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Cast your eye over a New Zealand map and Banks Peninsula is a curious geographic feature, jutting off the coast of Canterbury like a giant corrugated thumb.
Formed from the remnants of two ancient volcanoes, Banks Peninsula was previously an island. Then, roughly 20,000 years ago, erosion from the Southern Alps in the form of glacial rocks and pebbles washing down the rivers created the Canterbury Plains and joined Banks Peninsula to the mainland.
The tourist honeypot of Akaroa looms large as the glittery showpiece.
From Christchurch, it’s just over an hour’s drive, although there’s a plethora of enticements along the way.
An obligatory first-stop on State Highway 75 is at Little River, where the creative locals spill forth with their works.
Visit the Little River Gallery for a mixture of eclectic and wonderful art for sale, showcasing the verve of local and New Zealand craftspeople. The former railway station also houses a trove of craft worth a browse.
Also lording over the roadside, one of the quirkiest accommodation options in New Zealand, Silostay. Yes, you can sleep in a converted grain silo with intriguing little details and a comfy bed, it’s Insta-gold.
After a cursory stop at the Hilltop Tavern to take in the panoramic view across Akaroa Harbour, I rolled down into Barry’s Bay where fromage fans are handsomely rewarded by popping into Barry’s Bay Cheese for tours and tastings.
When this factory first produced its cheddar in 1895, it was just one of nine small, family-owned dairy co-operatives dotted around Banks Peninsula. One by one, they fell by the wayside apart from this sole survivor and last outpost of traditional hand-crafted cheese making on the Peninsula.
From there, it’s a very short hop to a striking sliver of land with a storied past that cuts through the harbour like a knife, Onawe Peninsula.
Jutting into the harbour like an elongated pyramid, it’s connected to the mainland only by a thin ridge of land.
Geologically theatrical with a riot of patterned rock colours, it’s a volcanic plug inside Akaroa Harbour.
I took the opportunity to strike out on the one-hour return walk. Be sure to time your walk for low or mid tide, to avoid getting wet feet before heading up the slope to the summit. About 190 years ago, it was the palisaded site of a Ngai Tahu pa, which was captured by Te Rauparaha, chief of the Ngati Toa in 1832.
Estimates on the scale of death vary widely, but up to 1200 people were slaughtered by Te Rauparaha’s warriors in a merciless massacre. Many of the slain iwi had taken refuge after Kaiapoi pa had been laid waste a year earlier.
Needless to say, the land is sacred to Ngai Tahu and you’re requested not to eat when you visit this historic site. It’s a place so silent, a shout hangs in the air. Despite its gruesome backstory, the scenery is blow-your-socks-off gorgeous.
After taking in that heady dose of nature and history, it’s a 20-minute drive to Akaroa.
In this charismatic place of old walnut trees, evocative colonial cottages and white picket fences, there’s no shortage of history. But it’s the town’s unmistakable French influence that accentuates the seduction. Order a cafe au lait and soak it up. In 1838, French whaling captain Jean-Francois Langlois made a down payment on 12,150ha of Banks Peninsula land, agreed to with 12 Ngai Tahu chiefs.
Back in France, he secured support from businessmen and the government for the idea of a settlement and the starting point for French colonisation of the South Island.
In 1840, 64 French and German settlers arrived at Akaroa after enduring many months at sea, only to see the Union Jack flying on Green Point. The British had arrived seven days earlier on board HMS Britomart after annexing the entire country under the Treaty of Waitangi.
Despite their profound disappointment, the French settlers were allowed to stay and live under British rule. Many street names pay homage to those early French settlers.
Located at 68 Rue Balguerie, The Giant’s House was named by a young girl looking up at it from the valley below, remarking it was so huge that it must be the house of a giant.
Built in 1880 by the manager of the Bank of New Zealand, the manor house is a timbered delight, brimming with totara and kauri, plus a magnificent mahogany staircase imported from France. It is fully restored and Josie has breathed new life into it. There was no developed garden when she bought the property in the late 1990s.
When she began digging the dirt to design her garden, she unearthed shards of lovely old china, which she used when trying her hand at applying mosaic on the front steps of the house. To cut a long story short, the accomplished artists set about crafting a lush terraced garden, lavishly festooned with mosaic sculptures and installations.
Built with reinforcing steel and concrete, the sculptures are clad in colourful mosaics, sourced from tiles, broken china, glass and mirrors. The works are wondrous, whimsical, a seriously flamboyant and playful celebration of life. A runaway family hit, when I felt clapped eyes on her wonderland, it struck me as Gaudi meets Disney. She calls it ‘‘the happiest garden on Earth’’. It is open daily for tours or you can stay overnight in this surreal, masterly and escapist destination.
Amid the plethora of water-based options Akaroa offers, you’ll want to hop aboard Black Cat Cruises’ luxury catamaran for a two-hour nature cruise.
Among the sights are Onuku Marae, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed for the first time in the South Island in May 1840 and Cathedral Cave, an exceptional example of a volcanic cave, 100m high and layered with evidence of volcanic eruptions.
The cave was formed by a massive explosion of trapped gas that blew out from the encased lava, laying bare the lines and layers of each eruption throughout the ages. It is pock-marked with blowholes and the ocean breathes in and out with a thunderous roar.
If I had to pick my favourite New Zealand tree, the nikau palm gets my vote. It is, of course, New Zealand’s only native palm.
In a hanging valley rising from the volcanic cliffs of Akaroa Harbour, Nikau Palm Gully (Nikau translates as no coconut) marks the southernmost point where these fabulously sculptured palms grow.
If you want a closer encounter, there’s a four-hour return walking track from Akaroa.
Heading out of the harbour to the open sea, the wildlife was ever-present: New Zealand fur seals sunbathed and bellowed from rocky platforms and sea stacks; little blue penguins scurried about in the water ( at first glimpse you may mistake them for ducks); seabirds wheeled about in the breeze scanning the water for prey and a pod of frisky Hector’s dolphins frolicked in the wake of the boat, playing to the cameras like seasoned performers.
Before turning for home, we delved into the most spectacular rock formation of all, Scenery Nook.
This volcanic amphitheatre is considered by geologists as one of the most dramatic sea cliffs in the world, a volcanic vent, throwing up a riot of fiery red colours in the basalt, lava and volcanic ash.
There’s a sense of the otherworldly, of danger and the unfamiliar, in this compelling Martian-hued amphitheatre.
It’s an arresting crescendo to a captivating cruise on Akaroa Harbour with Black Cat Cruises.