A two-storied Victorian dwelling that sits high above Rue Balguerie in Akaroa impressed a child so much that she thought it must be the home of a giant. And so it became the Giant’s House.
A French tune wafts through the air as we walk around, a reminder that but for the tardiness of Frenchman Jean Langlois in setting up a company to colonise Banks Peninsula, Akaroa’s history could have been quite different.
As it was, the 501-tonne Comte de Paris arrived in August 1840 with 57 French and German settlers on board, a group that was to co-exist alongside English residents already there.
The French influence remains in the town through many of its street names, beautifully maintained colonial cottages and local businesses such as L’Escargot Rouge.
More English than French (otherwise it probably would have been called La Maison du Geant), the 1880s Giant’s House was built of kauri and totara for an Akaroa bank manager. Some tours of the beautifully restored house are available but the main attraction for the numerous visitors is the garden with its stunning array of mosaic artwork and sculptures, the creations of the owner of the Giant’s House, artist Josie Martin.
Realising that a "combination of garden and art worked well", she added more artworks, from mosaic pathways to sculptural installations. She recalled how often she went up and down the steep slope beside the house, "carting concrete up the hill".
The paths, zigzagging upward, are predominantly blue creations of broken china and glass scraps, interspersed with mirror fragments.
Martin became more ambitious, adding quirky figures, ponds and even a piano, her favourite piece, all in concrete inlaid with pieces of china and tiles.
"I did hundreds of drawings of each, then I had a man help me with the concrete," she said.
"I have bought special tiles overseas — a lot of Turkish and Mexican tiles during art residencies there."
Inspired by what she saw in other countries, she started making her own tiles, too, adding another dimension to works at the Giant’s House.
The garden was planned as a backdrop for her artworks and in summer strong colours tend to predominate, although there are a few pale notes, as in a bed of white cosmos and a mauve wisteria near the house. We noted red and gold dahlias, some with dark leaves, fleshy-leafed Aeonium "Schwarzkopf", scarlet bedding salvias and canna lilies, deep red climbing rose "Dublin Bay" and a flashy "Scarlett O’Hara" bougainvillea leaping up veranda posts. Variegated Berberis and flowering shrubs add to the colourful mix, as do blue-green and purple sages.
Tones are softer in spring, thanks to 30 flowering cherries and a magnolia, and the blooms of citrus, apple and quince trees.
Asked to name her favourite flowers, Martin said: "It’s hard to go past roses."
Another favourite plant is Lobelia cardinalis, whose bronze-red foliage and scarlet flowers work well in the Giant’s House colour scheme.
Martin now has part-time help for tasks like trimming the high hedges that shelter the Giant’s House.
Getting to this point has been challenging, not only because of Martin’s extensive planning and detailed execution of the art and garden but because of some disasters along the way.
"First, the whole top bank slipped, then slid again," Martin said.
All three levels had to be stabilised with retaining walls and gabion baskets used just above street level.
Thankfully, those setbacks are behind her and she is planning her next project, a covered cafe below the balustrade.
There is no doubt that her "giant" vision has made Josie Martin’s Giant’s House the premier attraction in Akaroa.