What do you think of when you hear Akaroa? Before exploring Akaroa, all I really knew about it was that it was the 'France' of NZ and that there were dolphin cruises in the harbour, so I have been incredibly impressed with just how rich this area is in culture, wildlife and landscapes after spending a couple of days exploring the area. It's only a stones throw away from Christchurch (1.5 hours) so it makes a great day trip, but to really appreciate what's on offer here you need to allow a couple of days to soak it all in. Whether you are a foodie, nature lover or history buff, there is something for everyone here, so take your pick from these amazing and unique experiences.
If I was an alpaca, I'd want to live at Shamarra Alpaca Farm. The setting high on a hillside overlooking Akaroa harbour has panoramic views to die for and the alpaca are certainly spoilt! Anya and Frank have been farming here for 16 years with their herd of over 150 alpaca who regularly win prizes for being best in show. The farm tour here is hugely informative and runs all year round. I found out so many new facts about these gentle creatures - they're docile and friendly but can be frightened easily so it's best to move slowly around them, they can spit when threatened though so be warned! They're shorn once a year just before summer (to help them cope with the heat since they are used to -10 to -15 degrees in the high plains of South America), and their coat provides 2-3kg of high quality wool in different shades depending on their colouring. The tour starts and finishes with refreshments and you'll also get a chance to feed the alpacas - I was so impressed with how polite they were waiting for their food, unlike sheep seem to be! I couldn't resist buying a lovely pair of alpaca hand-warmers in their shop afterwards - it'll be perfect for all the cold mornings of sunrise photography I'm used to.
French Peak Wines is a local boutique winery known for its biodynamic and organically crafted wines, and it felt very decadent to be popping in here to sample their wine selection before 11am. The winery is best known for rosé, chardonnay and pinot noir - and as an often sauvignon blanc drinker it was very nice for my palate to try a few different varieties, though it was hard to pick a favourite. I also fell in love with the wee glamping cabin on site complete with windmill and outdoor bath - I was a big fan of Little House on the Prairie growing up and the cabin looked just like it!
Akaroa is well known as being home to the Hector's Dolphin, one of the world's smallest and rarest marine mammals. These dolphins are distinguishable from other species by their rounded black dorsal fin and unique black and white markings. What makes the Akaroa Dolphins Harbour Cruise unique are their 'dolphin spotting dogs' - specially trained dogs which can hear the dolphins when they are near and we were accompanied on our trip by Buster the Schnauzer. We saw 3 or 4 groups of Hector dolphins on the trip, they tend to be much harder to spot than other species as they only travel in small pods of 3-4, rather than in pods that reach into the hundreds.
Akaroa Harbour is also home to a marine reserve so there is a variety of other wildlife to see along the way - sea birds, NZ fur seals and penguins too as well as incredible sea caves and a unique coastline so the 2 hour cruise passes by very quickly and you're left wanting more. On the way back, the cruise takes you past the Akaroa salmon farm and if the famous Akaroa salmon is your thing be sure to try some in the local cafes and restaurants - it was top of my list of foods to try here.
The 45 minute journey out to reach Pohatu Penguins is simply breathtaking, featuring a stunning drive up to the headland cliffs before dropping back down into Flea Bay where the Pohatu Penguins live. The conservation work undertaken here by the Helps family over the last 30 years is impressive, and the penguins are so fortunate to have had people who cared enough to make a big difference to their ongoing survival. There are over 1,000 breeding pairs of penguins at last count which has increased due to the important predator control work they undertake here. Predators such as stoats and feral cats can kill 5 penguins a night so trapping is really important, with bait in the traps needing to be changed regularly. The friendly farm sheep also do their part to help by keeping the grass down to make it safer for the penguins so their tracks through the grass are not easily found by predators.
At different times of the year you'll see the penguins in different places, and visiting in October meant there was a high likelihood of seeing the penguins in their nesting sites dotted all over the bay, and it amazed me that there were even several nesting boxes among the family garden.
