The French connection

Tour de France: Akaroa Harbour.
Tour de France: Akaroa Harbour. 

Kristie Kellahan discovers the story behind a proudly Gallic town on New Zealand's South Island.

It could have all turned out so differently. Had Captain Jean-Francois Langlois and 63 pioneering French nationals arrived in the Land of the Long White Cloud a few weeks earlier, New Zealand would now be Nouvelle-Zelande.

In the mid-19th century, French whaler Langlois had negotiated with a local Maori chief to buy Banks Peninsula. The plan was to colonise the area and use it as a French port for the lucrative whaling industry.

Street signage in French.
Street signage in French. Photo: Alamy

In the time it took Langlois to return to the homeland and rustle up hardy sea-changers willing to relocate to the other side of the world, the British had signed the Treaty of Waitangi and added New Zealand to their long list of colonised territories.

The French delegation sailed into Akaroa Harbour on the creaking Comte de Paris on August 18, 1840, to discover the British had already arrived, just two days earlier. The Union Jack had been raised.

The disappointed emigrants had come too far to turn back, so they stayed and worked in the Banks Peninsula whaling industry before farming and fishing became more lucrative. Along the way, they gave Akaroa a flavour of France that remains to this day.

A local cafe.
A local cafe. Photo: Alamy

The French flag ceremonially, if not officially, flies alongside a plaque heralding the visit of former French prime minister Michel Rocard. Restaurant choices include Ma Maison, where French champagne is served in long, elegant flutes. French Farm Winery at Barry's Bay produces grapes from the same valley soil where the French navy had farms and orchards in the 1840s.

There are more street names in French than English, although one wonders at the local pronunciation of thoroughfares, including Rue Lavaud, Rue Benoit and Rue De Malmanche.

A bi-annual French Fest celebrates the best of French food, wine and culture, while a cycle race from Christchurch to Akaroa - Le Race - may one day produce a future Tour de France winner.

Arrivals into Akaroa Harbour these days are more likely to be on a cruise ship. With verandah suites, internet cafes and menus directed by international chefs, Holland America Line's ships could not be further from the conditions endured by Langlois and his party.

Indeed, more cruise liners are including Akaroa on itineraries. These include Holland America Line's MS Oosterdam, which departs from Sydney for 14-day New Zealand Discovery Cruises.

The first glimpse of New Zealand from the ship is breathtaking, as it sails into Milford Sound, a massive fjord of spectacular natural beauty. During the next 10 days, the ship visits some of the prettiest spots in the North and South islands.

In Dunedin, the tour of the Cadbury factory is popular, while in Akaroa, French food and wine are the order of the day. Wellington, known as the coffee capital of New Zealand, also has terrific shopping and an impressive museum, Te Papa. The cruise also spends a day each in Napier, Rotorua, Auckland and the Bay of Islands.

Many visitors also arrive in Akaroa by car or tour bus. About 80 kilometres from the English-influenced city of Christchurch, the seaside village's proximity to this major hub ensures a lively tourist trade. During summer weekends, the population swells from 500 to more than 15,000.

It is an easy drive towards the coast, where Akaroa perches on the lip of a tranquil bay in the heart of an ancient volcano. Green, rolling fields dotted with sheep provide the sort of scenery for which New Zealand is famous.

On a warm summer's day there is no better place to be than perched on the sand of one of the secluded bay beaches. The local fish-and-chip shop does a roaring trade.

Water activities feature prominently on the to-do list provided at the nearby Visitor Information Centre. The harbour is home to the Hector's dolphin, the world's smallest. Several operators will take you out on the water to watch them. Some even offer the opportunity to dive in and swim among them.

Sailing, fishing, kayaking and diving can all be arranged. Akaroa also provides access to the four-day Banks Peninsula walking track (or tramping route, as Kiwis say) through the volcanic valleys and rich, green farmland.

More than 40 historic buildings from colonial times remain intact and provide a fascinating window on the past for history buffs. On the mapped Historic Village Walk, visitors can poke around colonial buildings, original churches and the landmark lighthouse.

Don't miss the Akaroa Museum for a look at the historical forces that shaped the character of this town and brought together the Maori, British and French cultures. The Old French Cemetery off Rue Pompallier is the last resting place of many of the emigrants from France.

Visitors can immerse themselves in la vie francaise by settling into one of the fine-dining establishments along Akaroa's waterfront with a good bottle of wine and romance on their minds.

Candlelit Ma Maison is a favourite. Try the New Zealand green-lip mussels steamed in French pinot gris.

Accommodation in Akaroa, ranging from upmarket boutique hotels to relaxed backpackers' quarters, continues the Gallic theme with names such as La Belle Villa and Maison de la Mer. An evening stroll along Rue Jolie is rewarded with stunning sunset views of the harbour.

The MS Oosterdam's 14-day New Zealand Discovery Cruise departs from Sydney on November 21. The New Zealand Holiday Cruise departs from Sydney on December 19. Prices start at $1798 a person.

The writer travelled as a guest of Holland America Line.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies regularly between Sydney, Melbourne and Christchurch. See airnewzealand.com.au or call 13 24 76. From Christchurch, rental cars are available for the 80-kilometre drive. See europcar.co.nz.

STAYING THERE

La Rochelle Motel is four-star and well located at 1 Rue Grehan, corner Rue Lavaud, +64 3 304 8762. See larochellemotel.co.nz; Akaroa Criterion Motel's 12 studio rooms have balconies and views of the harbour. The penthouse suite accommodates six guests; 75 Rue Jolie, +64 3 304 7775. See holidayakaroa.com

CRUISING THERE

Holland America's MS Oosterdam sails to Akaroa from Sydney as part of its 14-day New Zealand Discovery cruises. See hollandamerica.com.

MORE INFORMATION

akaroa.com; newzealand.com.

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