Weekend Escape to Akaroa

Most people think dolphins, France and tourists when hearing Akaroa. And while Akaroa is a prime location for dolphin watching and French fare, and a vibrant tourism hot-spot, I discovered a different Akaroa on the weekend. If you scratch a little below the surface of cute souvenir shops and the French blue-white-red in the air, you’ll find heaps of locals and hidden gems which make Akaroa a truly peaceful, relaxing and indulgent destination.

The holiday feel kicks in on the Banks Peninsula road. Rolling hills with sheep strewn about like confetti, rain-slicked roads that look like streams of maple syrup in the sun, the wetlands of Lake Ellesmere – after thirty minutes’ drive we feel like we’re miles away from the hustle and bustle of a working week in Christchurch. Just after Cooptown we stop at a family orchard to buy some fresh nectarines and we save the stones to see who can throw them the furthest once we reach the Hilltop Café & Bar and catch the first glimpse of Akaroa’s bays.

As darkness gradually slides down the hills to the ocean, we mingle with Akaroa’s tourists on the waterfront. But rather than joining them in one of the buzzing eateries, we order fish and two scoops from Akaroa Fish ‘n‘ Chips and go for a stroll along the wharf. At this time of the day the sightseeing vessels lie deserted and the only ones joining us are some seagulls, who have their eyes firmly on our chips, and the music of two accordion players.

We spend the night and next day in Robinson’s Bay, just out of Akaroa, with reading, beach walks and smelling the ocean, but return to the jumble of French street names, Spanish backpackers and Kiwi hospitality on Sunday. We’re late starters compared to the dolphin-watching charters, which are already on their second run. But Akaroa’s old-worldly charm contributes to our feeling that there’s no rush, and so we stop by the Little Bistro for a long cup of coffee. Here, our drinks come with a chat to owners Emma and Paul, and a toothless smile from their new baby, Finlay. Last time we visited Emma was pregnant and there was a box with pen and paper for name suggestions by the till! But now it’s time for Finlay’s morning nap and so we get going as well. Sifting through a little arts and crafts market on the village green, followed by a long walk out to the old lighthouse right on the heads of the peninsula and browsing local art galleries in little side streets has us return starving by late afternoon. We decide to hop in the car to drive round to Duvauchelle to grab a pie, followed by a visit to Barry’s Bay Cheese Factory where we get to try local delicacies.

And the local cheesery isn’t the only gourmet haven around Banks Peninsula. Keep your eyes open for handwritten street signs and you’ll soon find anything from olive tastings and wineries to local salmon and homemade berry ice cream! And if you’re looking for a fragrant souvenir of your weekend getaway, stop by the house on the road back to Christchurch offering luxurious lavender soap!

When we come back on Sunday night, truly relaxed, I realise that there are three misconceptions about great holidays. First, there is the idea that a holiday has to be at least a couple of weeks long to make you unwind. Second, there is the impression that indulgence has to be expensive. And thirdly, there is the notion that you have to go far away to truly relax. Well, the local side of Akaroa proved all three wrong in just a couple of days.

– Nadine Kats