaimed sovereignty over the South Island and ended all French hopes of owning their first territory in the Pacific.
The museum is only small, but rather interesting (at least the room that deals specifically with the French settlers, with pictures and artefacts, including a scale model of the Comte de Paris and 2 tiny bits of wood from The Bounty (as in the ship from Mutiny on the Bounty, but in real life)
There's also a facility there for people to be able to conduct research, and examine their records.
It's open every day from 10.30 am - 4.30 pm.
The only thing you might know about Banks Peninsula is that you should visit Akaroa, the only French settlement in NZ. As others have read this as well this charming place can be very crowded in the summer months. At other times of the year it is much more enjoyable - and in winter you might have it for yourself... ;-)
Banks Peninsula is one of the most spectacular areas in NZ with its tussock landscape, sea cliffs, turquoise blue bays, beaches, up to 920m high mountains, native forest and fantastic 360° views.
Take a detour to Akaroa via lonesome paths and the Summit Road. This leads up and down to turquoise blue bays and opens spectacular views from the top. Take the road from Christchurch via Governors Bay or Gebbies Pass to Diamond Harbour, Purau and Port Levy, then a narrow and winding gravel road to Pigeon Bay (only in good weather conditions!!!) and back up and down to the sealed Summit Road. If you take the main road back to Christchurch you can visit the cheese factory in Barrys Bay and have a coffee or meal at the French Farm or Hilltop Tavern.
Have a look at the map here.
Typical Tourist activities in the area are:
Swim with the Dolphins in Akaroa; Harbour Cruises in Akaroa and Lyttelton - you can see Hector dolphins, the smallest dolphins in the world, in both harbours, in Lyttelton also tours to Quail Island (nice for a walk); Penguin Watching at Flea Bay near Akaroa (guided tours only); Scenic Mail Run (Akaroa).
Banks Peninsula offers superb tramping opportunities, including the commercial Banks Peninsula Track (approx. NZ$200pp).
Mt. Herbert (920m) - either from the wharf in Diamond Harbour (ferry from Lyttelton), 5 to 6 hours return, or from Port Levy/Little River Saddle, 1 to 2 hours one way, or even from Orton Bradley Park. From there shorter walks are possible.
Packhorse Hut - start from Gebbies Pass, 2 hours one way. The Packhorse Hut offers bunk beds to spend the night.
More walks and infos in Mark Pickering's booklet (available at Tourist Info and shops).
(length 45 mins)
There are several walks which can be done in Akaroa, some short walks to monuments and good views, or through a garden (such as the Garden of Tane) and then there is also the Banks Peninsula walk which takes several days.
I was only interested in the short walks, and more specifically, those connected with the French history, so the French Cemetery walk was No 1 on my list.
The route starts in Rue Pompallier, where a signpost marks the start of the walking path which leads uphill through the forest to the cemetery. As you climb, turn and take a look back at the harbour, visible through the trees, as you won?t see it on the way back.
The cemetery was consecrated by the Catholic Bishop Pompallier, and was the only one in Akaroa?s early days, so I was looking forward to seeing it and learning more about its history.
Unfortunately though, when you arrive at the clearing, all you see is a tall grey concrete cairn surrounded by a little barrier, with names of the early settlers on the Cairn.
That?s because the cemetery had fallen into disrepair and became overgrown, and most of the wooden crosses disappeared.
After complaints of neglect, it was cleaned up in 1925. A lot of information has been lost. The names inscribed on the cairn which was erected at that time are only of those THOUGHT to be buried here.
The walk follows a circular route, which on the way back, if you turn right, takes you along a residential street past several houses which are old enough to have early French connections, plus the house said to be the oldest one in Canterbury, then turn back and go back downhill, where you will see the Catholic Church, (just before you are back in the town again. )
The first settlers to Akaroa were Catholics.
St Patricks was built in 1865, while many of them were still living, so it is a link back to them in some ways.
