As the site of the only attempted settlement by the French in New Zealand, Akaroa is unique. From Hilltop, where the magnificent panorama of Akaroa Harbour stuns first-time travellers, Akaroa, Canterbury’s oldest town, looks dwarfed, an insignificant cluster of small buildings below rugged hills on the far side of a broad harbour. But closer up, the town reveals itself to be a fascinating collection of charming older buildings and a thriving, lively centre for both visitors and locals.
Akaroa is the South Island’s oldest town. To this day it has a deserved reputation as one of the country’s best preserved historic towns. Historic as it is, there is much more to Akaroa today than history, though ambling up its irregular streets, admiring old cottages and gardens, is still Akaroa’s greatest pleasure for many.
Nowhere else in the country has such a compact, complete record of New Zealand’s domestic architecture. The town’s churches and other public buildings are also notable examples of New Zealand’s colonial architecture. But now Akaroa also attracts people for all sorts of recreation, walking on the hills or foreshore, boating on the harbour, viewing wildlife from dolphins to seabirds to seals. And few Canterbury pleasures match whiling away a summer afternoon in a harbourside café in Akaroa.
European whalers began frequenting Akaroa Harbour regularly in the 1830s, not long after the harbour had seen the North Island chief Te Rauparaha attack Ngai Tahu settlements on its shores. The town gained distinction in 1840 as the site of the only attempt to plant an organised French settlement in New Zealand. People of British and other nationalities soon outnumbered the French even in Akaroa, but the town still celebrates its French origins.
Through its long life, Akaroa has played many roles – including a fishing port and a farm service town. Before the road over Hilltop was improved most goods, and many visitors, came to and from Akaroa over its wharves. Since the 19th century, Akaroa has also been a holiday resort, its main role today. People have escaped their day-to-day worries and preoccupations in Christchurch and other cities by coming “over the hill” for a day trip or for holidays from a few days to several weeks. Hotels and boarding houses, and more recently motels, have been among Akaroa’s most important buildings.
Akaroa is the largest but not the only settlement on the shores of its superbly scenic harbour. The main road to Akaroa passes through Barrys Bay, Duvauchelle, Robinsons Bay and Takamatua. Beyond Akaroa is the small settlement of Onuku, the heart of the Maori presence in the harbour basin. The small, simple church at Onuku, across the road from the marae, is one of the country’s most beautifully sited historic buildings.
On the far side of the harbour from Akaroa is the holiday settlement of Wainui, where families own “baches” (holiday cottages) that have provided several generations of the families with fabulous childhood holidays. The road to Wainui passes through French Farm, a name that recalls the farm established by the French navy when they had ships stationed in the harbour (with the agreement of the British) in the 1840s. Today French Farm is also well-known for its winery. The French brought the first vines to the Peninsula in 1840. Today, the small quantities of wine produced on the Peninsula are highly regarded and sought after.