This French Enclave Is NZ South Island’s Best-Kept Secret

Akaroa sits quietly at the end of a winding road that meanders through valleys and sheep dotted pastures. Towering cliffs and rocky outcrops cradle its harbour, but the allure of this tiny town lies in its French roots. Above the shore, beyond the fishing boats bobbing lazily, the town unfolds like a storybook village, its streets lined with lovable cottages, where cafés and bistros spill out onto the cobblestone sidewalks. It might feel like a remote corner of the world, but in reality, it’s only a 90-minute drive from Christchurch.  

Maori Beginnings

Akaroa’s story begins long before European settlers arrived on its shores. The area was originally inhabited by the indigenous Māori people, who named it ‘Whangaroa,’ meaning ‘Long Harbour’ in their language. In 1830, French whalers and traders established a settlement here, intending to create a French colony. However, the British Crown claimed sovereignty over New Zealand, leading to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

Despite British control, the French influences are nearly impossible to ignore, particularly on the southern side of town. Streets with “rue” and French delis are part of the charm, not to mention the architecture. For history buffs, the Akaroa Museum is an easily digestible way to consume the town’s inception, from its whaling past to its founders and everything in between. Explore artifacts, listen to exhibits, and read about Akaroa’s famous resident, Pompey, the penguin. 

Culinary Delights

A departure from most sleepy harbour towns, Akaroa’s culinary scene is bursting at the seams. From fine dining to old-school fish and chips in butcher’s paper, Akaroa is not short of good meals. Ma Maison should be at the top of your French list. Perched on the waterfront, this casual restaurant dishes the best views in town and fine dining-esque plates. Akaroa salmon is a specialty, and Ma Maison cooks it to crispy perfection and plops it on top of a bed of lobster ravioli. Another French gem is The Little Bistro, a tiny European restaurant with French flags and a chalkboard, serving fine dining and romance in one sitting.

For something more casual and affordable, Bully Hayes Restaurant and Bar on the main street is not a tourist trap despite the crowds. Here, the menu is extensive, but if you happen to find yourself in the burger section, the Chatham blue cod burger requires two hands. It’s packed with onion rings, two puffy, crunchy pieces of fried cod, and the usual vegetables. Fries are served with aioli. 

For fish and chips, a staple in town, skip the main street cafes for a local fish and chip shop, Kaimoana Takeaways. It’s tucked away, one block from the main street. Choose your fish, your chips, and a tub of sauce for the old-school experience. It even comes wrapped in butcher’s paper. 

Much like other towns and cities, Akaroa has its own distillery. Akaroa Distillery is a shady spot to sit back and try some local gins made with cherry blossom and bladder kelp—all locally grown. Pop in for a tasting or order one of their signature gin and tonics.

Akaroa’s Charms

A leisurely stroll along the waterfront promenade offers classic harbour views of the bay, with an added ‘awe’ thanks to the surrounding volcanic landscape. For those seeking adventure, there are ample opportunities for kayaking, paddleboarding, and sailing on the waters of Akaroa Harbour—all done at your leisure. While on the wharf, pop into Blue Pearl Gallery, and feast your eyes on a blue pearl, a gem only found in New Zealand waters. 

Nature enthusiasts will be enchanted by the wildlife that calls Akaroa home. Take a cruise to spot Hector’s dolphins, one of the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin species, frolicking in the bay with Akaroa Dolphins. Meet the crew, including the resident dog-sniffing dolphins, who, like the crew members, have an important job on board the boat—to find the dolphins. Seabird colonies dot the rugged coastline, as does the occasional white-flippered penguin, all best viewed on board Akaroa Dolphins.

For hikers, the nearby Banks Peninsula offers trails that wind through native bushland and countryside. For a local favourite, take the 40-minute hike from town up to Newton’s Waterfall. Depending on recent rainfall, the falls drop down like a gentle shower, which you can stand under. The pool below is shallow if you want to get your feet wet. You’re almost guaranteed to have it all to yourself, too. 

Equally worth the hike up the hill is The Giants House. Before you ask, no, it’s not a house with oversized everyday objects but rather a garden of sculptures and mosaics created by the artist who resides in the house, Josie. It’s been dubbed the “happiest garden on earth.” We couldn’t agree more. The sprawling garden, which took over 20 years to make, is a dazzling maze of mosaic sculptures, from boats to pianos and larger-than-life characters creating scenes and whimsical worlds. The house itself is an attraction, with a dollhouse-like exterior. You can peer into the windows to glimpse the colourful artist gliding around the house, stand at the front door behind a velvet rope, and admire the wooden staircase. 

Where to Stay

Keeping in theme, French Bay House Bed and Breakfast is as pretty as it gets. With only four bedrooms, it does book out quickly, but if you can manage to snap up a room, expect bright and spacious rooms with bay windows and vintage furnishings. Breakfast is included, and if you prefer to eat with a view, grab one of their picnic baskets before you head out the door. It’s filled with local wine and cheeses and a wool blanket.

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