Like the outside, inside the church is light and airy, not dark, gloomy and sombre as you might expect of that time period (though I guess it's had a fair few coats of paint since it was built). I liked the feel of this church, anyway. Coming from a country which has very few wooden churches (only in the tropics) it was special for that too.
This war memorial is in an enclosed rose garden/park flanked by palm trees on the main street in Rue Lavaud, not far past the Post Office. From one direction, one looks at the hills, and the other, at the sea.
The memorial is entitled
“Our Glorious dead”, in memory of those lost in the Great War. There are some obvious French descendants names on the list.
The Fox II is a red-sailed beauty - the oldest gaffed rigged ketch in New Zealand. Built in Auckland in 1922, her home port nowadays is Akaroa, and an afternoon in her company spent exploring the harbour is a fantastic experience. Whether you choose to actively crew or simply sit back and enjoy the peace and quiet of cruising under sail, it's a great way to see the harbour, learn some of its history and meet some of the wildlife that inhabit this lovely place.
As the ketch makes its way right out through the headland to open sea, the skipper tells stories of the history of the Harbour, both Maori and Pakeha. Sailing close to shore in places, the cruise takes you past interesting natural and historical features such as the extraordinary rock formations that tell of the harbour's volcanic origins, the Maori village of Ônuku - a place of great significance to the Maori of the South Island and Greenpoint where, following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Britiish raised the Union flag prior to the arrival of the French settlers who arrived soon after.
Throughout the months of summer (October to May) the Harbour is home to Hectors dolphins - the smallest of all the species. It's a rare cruise that doesn't get good sightings of these delightful creatures as the slower speed and quieter atmosphere means they will usually approach quite closely and even swim alongside. You'll need to be quicker with your camera than I was though to get a photo.
The seals are more obliging. The rocky shore on the north side of the harbour is home to a couple of colonies and, again, as the quiet approach doesn't disturb them, you can get really good sightings.
Akaroa info: www.akaroa.com
80 Rue Lavaud (opposite BNZ & Langlois-Eteveneaux House)
Open daily 9am-5pm
Ph. (03) 304 8600
Swimming with Dolphins
Black Cat Cruises have just purchased the competitor Dolphin Experience (Oct. 2007). So there is no competition anymore. Black Cat Cruises operate from both premises.
1.) Black Cat Cruises
Main Wharf (building with blue roof)
Ph. (03) 304 7641
Departures: 6am, 8.30am, 11.30am (only May-Sep), 1.30pm
Prices (as Feb. 2007): $105/children $85, watching only $55/30 (full refund if you do not see dolphins, part refund if you cannot swim with them)
2.) Black Cat at office of Dolphin Experience
61 Beach Road (waterfront)
Ph. (03) 304 7726, tollfree (0508) 365 744
Akaroa Dolphins and Harbour Cruises (dolphin watch only, no swimming)
65 Beach Road (waterfront)
Ph. (03) 304 7866, tollfree (0800) 990102
Pohatu Penguin Tours and Sea-Kayaking (at Flea Bay):
Option 1: You watch little white-flippered penguins from kayaks. Sometimes you can also spot a Yellow-Eyed Penguin. Best season Sep. - Jan.
Option 2: Viewing penguins from land. Pickup from Akaroa ($55pp) or self-drive to Flea Bay (4WD only) and there guided tour ($16pp). No public access, bookings essential (Akaroa Visitor Centre).
Ph. (03) 304 8552
Eastern Bays Scenic Mail Run
(link http://www.akaroatours.com does not work)
Rob Burleigh, a former ranger of the Department of Conservation, takes you on a 120km trip on Banks Peninsula in a red Rural Post van and visit ten bays, tour includes beachfront picnic. They call it "The Prettiest Mail Run in the World" and do not recommend it for children. Departure Mon-Fri 9am at Akaroa Visitor Centre (back at 1.30pm).
Booking with the Akaroa Visitor Centre (Phone 03 - 304 8600) or Rob and Jo Burleigh after 5pm, Phone (03) 304 8526.