You can also camp or stay in a variety of eclectic accommodation here - choose between a tree house or gypsy wagon for something a little unique! There are also sea kayaking tours out into Flea Bay if you want to take to the water.
Akaroa is home to some impressive historic buildings, and none more so than Blythcliffe - NZ's oldest inhabited home, built in 1857. This stately home has a grand heritage, and was owned by the mayor of Akaroa for 22 years, and the home remained within the Armstrong family for over 100 years. I stayed in the Rose Room which had a lovely view out over the croquet lawn down towards the harbour, and I wish I'd had more time to explore the garden which has its own stream and tame eels I'm told. I certainly felt like royalty feasting on an Akaroa salmon omelette complete with fresh eggs from their chicken for breakfast the next morning too.
Hearing stories of people following their dreams to carve out a lifestyle to make the most of precious family time is always incredibly inspiring and so I loved hearing how Ant and Lou decided to leave their banking jobs in London to start the Akaroa Cooking School 10 years ago. Their labour of love and hard work has turned this idea into a business that has seen them achieve outstanding accolades, including being named as one of the Top 10 Cooking Schools in the World by Lonely Planet, which is no mean feat.
Their classes usually run 10-4pm with specific themes, but they are very popular and sell out fast, some of their customers have been back 15 times so you know they must be pretty good! We only had enough time to sample a couple of mouth-wateringly lovely canapes on our short visit, but it was a treat to watch Ant hot-smoke the Akaroa salmon before serving it with dill mayo - a combo that just literally melted in the mouth!
I'm somewhat ashamed to admit I'd never even heard of The Giant's House before my visit, and now I'm wondering just how this is possible. It's a Garden of International Significance and reminded me of the incredible works by Gaudi that can be found throughout Barcelona, except this garden has been created by the diminutive, yet uber-talented local artist Josie Martin over the past 25 years.
The garden is well.. (insert any number of superlatives here), it really has to be seen to be believed. Just when you think you've seen the best of the mosaic sculptures, you turn another corner and a new favourite is found. You can walk through the terraced garden multiple times just taking it all in and seeing new aspects you missed previously, and that's before you even go inside the house! The bright yellow farmhouse kitchen and bedrooms all have unique artistic features with Josie's incredible artwork dotted throughout, even the light fittings and chairs are her creations. If you don't come away from a visit here without a spring in your step and a smile on your face, I'd be amazed!
I felt incredibly emotional after spending a short couple of hours with Marie Haley of Seventh Generation Tours on her insightful tour of Akaroa. For a start, I had absolutely no idea just how important this area was to NZ's early history, and I was choked hearing the story of the Maori massacre at Takapuneke in 1830, an event that had a direct impact on the need for laws to govern NZ, and ultimately had a part to play in the Treaty of Waitangi ten years later. Hearing just how close the French came to claiming Banks Penninsula as their own, arriving just days after the British had already raised the Union Jack was also fascinating. As a direct descendant of one of Akaroa's first French settlers, Marie has a wealth of first-hand knowledge of the local area, and is hugely passionate about the regeneration of native flora and fauna in the land as well.
Gorse is a huge problem in the area, and with 99% of the native forest being cleared when Europeans arrived it literally took over and as it's an incredibly hardy plant it's almost impossible to get rid of. However, little by little the land is regenerating thanks to the locals who are not only replanting native forest each year but also using the methods introduced by local botanist Hugh Wilson to let the native forest grow back through the gorse and it's working a treat. Marie showed us a photo of the hillside from 20 years ago, and it was a swathe of nothing but yellow gorse, and yet now the native forest is back and thriving.
If you find yourself with a couple of days spare next time you're in Christchurch, take the beautiful scenic drive over to Akaroa and explore this amazing area, you'll be so glad you did.
I travelled courtesy of ChristchurchNZ and Akaroa District Promotions but all thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are my own.
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