Akaroa: the Kiwi French connection

Half a world away from its origins and close to Christchurch - a city with a distinctly English heritage - many visitors to New Zealand are fascinated to find a little bit of France occupying an ancient southern hemisphere volcano.

Akaroa - a harbour settlement on Canterbury’s Banks Peninsula - is a popular tourist destination, thanks to a spectacular coastal location and a touch of Gallic ‘je ne sais quoi’.

The little town, on the rim of an old volcano that provides a natural sheltered harbour on the peninsula, is the region's oldest town, and a one-time French colony that played a memorable role in New Zealand history.

Natural beauty

Like its early settlers, visitors are attracted to Akaroa for its natural beauty and tranquil sheltered situation that offers some rare wildlife viewing opportunities.

The peninsula area is home to populations of endangered penguin and dolphin species, and a stopping-off point for whales and other large marine mammals cruising the New Zealand coast.

It’s also a great place for a weekend break - little more than an hour’s drive southeast of Christchurch, the seaside port (pop: 1000) and surrounding region offers fine boutique accommodation, and gourmet destinations including a salmon farm and olive groves.

French connection

In the 1830s while New Zealand was still in its infancy, Akaroa or ‘long harbour', was a haven for European whalers keen to exploit plentiful marine life around the peninsula.

French whaling captain Jean Langlois, from Le Havre, was so enamoured with Akaroa’s beauty that he negotiated its purchase from local Māori chiefs in 1838, then returned to France to promote establishment of a French colony.

In 1840, with the support of French King Louis-Phillipe, a French warship set sail for New Zealand accompanying the transportation of 80 French colonists destined to found a new French territory to be called Port Louis-Phillipe at Akaroa.

However, on arrival in New Zealand the French discovered that they'd been beaten to the post by the British who had secured sovereignty of the entire country two months earlier.

The new French arrivals also discovered that Langlois' deal with local Māori had not been finalised but, after negotiations with the British and local Māori, the colonists were allowed to stay in Akaroa and the settlement prospered.

French love affair

Today, Akaroa’s French love affair continues through the names of local families and streets, its heritage architecture and cuisine - including wines produced from vines transported to New Zealand by the French colonists - and the little museum that tells their story.

Tourism is Akaroa's major economic force. Swimming with dolphins, cruising on the volcanic harbour, swimming at the beautiful beaches or tasting local wine and farmed salmon are some of Akaroa’s modern-day pleasures.

French Farm winery, at Barry's Bay on the harbour's eastern side, is situated in the valley where the French navy established farms and orchards in the 1840s.

Akaroa events include an annual French Fest, and a cycle race 'Le Race'.