A "real gem of a place" is the way the tour guide described this beautiful township nestled at the edge of a harbor over an extinct volcano.
"A lot of the people in Christchurch (located about 52 miles north of Akaroa) don't even realize what we've got sitting on our back doorstep," said Noel Nevin, who two to three days a week takes tourists on a scenic day trip aboard a tourist bus called the French Connection to New Zealand's only French settlement.Akaroa, a Maori name that means long harbor, is located at the end of Banks Peninsula about half way down the eastern shore of New Zealand's South Island. The historic seaside village of some 750 residents is situated in the Akaroa Harbor Basin.
It's one of the oldest towns in New Zealand, which has a unique mix of South Pacific and European cultures. But with a rich blend of Maori and other history and traditions, New Zealand has a national identity all its own.
The French attempted to colonize Akaroa in 1840 and nearly succeeded.
"French ambitions in New Zealand were thwarted by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on the North Island on Feb. 6, 1840, and in Akaroa on May 30 of the same year. The British, driven by their trading interests, had pre-empted the French. But it is worth reflecting that had the French arrived only six months earlier" residents of Akaroa could well be speaking French today, according to "Akaroa - A Short History." The publication is written by Steve Lowndes of Akaroa.
Although the British flag was flying when French settlers arrived in Akaroa in 1840, many of the Frenchmen decided to remain in the area. The climate and many other things appealed to them, so they elected to stay on. That's why even today the town still has some French influence.
Many of the streets have French names. And a number of the buildings, including a French prefabricated cottage that was transported to Akaroa in 1842, all combine to lend a touch of France. Many of the people still living in Akaroa and around the scenic peninsula area are direct descendants of the early settlers.
The geologic and historical background of the area makes it a fascinating place to visit. Banks Peninsula is entirely volcanic and is the largest volcanic region on the South Island. Volcanic activity ceased there millions of years ago. But it helped to create spectacular scenery, both in Akaroa and the surrounding area.
In traveling from Christchurch to Akaroa, motorists pass through beautiful Canterbury farming country. Lush, tall manicured hedges crisscross fields and foothills of the peninsula. Hedges often rise 20 or more feet to form windbreaks. Sheep grazing in the fields and on rocky slopes along Akaroa Harbor - New Zealand has more than 40 million sheep - help create a peaceful, pastoral setting.
The journey from Christchurch to Akaroa takes motorists past English-style churches and Lake Ellesmere, the fifth largest lake in New Zealand, and offers a glimpse of the southern Alps in the distance. Along the way, travelers also pass through Little River, where the rumbling sound of railroad cars once pierced the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of the town.
It's a steady climb for motor vehicles as they leave Little River and head toward the summit of an old volcanic crater. There, travelers are treated to a spectacular, panoramic view of the Akaroa Harbor Basin. Upon reaching the summit, one is sitting atop the rim of the crater and looking down into an area once inhabited by Maori people and early French and English settlers.
Akaroa is on one side of the harbor and Barrys Bay and a cheese factory on the other. The area once had eight cheese factories. Only one, Barrys Bay Cheese, is now open. The plant specializes in several varieties of cheese, including Akaroa mellow, a semisoft mild cheese, and tasty havarti, which originated in Denmark. A stop at the factory and a chance to sample some of the cheese is well worth travelers' time.
Studying the history of and visiting quiet, peaceful Akaroa and cruising its harbor could well keep visitors occupied for days. Akaroa's population has only grown an average of one person per year over the past 100 years. That's mainly because of the absence of new jobs. The town used to host a large fishing fleet, most of which has moved to Lyttelton, a village closer to the markets of Christchurch.
Many of Akaroa's residents are retired folks, and about 90 percent of the residences are vacation or holiday homes. The town and its harbor sport beautifully restored French and English-style cottages and other homes, a courthouse constructed in 1878 and a museum. Riding along streets near and overlooking the harbor, one gets a picturesque view from nearly every lookout point. Among other things, visitors pass by a customs house, which dates back to 1848, and beautifully maintained private and public botanical gardens.
A cruise on the deep, natural harbor is almost worth the trip to Akaroa. During a two-hour trip aboard the Canterbury Cat, skipper Ron Bingham provided an informative two-hour commentary for tourists. They are able to sail under cloudless, sunny skies during much of the year.
During this writer's cruise, most of the tourists scurried to snap pictures as Bingham excitedly pointed out the silver gray, black and white Hector's dolphins that darted through the water alongside the Canterbury Cat. Hector's dolphins are the world's smallest dolphins and are found only in New Zealand coastal waters. Passengers aboard the Canterbury Cat also viewed a variety of fish, birds and other wildlife. They include the black back gull; white-flippered little blue penguins; red-billed gulls; the white-fronted tern, a migratory bird that flies to Australia in the winter and back to New Zealand in the summer; and New Zealand fur seals.
"The things you can see here in two hours makes it unique. You can see them up really close because the wildlife has got used to us being here. And we can observe them at close range without disturbing them too much. They are used to the vessel coming along once or twice a day," Bingham observed during an interview.
Bingham and Nevin make those who ride the French Connection and the Canterbury Cat feel welcome in New Zealand.
"It's a privilege to have you here in Akaroa," Bingham told those aboard his vessel, which, before it returned to shore, had sailed past sea cliffs and cathedral-type caves, a salmon farm at Lucas Bay and to the edge of the harbor overlooking choppy waves of the Pacific.
Nevin said he tried retired life for two years before going into the tourist industry.
"I enjoy it very much. Every day is different. I meet lovely people, and Akaroa is a lovely place to go," said Nevin, who with a partner owns the touring company.
Al Knaus, a New Canaan, Conn., resident who was traveling with his wife, Jane, had his own description of Akaroa as Nevin's tour bus stopped for a view of the harbor high above the village: "It's the closest thing to heaven," he declared.
Knaus also had some positive things to say about New Zealanders: "The people here seem quite happy with themselves. They are self-assured. They are certainly friendly and extremely helpful."